Nothing Personal: An Autobiography
Autobiography: Lifestory, personal history, an account written from personal knowledge.
The Spectrum Wars
The thesis of this book is that science, mysticism and the paranormal are (contra Stephen Jay Gould) overlapping magisteria. Within the schemata of materialistic, mechanistic, atomistic textbook science (scientism) of the day, this proposition is false—so my primary task is to demonstrate the logical untenability of these various schemata and offer a new one to take its place. And, according to Evelyn Underhill in her classic Mysticism, mysticism and the paranormal (which she refers to as the “occult”) are non-overlapping magisteria—so in this case I need to provide a framework demonstrating how these two fields are inextricably linked. To do this I will need to articulate something like a unified filed for both mysticism and the paranormal. Finally I will need to offer a framework or field within which all three fields can be synthesized—as existing within a unified spectrum.
I do this by suggesting all three domains exist within an actual and single electromagnetic spectrum. Current scientism considers paranormal and mystical events delusional, an indication of abnormal, irrational states of mind. I argue such events take place within deeper ranges of a spectrum which said “scientists” cannot access. I feel you can make a case that modern scientism began in analytic philosophies rejection of 19th century idealism precisely because idealists (like Hegel) made claims about suprarational access to deeper levels of reality. This was considered a slap in the face by analytic philosophers. You might call this the first skirmish in the spectrum wars. I ground my discussion of the electromagnetic spectrum in physicist David Bohm’s implicate and explicate order.
The question then is, “Why are some able to access broader reaches of this spectrum?” My answer is neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain (mind) to schematically reorganize and accommodate novel events—specifically what are known as Black Swan Events (BSE). The term BSE is a metaphor describing an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact. This sort of retroactive rationalization is a type of proactive interference—that is, past memories or schemata preventing an individual from forming new schemata derived from a BSE. This shows what I’m calling “the spectrum wars” takes place both intra- and inter-personally. As a teacher I put to myself the question, “As a teacher I presume my students are learning—but what does it mean to learn?” My answer is that real learning requires neuroplacticity.
1.0 The Myth Of Materialism
Consensus reality concerning the nature of the common-sense self now seems as wildly absurd as our most nonsensical ideas of God (such as the Augustinian morally perfect deity who randomly assigns his creatures to either an eternity of torment or bliss). This common-sense self implies an homunculus—some midget on a throne somewhere in the brain (in the modern age)
who gathers neutral facts that comprise the beliefs that drive behavior. But what we call “our” body is, according to evolutionary theory, the product of (on earth) 4.5 billion years of evolution.
What’s the actual identity, what’s the actual inner person? Is there an inner self? Anybody’s identity problem is the entire universe. –Alan Ginsburg
A human being is part of a whole called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it, but to try to overcome it, is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind. –Albert Einstein, The New Quotable Einstein, Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, p. 206
Our normal approach to security is to cling to the known, to (in Alice Walker’s words) “the temple of my familiar.” But Einstein seems to be suggesting that only by transcending the familiar to include that whole we call “universe” can we find the inner security (peace) we seek.
According to the materialistic, reductionist view of textbook science this actual identity is insentient, mindless matter in motion—as anything appearing mind-like is, at bottom, insentient matter. And while this materialistic, mechanistic ethos is, for most scientists, unassailable dogma, it leads to such intractable logical conundrums that consciousness researchers like philosopher Alan Chalmers have begun to doubt materialism can ever explain consciousness. I’d suggest the first problem with materialism is no one has ever come up with an adequate definition for what is meant by “physical” (Stephen Priest in Theories of the Mind, p. 98). As materialism is the claim that the mental supervenes on the physical, this seems a grand-canyon size hole in the materialistic paradigm. Then we have Alan Chalmers “hard problem”—explaining how, why, and when the water of mindless matter miraculously transforms into the wine of phenomenal consciousness—how and why sensations acquire subjective characteristics like color and tastes (and they say scientists don’t believe in miracles!). No one has come up with an explanation demonstrating it is at precisely this juncture that insentient matter becomes mind. This problem extends to human ontogeny. At what juncture in human gestation does matter become mind? Is an egg or sperm conscious? Does this event occur during embryogenesis? fetal development? And, most crucially for the purposes of this book, materialism contradicts the noetic content of the non-dual, transcendental experiences at the heart of much of the 3,000 year old Eastern esoteric traditions (and much of Western esoteric tradition as well). Of course, scientific dogma simply brushes aside such claims as so much mystical mumbo-jumbo, as they condescend to any philosophy not a purely logical exercise conducted strictly by rules of rational argumentation—whatever is not translatable into argument being deemed irrelevant. The fundamental issue we’ll explore in this book is—is it really “logical” to divide the cognitive from the affective? Logos from ethos? the objective from the subjective? Is textbook materialism as logical as it claims?
Stephen Hawking, a prominent scientific fundamentalist, pronounced philosophy dead. If it is, it is probably because he and his kind killed it. What made philosophy so endurable was that it engaged not only our cognitive faculties, but our imagination and emotions, our aesthetic and religious sensibilities. Human beings are a union of high and low, spirit and flesh. If philosophy is endangered, and I think it is, to regain its integrity it needs to account for wholeness.
We need a conversation on the way mainstream Western philosophy and science treats both non-traditional analytic philosophies and non-analytic philosophies as insufficiently philosophical. My position is that this bias is a symptom of a parochial, purest philosophies misunderstanding of itself. In Being and Time (Sein and Zeit, SZ) Martin Heidegger offered a critique of what he felt to be a fundamental misunderstanding of Being and time in the western philosophic tradition. (I’ll devote a chapter to the specifics of this critique). And in what he called his “pragmaticist” philosophy, logician Charles Sanders Peirce uses the logic of evolutionary theory to deconstruct the materialism, mechanism and dualism inherent in western thinking (I devote chapters 2 & 3 to explaining Peirce’s philosophy).
While Western philosophy at first seemed unsure what to make of SZ, Eastern philosophers were excited by what they perceived as profound shift in Western philosophy that, in their view, opened the door to an east-west dialog (see Zen in Heidegger’s Way, David Storey).
Such an interface has always been problematic, as the 3,000 year old Eastern philosophic tradition of non-dual transcendentalism was not analytic, but experiential. But once such non-dual experiences are broken out into natural language, eastern schemata seemed to be in fundamental contradiction with Western scientific schemata. I would suggest that, while it is generally held that such conflicts are rooted in the empirical data of the western science, they are in fact rooted in flawed schemata driving the interpretation of such data. I legitimize this claim by invoking three non-traditional analytic western thinkers, all giants in their fields, who eschew both materialism and mind-matter dualism—logician Charles Sanders Peirce, mathematician and physicist Alfred North Whitehead, and physicist David Bohm. All three thinkers sought a synthesis of the exoteric (the phenomenal) and the esoteric (the noumenal) modes of experience.
The noun esotericism has its origins in the much older adjective esoteric found for the first time in Lucian de Samosata’s (125–180) satire Vitarum Rustio to mean “seen from within.” The term was used by Clement of Alexandria (150–215) in his Stromata to contrast public or exoteric doctrine with secret or esoteric teachings. The much more recent noun is the English translation of the French l’esotérisme first used in 1828 by the French scholar Jacques Matter (1791–1864) to refer loosely to secret knowledge. This obscure academic word was later popularized by the French magician Eliphas Lévi (1810–1875) who used it in his influential books on magic. Subsequently, the theosophist Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840–1921) introduced the term into English in his Esoteric Buddhism (1883). The contemporary popular use of these words has not changed much from their original meanings. Esoteric and esotericism are used today to refer to secret or hidden knowledge and associated doctrines and practices, reserved for a chosen elite and of a spiritual or religious nature. A widespread assumption is that this esoteric knowledge is obtained by an intimate communion with God during which a privileged vision of reality is experienced which grants access to the direct perception of the wholeness of the Universe. This knowledge is not obtained by the exclusive use of reason or by mere compliance with a religious creed, but demands a special quality on the part of the receiver, an aptitude that needs to be nurtured by preparatory practice and study that sets the seeker apart from the rest of humanity, and makes him fit to receive this special wisdom in private.
Esotericists tend to believe in the existence of a perennial philosophy, a single divine foundation of all religious knowledge, which is usually identified with the Prisca Theologia, or ancient theology, revealed to ancient sages and preserved through a long chain of transmission. According to these ideas, each great world religion, independent of its cultural or historical context, is simply a re-interpretation of a unique ancient wisdom, and the particularities of the diverse religions are seen as localized developments and re-interpretations to fit the social and spiritual needs of their respective time and place, but rooted in the same universal truth.
One aspect of the aforementioned misunderstanding is a conflation of science with philosophy and religion—that is, beliefs held to be of scientific origin are often of religious or philosophic origin. For instance, the mechanistic aspect of materialism is not scientific in the sense of being derived from empirical data. It had its origin in a theory used to support three theological ideas:
1) the existence of a supernatural deity; 2) the view that Christian miracles were genuinely miraculous because they required supernatural intervention and; and 3) the immortality of the soul.
It is this last use of the mechanistic idea of matter that is especially relevant. This mechanistic idea proved useful in the late 17th and early 18th century against those who advocated mortalism—the doctrine that when the body dies so does the soul. This view of matter as inert, wholly devoid of any experience and spontaneity, was used against the mortalists to argue that there is something in us—which we call our “mind” or “soul”—different from matter. If the human soul is different in kind from the matter composing the body, the fact the body decays at death is no reason to think the soul will also cease to exist. The parochial bias seems partly rooted then in an ignorance of the inseparability of religion, philosophy and science. And it’s this sort of ignorance, I’d argue, that emboldens scientists like Hawking, who know little about religion or philosophy, to make broad, sweeping religious and philosophic pronouncements as if the Oracle at Delphi.
Any topic as complicated as the exact nature of reality should be approached humbly. If we date the scientific age from the lifetime of Francis Bacon (author of the scientific method), and if we put those 500 intervening years within the 300,000 year timeline of our species and divide those 300,000 years into a 365 day calendar, then science begins in the last 15 hours of the last day of the last month of our species. And this whole calendar is literally a blink of an eye in cosmic time. Scientifically speaking, we are infants. What seems absurd to me is not those who think differently, but those who speak as if we are mentally mature and not the infants we in fact are when it come to anything as immense as the nature of reality.
Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious [reported] truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives. –Tolstoy
As a student I have witnessed the bewitchment of materialism in the universities. As a teacher I have seen the brightest students take great pains to demonstrate their allegiance to this ethos. But experiences like satori and samadhi indicate a non-dual continuity at the heart of existence. American logician Charles Sanders Peirce referred to this continuity as syenchism—a denial that
all is merely ideas (nominalism), or merely matter, or mind-matter dualism. While Peirce acknowledged things of this world are not continuous, being composed of atoms or Boscovian points, things like space, time and law he held to be continuous and eternal—a product of (a quasi-Heglian) universal causation.
Some who argue against materialism advocate a return to the idea of God as an a priori transcendental ego that, by any measure, is fundamentally incompatible with evolutionary theory. Others argue in support of what are called our hard-core common-sense beliefs about self: 1) that we have conscious experience; 2) this conscious experience is not wholly determined but involves an element of self-determination, and; 3) this freedom exerts efficacy on our bodily behavior, giving us a degree of responsibility for our bodily actions. I’m not sure what these hard-core beliefs are supposed to demonstrate. Anyone who studies evolutionary biology sees that, as you move up the evolutionary ladder, you find degrees of freedom you don’t find down the ladder, so arguing against hard determination seems too obvious a point to belabor (as it makes no distinction between a comet striking earth and human choice). It overlooks the subtleties and complexities of human agency (a topic I discuss in Chapter 1). For me the issue is this; as the body is the product of 4.5 billion years of evolution, I think it’s safe to assume, relative to our common-sense idea of freedom, we have relatively little—unless there is a higher instinct, a higher, unconditioned mode of being contravening lower instinctual drives impassively received. If you assume we currently enjoy substantial degrees of freedom, you would have to explain the current status of the human race. If we are, in any meaningful sense, free, does it make sense we would choose mass extinction? A consciously death seeking species is a contradiction in terms.
My point is not that the materialistic paradigm is wrong—relative to our common-sense view it seems astute—but that it is becoming increasingly clear the idea mind supervenes on matter is dubious at best, as there are alternative explanations that make better sense of the data than materialism. And as there is now strong statistical data supporting some form of mind-matter interaction, it is time we acknowledge the veracity of this data, and that it is incompatible with materialism (Dean Radin offers a review of scientific evidence for psi in Chapter 5 of The Conscious Universe). And then there’s the fact that that airy-fairy outfit known as the U.S. government conducted remote viewing experiments, with results inexplicable in a materialistic paradigm (The Conscious Universe, pp. 98-105). There is a long list of such empirical facts that have been hidden away in a file labeled “inconvenient truths” by mainstream academia. Such results are getting harder to ignore, even by committed scientific fundamentalists. The very conservative American Psychological Association published a book in 2016 titled Transcendent Mind: Rethinking the Science of Consciousness.
Using the philosophies of three renowned Western academics, I seek to demonstrate the (heretical) idea that an esoteric worldview can be reconciled to, and integrated with, a scientific worldview. This is now possible because, if you really understand the logic of evolutionary theory as Charles Sanders Peirce does, and really understand quantum mechanics as David Bohm does, the scientific understanding of the phenomenal world now mirrors certain ancient esoteric theories. Peirce, Bohm and Whitehead all, in different ways, help us to see the schemata that are driving the misunderstanding of data in the west. They all help us to see through the apparent
dualism, mechanism and materialism intrinsic to a western view to an underlying wholeness very akin to the eastern organismic view.
I then sort through various esoteric and religious philosophies with an eye towards universal features that align with (a modified) Western science. It seems to me that if there is a perennial philosophy no one has yet explained of what it might consist. I offer my explanation of what might constitute a perennial philosophy. And, as conventional wisdom regarding the common-sense self contradicts both Western science and Eastern esotericism, I discuss the need to reconfigure our ego schemata, both practically and analytically.
For a long time we have been accustomed to the compartmentalization of religion and science, as if they were quite different and basically unrelated ways of seeing the world. I do not believe that this state of doublethink can last. It must eventually be replaced by a view of the world which is neither scientific nor religious but simply our view of the world. More exactly, it must become a view of the world in which the reports of science and religion are as concordant as those of the eyes and the ears. –Alan Watts
Of course, the “reports” of eyes and ears are not really concordant, just made to seem so by the brain—which shows life is part art and part artifice. It seems to me this sort of synthesis or fashioning of a coherent whole is the essence of intelligence. According to German psychologist William Stern, intelligence is “A general capacity to consciously adjust thinking to new requirements: a general adaptability to new problems and conditions in life (The Psychological Methods of Testing).
Much of the following discussion of Heidgger’s philosophy is derived from the essay “Heidegger and Zen” by David Storey.
1.1 Being (Dasein) and being in Heidegger and Zen—to back-seek a heritage
As mentioned above, German philosopher Martin Heidegger critiqued western notions of Being and time in his book Being and Time (SZ). I see clear parallels between Heidegger’s idea of Dasein and evolutionary psychology. Our common-sense self or ego presumes what is called access internalism; a reflective awareness granting access to facts that constitute the beliefs that inform behavior. But evolutionary theory posits access externalism—that facts constituting beliefs are mostly external to the agent (ego)—present is past brought forward (exactly how we parse out what is internal or external becomes more salient as we move deeper into this topic). Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behavior is the output of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve problems in the ancestral environments. They suggest evolutionary theory can provide a foundational meta-theoretical framework for understanding human motivation and behavior. Such theories have applications to other fields such as philosophy, education, law, environment and politics. I suggest that understanding evolutionary psychology sheds light on what Heidegger implies by his term Dasein.
Understanding…is neither a method of reading nor the outcome of a willed and carefully conducted procedure of critical reflection. It is not something we consciously do or fail to do, but something we are. Understanding is a mode of being or Dasein. Our understanding of the world presupposes a kind of pragmatic know-how that is revealed through the way in which we, without theoretical considerations, orient ourselves in the world. We open the door without objectifying or conceptually determining the door-handle or door-frame. The world is familiar to us in a basic, intuitive way. We do not understand the world by gathering a collection of neutral facts by which we may reach a set of universal propositions, laws, or judgments that, to a greater or lesser extent corresponds to the world as it is. The world is tacitly intelligible to us.
–Hermeneutics, (4) The Ontological Turn, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010 Edition
Dasein is hard to grasp as it fundamentally contradicts consensus reality regarding the common-sense self and world and the scientific view of self and world. Common-sensism presumes a homunculus with reflective awareness—an autonomous ego with executive functions such as the ability to gather neutral facts that comprise the beliefs that drive behavior. Dasein highlights Heidegger’s ambivalent relationship toward modern rationality (science). At the beginning of SZ Heidegger repeatedly refers to Dasein’s pre-conceptual understanding of Being, the basic everyday way in which people go about their business and pursue their worldly engagements within a background called the world they rarely attend to, yet tacitly assume in all their dealings. That is, they never stop to thematize Being; it never rises as an issue, or they actively suppress its emergence, yet they would be unable to be engaged in the world without some dim, pre-thematic grasp of Being. In the books final paragraph, Heidegger remarks that “Being has been disclosed in a preliminary way though non-conceptually (Heidegger 1962, 488).
God guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone, He that sings a lasting song Thinks in the marrow bone. –Yeats
While both the former and later modes of discussing Being are non-conceptual, there is a substantial difference. The pre-conceptual is thoroughly in the sway of the ontic and entangled with phenomena, while the latter has conceptually reckoned with its own existence and realized the poverty of both the average everyday (pre-conceptual) and the rational scientific (conceptual) comportments, and been propelled to interpret its own being, and Being itself, in an entirely different, yet still non-conceptual nature—that is, trans-conceptual. In its totality, Dasein is not a subjective, but rather trans-subjective, or even pre-subjective self. We are then forced into speaking of Dasein as the between—yet this cipher still moves within a notion of duality.
This attempt to get back to Being—re-peat (literally, back-seek) a heritage, return to roots or origins—that inheres in Heidegger’s early and late work, lends itself to the idea the modern world and the model of cognition by which it is constituted—calculative reasoning—is a great mistake and, therefore, we should regress to some sort of pre-modern, pre-rational form of society. While there are many passages in SZ and other works that contradict this romantic reading of Heidegger, it is necessary not to overlook this very real ambivalence in his thought. This ambivalence seems rooted in his failure to differentiate the non-conceptual, the non-rational, the non-discursive, into its pre- and trans-modes. Appropriating Ken Wilber’s pre/trans fallacy, we must first be an ordinary egoic subject before existing authentically as the transpersonal clearing within which something like personhood can manifest. Before we can become no one one must first become someone—emptiness (a clearing) necessarily implies emptiness of something. Recognizing the constructed or perspectival nature of the egoic subject is possible only insofar as such a subject has been constructed in the first place, and exists as a relatively stable and enduring egoic pattern.
It is one thing to have mastered reason and experienced its inherent limitations and empty claims to totality and self-consistency and transcended it—which Heidegger calls meditative thinking or
thinking from being—and quite another to have never bent oneself to its rule. The former is trans-conceptual thinking, the latter pre-conceptual.
Zen philosophers sensed parallels between Heidegger’s concept of Dasein and Zen philosophy, as Zen also admits the bankruptcy of reason’s attempts to calculate existence and treat entities as, in Kant’s words, transcendentally real, or, in Heidegger’s terminology as present-at-hand. Yet as this emptiness of phenomena is at once the emptiness of ego there is, for Zen, literally a world of difference between pre-egoic—a jumble of drives, perceptions, and intentional comportments that have yet to congeal into a relatively stable self—and the trans-egoic which, after attaining this sense of personal identity and assuming the notion of soul-substance persisting over time, confronts its own nothingness and transcends the illusion of a separate self. The space between is the same rational ego whose ignorance about its own Being is deconstructed in SZ. However, Zen goes further in denying what duality lingers in the subjectivist metaphysics of Heigegger’s early work, and the ontological difference of the later works, through the doctrine of an-atman (no-self). The key difference is that Zen has an attendant set of psychophysical practices that train the mind, a training regime successfully passed down for centuries. The nature of mind-no-mind is directly communicated from teacher to student. What is key here is that the process does not consist in the dogmatic imposition of a set of allegedly eternal truths—facts about the world—which belong to a domain of mythos and logos apprehended through faith or reason. The individual is not asked to uncritically swallow assertions of “the they” but invited to perform the experiment, to test his finding in a community of the adequate, and to confirm/refute those findings based on his or her own empirical research.
But Heidegger resists signing off on any such set of practices, as they seem to him to suggest a calculative, scientific, and technological kind of training that does violence to and covers up the mystery of Being, that commercializes and de-sacralizes a secret: “The program of mathematics and the experiment are grounded in the relation of man as ego to the thing as object” (Heidegger, 1966, 79). The truth of Zen, however, is verified experientially in the laboratory of one’s own awareness by performing the experiment called meditation.
This overblown tendency in Heidegger’s philosophy (and in postmodernism as a whole) to destabilize, unsettle, disturb, makes it all but impossible for any healthy individual or institutional transformation to occur. This deconstructive tendency of postmodernism seems so bent on the negative tactics of inverting hierarchies, delimiting conceptual binaries, liberating excluded middles and drilling holes in master narratives (other than its own) that it never seems to construct anything. It is hard enough handing down “no-thingness,” and harder still when one refuses to prescribe any methods by which to transmit it, or even to consider the legitimacy of foreign methods—such is the world of difference between handing down no-thingness and nothing.
I’ll conclude this introduction by using the indigenous Bon tradition of Tibet to evoke a picture of an esoteric tradition that attempts to back-seek a heritage through a process of evolution and involution. This tradition seems a perfect introduction to perennial philosophy, as the Bon tradition is not exclusively religious or secular, and describes an ultimate or unconditioned space that all religious traditions speak of, in one form or another.
1.2 The Drala Principle
The “drala principle” refers to a body of teachings the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa presented in the last decade of his life, from 1978 to 1986. The roots of the drala principle precede the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet and are found in the indigenous traditions of that country. These teachings speak to the heart, whether one is religiously, artistically, or politically motivated.
Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for No religion too Imagine all the people living life in peace –Imagine, John Lennon
Drala is the elemental presence of the world available to us through sense perceptions. When we open to trees, flowers, a creek or clouds we encounter an actual wisdom, though one that is not separate from our own. Beholding a river is much more than merely looking at a river; potentially, we are meeting the dralas. We have failed to see our first responsibility to the world is an aesthetic one.
In the drala teachings, each of the senses is considered an “unlimited field of perception” in which there are sights, sounds and feelings “we have never experienced before.” Each sense moment, if we are present to it, is a gate into the elemental wisdom of the world, even a cold sip of coffee could ignite the experience of Yeats: “While on the shop and street I gazed / My body of a sudden blazed.” Every perception is a pure perception. Through this kind of perception we discover that we live in a vast, singular and unexplored world.
Sometimes a stone, a tree, a teacup or a violin processes an intangible presence, a numinousity, that cannot be explained. The presence might not always be there, or only be there for a short period of time, but that presence may refer to another dimension of the drala principle. Any being who acts on behalf of the non-dualistic and compassionate nature of existence could be considered a drala. The dralas are not really part of some other world, but latent everywhere. The dralas, as Chögyam Trungpa so often said, want very much to meet us.
Discovering the Dralas
Each moment of perception can potentially be experienced as a moment of pure perception—experience not yet mediated through discursive thought and conceptual process. These moments are not yet conditioned by hope and fear, by our opinions, desires and beliefs. This immediate awareness of pure perception is without choice, demand, or anxiety. Moments of pure perception are experiences of beauty expressed though specific details. It is our duty to notice the details
that call to us—any taste, sight, or sound. This is the call of the dralas. If we quiet our mind by opening to these details, and if we listen to the response of our heart, we may discover our moment-to-moment, day-to-day direction. Thus we begin to follow our heart, to live beyond conditioning—and to be led by the dralas. Not only is our heart the source of our direction in life, it is the source of our confidence. And I’d suggest this mode of perception provides the answer as to the why of qualia, what role it plays in the economy of the universe. Qualia as pure
perception is literally the heart of nature’s heuristic. Pure perception is a directional signal that becomes the source of our confidence or faith.
Of course, as “pure perception” is precisely what is considered nonsensical by postmodern philosophy, before we go further into the Bon tradition let’s parse out what is meant by pure perception. While I hold what I’m calling pure perception to be actual, the moment you reflect on or try to communicate such an experience it becomes entangled with the analytic, making it subject to all that is conditioned (impure). This is the sort of existential dilemma French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote about in Without Alibi (WA);
Let us put in place the premises of our question. Will this be possible for us? Will we one day be able to, in a single gesture, join the thinking of the event to the thinking of the machine. Will we be able to think, what is called thinking, at one and the same time, both what is happening (what we call an event) and the calculable programming of an automatic repetition (we call that a machine). For that, it would be necessary in the future (but there will be no future except on this condition), to think both the event and the machine as two compatible or even indissociable concepts. –WA, p. 73
A living being undergoes a sensation that gets inscribed in organic material.
It is destined, that is, to reproduce impassively, imperceptibly…the received commands in a state of anaesthesis, it would obey a calculable program…like an indifferent automaton. —WA, p. 73
For our common-sense self, this seems an incomprehensible implication of access externalism, as it suggests how far we are from being the intelligent, autonomous agent we imagine self to be. We are (imperceptibly) an indifferent automaton reproducing (impassively) received commands in a state of anaesthesis. What are we to do with this information? What to make of it?
To give up neither the event or the machine, to subordinate neither one to the other, neither to reduce one to the other: this is a concern of thinking that has kept a certain number of us up for the last few decades. —WA, p. 74
I would agree with Derrida that even an event like pure perception does not entail a nullification of calculative reasoning, the calculative program. Pure perception informs (as opposed to guaranteeing) an awake, intelligent state of being—the key term here being awake as in alert. I would suggest that anyone who believes they have transcended the calculative program is no longer alert and awake. What pure perception offers is an uncovering of a heritage that reveals a path of heart and true intelligence—an actual way out in which we are able to “think” both the event and the machine as two indissociable concepts, where neither is reduced to the other.
While Derrida would deny pure perception as actual, my sense is he did so, in part, for reasons similar to what caused Heidegger to reject the experiential mode of Zen and the praxis of meditation—an obsession with negative tactics and a parochial attitude toward foreign philosophies. By asserting pure perception is actual, I assert there is a praxis called meditation that is a technique for uncovering a trans-conceptual mode of being that grants access to an ultimate, unconditioned, generative mode where evolutionary events involute in a way that makes them pure or unconditioned. Pure perception events are more than simply past brought
forward. In our ordinary state of awareness it is impossible to “think an event” in a way indissociable from the “calculable program.” And, as Derrida recognized, such a state of anamnesis entails “there will be no future”—implying “the calculable program” is now destructive. In our ordinary state of awareness “events” are not vast, singular, unexplored—they are (mostly) imperceptible commands impassively received.
But, as stated earlier, before one can be no-thing, one must first be some-thing. Until one masters reason and experiences its empty claims to totality, self remains an incoherent jumble of thoughts and feelings. You cannot reach the personhood of trans-conceptual being by skipping over the rational stage if you want to operate effectively in the phenomenal world—as to operate effectively within any system it is necessary to know the coherence, limitations and believability of that system—one must know it is valid to operate within that system. I don’t view science itself as a “mistake.” Science’s “mistake” is its (false and dangerous) claims to totality, with its consequent branding of any attempt at an exoteric/esoteric synthesis as heretical. I believe such hubris leaves humanity with a type of “artificial” intelligence (one unable think from the marrow bone), making it unable to respond with the real intelligence needed to adapt to changing circumstances.
In my experience most humans have a strong leaning toward either the analytic (exoteric) or the experiential (esoteric) mode. It even seems the characteristics that make one effective in on mode can be a handicap when trying to engage the other mode. While I view the esoteric or numinous mode as valuable in and of itself—its ultimate value, it seems to me—is when its resources are brought to bear on the transformation of the phenomenal world.
In this light, one area we might look for a connection between esotericism and exotericism is in the term enlightenment. Immanuel Kant used this term in his essay What is Enlightenment? He used it to refer to what he called “a way out” of a state of immaturity characterized by a state of will that makes us accept someone else’s authority where use of reason is called for. He defined enlightenment as a modification of a preexisting condition linking will, authority and use of reason. Humans participate in this process both collectively and personally. We are at once elements and agents of a single process. It seems to me we in the modern age never really left the age of faith, we simply changed allegiance from priests to academics and, as such, will remain in a state of immaturity as long as we impassively, imperceptibly enact the commands of external authority like an automaton.
And this is what I mean by autobiography—to attend to and engage the world, to write a self that, otherwise, is written for you. This, it seems, is the only way to transcend both the poverty of everyday being and realize the bankruptcy of rational claims to ultimacy. Like Zen Buddhists, Kant understood the illusion of the transcendental realism of objects. Unlike Buddhists, he didn’t realize the need for a praxis to enact a practical transcendence. In western terms as articulated by Kant, enlightenment entails the transition from a non-conceptual to a conceptual/rational stage, with a consequent modification of will, authority and reason. What the west adds to the rational stage is a rigorous method of analysis of the phenomenal world that is missing in Eastern esotericism. In eastern terms as articulated by Zen, enlightenment includes but transcends the rational stage. The crucial element added by the east is the praxis of meditation, wherein the
ego-logical dualism collapses and an-atman (no-self) is realized, with consequent interpenetration of self and world (a process of involution that enables pure perception and a consequent reclaiming of a precious heritage).
As someone who has studied Eastern philosophies from an early age I can attest that, in this milieu, “intellectual” is often used an epithet in the same way “mystic” is among intellectuals. This too seems to reflect a failure to distinguish between a pre- and trans-conceptual stage. While it seems possible to be a mystic without being intellectual, I feel you risk being the sort of mystic that fits a stereotype—the sort obsessed with personal (belly-button gazing), not collective transformation. The mystic Gurdjieff was the perfect model for this sort of mystic. His teaching was built on the premise that spiritual practice had merely personal value, that no human progress can be accomplished except on an individual basis. If this were true then esotericism would, to my mind, be little more than mystical mumbo jumbo, as it misses the point Einstein expressed so eloquently—not to nourish, but to overcome the illusion of a separate self. Seeking freedom from self is entirely different from seeking freedom for self.
Science is crucial to the enlightenment project as, being hybrids—psychosomatic creatures—we’re under the external authority of matter, and to escape this authority entails understanding the nature of the phenomenal world. Perhaps the most famous (and controversial) example in this regard was the case of mining engineer Phineas P. Gage. Before a mining accident drove a metal pipe into his brain, Phineas was a caring husband and a model employee and boss. Once the pipe was removed from the brain, it became clear he had suffered no physical impairment—but in time he began to drink, brawl, to turn into an unreliable boss and employee. He was no longer, for all intents and purposes, Phineas P. Gage. While over time he seemed to somewhat recover his equilibrium, his case demonstrated the profound nature of mind/body unity. So much can go wrong with that complex bit of matter we call “body.” Things can go wrong at the genetic level, at the biochemical level or, as with Phineas, we can be victims of random misfortune. Without science we are blind—without a language to see and describe the patterns that imprison us on the exoteric, phenomenal level.
1.2.1 What is the Bon praxis?
A Course of Study
The experience of drala is as close as our own eyes, ears and tongue. We don’t have to try to taste, say, an orange, we simply need to relax into the presence of the flavor on our tongue and the orange naturally begins to communicate with us. We are generally too active and our own business drowns out the messages of the world around us. To access the dralas we must do less and be more.
Give yourself a break. Just enjoy the day, your “ordinary” existence. It sounds simplistic, but it has a lot of magic. We have to give ourselves time to be. We often feel hemmed in by school or work—our lives feel cluttered by all sorts of things. We have to learn to be kinder to ourselves, much kinder.
In the stillness of meditation thoughts pass through the mind. Let them pass through—worthy ones leave their seeds behind. We have to give ourselves time to be. You’re not going to feel the dralas if you don’t leave yourself a minute to be, to smile.
Limitation is the practice or discipline that supports being. Becoming receptive or open is a natural byproduct of limitation. Meditation is a quintessential act of limitation. Accepting limitation is a conscious choice in which we have begun to realize the world becomes a far more interesting and abundant place if we limit ourselves.
I put myself in that disciplined position, and one of the tools I used was boredom. Boredom is a very good tool. Because whenever you play creative games, what you normally do is you bring to the situation all your aspirations, all your assumptions, all your ambitions – all your stuff. And then you pile it up on your painting, reading into the painting all the things you want it to be…Boredom’s a great way to break that. You do the same thing over and over again until you’re bored stiff with it. Then all your illusions, aspirations, everything just drains off. And now what you see is what you get. –Robert Irwin, from Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.
Become part of a Lineage
A lineage, as the word is used here, means any tradition that evokes and propagates drala. Spiritual or religious lineages have no doubt produced our greatest lineage figures, but the path of drala cannot be defined as strictly sacred or secular. It could occur wherever genuine goodness and devotion are manifested. We might not even realize the lineages we are already part of; anyone who has ever read a poem has made contact with one of humanity’s most universal, primordial and wonderful lineages.
Seek Victory over War
Drala: (Tibetan: “dra,” enemy or opponent; “la,” above: “beyond the enemy.” The unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that are beyond any dualism, therefore drala is above any enemy or conflict. It is wisdom beyond aggression. It is the self existing wisdom and power of the cosmic mirror that are reflected both in us and in our world of perception. One of the key points in discovering drala principle is realizing that your own wisdom as a human being is not sepaarate from the power of things as they are..reflections of the unconditioned wisdom of the cosmic mirror…When you can experience these two things together…then you have access to tremendous vision and power in the world…connected to your own vision, your own being. We actually perceive reality. Any perception can connect us to reality properly and fully.
–Shambala: Path of the Warrior, p. 103
What are the seeds of war? Division We live in a hall of mirrors of mutual perspective taking: I see you. I see you seeing me. I see you seeing me seeing you…and so on. Present is past brought forward. Some of us might see lovely reflections, others not so lovely. The point is all such reflections are relative perspectives, conditioned images—fragile, vulnerable, fragmented. Bringing awareness into the moment, coming to our senses, basking in the power of things as
they are, explodes the mirrors—granting a vision of the non-dual, compassionate, unconditioned wisdom of the cosmic mirror where we actually begin to perceive reality. In an experience like satori egological, dualistic thinking, collapses and, with self now supervening on drala, a transpersonal personhood emerges. This is what Christ meant when he said “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22, verses 34-40, KJ) Once you experience the supervening ground
connecting all aspects of the phenomenal world, thy neighbor is thy self (as you now share an actual noumenal ground).
Division breeds fear, and fear aggression. Just as murder is an extreme expression of aggression, war is collective aggression at its utmost—but the seeds of war are in each of us. Aggression alienates us from the drala principle. Aggression divides people from one another, but it also divides us from the world we are in. War is no longer simply a military exercise; we are so at war with our environment that our very survival is imperiled. So great is this threat that our various regional wars—even nuclear war—are overshadowed by our environmental crisis. The drala principle requires an honest study and constant unmasking of our own aggression and an allegiance to non-aggression. Aggression is, no doubt, a natural, healthy instinct in more primitive environments, ensuring survival of the fittest, most robust, enduring creatures. By “primitive” I mean environments where basic drives such as food, shelter and safety obtain. In modern environments where a significant percentage of the population rarely experiences a basic drive, drives are literally “pointless”—that is, there is no real point of content which, when reached, extinguishes that drive. In the modern world mind and sense disassociate, making life “senseless.” I would suggest in our current environment it is nonaggression that serves the biological purpose aggression once did, that is, making us robust and enduring.
Only human beings have come to a point where they no longer know why they exist. They don’t use their brains, and they have forgotten the secret knowledge of their bodies, their senses, or their dreams. They don’t use the knowledge that spirit has put into every one of them; they are not even aware of this, and so they stumble along blindly on the road to nowhere—a paved highway they themselves bulldoze and make smooth so that they can get faster to the big empty hole which they’ll find at the end, waiting to swallow them up. It’s a quick comfortable superhighway, but I know where it leads to. I’ve see it. I’ve been there in my vision and it makes me shudder to think about it. —Lame Deer, Lakota Shaman
Non-aggression is not necessarily pacifism, but an intelligent, firm and awake state of being. War has an alluring simplicity. It reduces ambiguities to blacks and whites. It fills our mundane days with passion. It promises to rid us of problems. When it is over many miss it. War destroys families, leaves behind a wasteland, irreconcilable grief. It is a disease, Pity is banished. Fear rules.
Discover that “Luxury is Experiencing Reality”
“Luxury is experiencing reality” is another phrase Trungpa used which goes to the heart of the drala principle. In our consumer driven world a manic pursuit of outward luxury shields us from the elements. Luxury means “excess,” but external luxury is not an excess of drala rooted in the vast wisdom of non-dualistic, compassionate existence. Modern ideals of luxury involve cramming our lives with limitless things devoid of drala that fail to satisfy—leading us to acquire more things. Trungpa’s vision was a call for devotion and sacrifice in the spirit of sanity and as an alternative to the dark future facing humanity if the excesses of our age continue unchecked.
When we live with awareness of the elements, we live in luxury. Conversely, nearly everything we have come to call luxury is a distraction, a prison. The experience of rain is one of life’s great luxuries, the source of life falling from the sky! When we live with awareness of the elements,
we live in luxury. Conversely, nearly everything we call luxury is little more than a distraction—a hamster wheel on the road to nowhere.
Absent drala, free flow becomes stultification: attention turns to social gesturing, leading to posturing: posturing leads to status—mansions, palaces and all manner of acquisitiveness leading to fraud: fraud leads to plunder, then rebellion: leading to armament, destruction, then defeat.
The following passage from a Taoist text puts this succinctly, summing up the Taoist view of the evolution and involution of both individuals and collective processes.
The fading away of the Tao is when openness turns into spirit, spirit into energy, and energy into form. When form is born, everything is thereby stultified. The functioning of the Tao is when form turns into energy, energy into spirit, and spirit into openness. When openness is clear, everything thereby flows freely. —The Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women, translated by Thomas Cleary.
Paradise isn’t found on some remote Himalyan peak. It isn’t an alpha or omega point, or some reward. It is our most fundamental and natural right.
1.3 The Rigden Principle
We must use the energy-awakeness of the unbidden heart to have the courage to journey toward taking our most deeply human seat as earth protector, Sakyong. It is seemingly only this kind of collective awakening that will save our planet from continued degradations and possible catastrophic collapse. The unbidden energy we sometimes feel in our heart is something more than the constituents of our personality. This energy is connected to the second pertinent Shambhala term, the Ridgen principle. You could say that, although this primordial energy is not “elsewhere,” it nevertheless originates from a kind of ultimate or unconditioned space (which all spiritual traditions attempt to evoke, understand or at least speak of). In the Shambhala tradition, it is not conceived of as God, but as “The Rigdens,” the highest form of non-dual intelligence or being. The Rigdens are not exactly separate from us, yet we can say—and experience—that they want to help us. The Rigden principle is higher being, intelligence, or instinct we discover by eschewing the mindless acquisitiveness and aggression that results from the collision of primitive instincts and modern conditons.
Rigden means “possessing family heritage.” Our heritage goes back through our mothers and fathers and every ancestral predecessor to the dawn of humanity. But even that is an arbitrary designator, because our genetic heritage not only continues back through apes, but to the the original creatures of our earth’s oceans, then back to single cells, carbon, and stardust.
The dark things of the wood Are coming from their caves, Flexing muscle.
They browse the orchard, Nibble the sea of grasses Around our yellow rooms,
Scarcely looking in To see what we are doing As if they still know us.
We hear them, or think we do: The muzzle lapping moonlight, The tooth in the apple.
Put another log on the fire; Mozart, again, on the turntable. Still, there is a sorrow
With us in the room. We remember the cave. In our dreams we go back
Or they come to visit. They also like music. We eat leaves together.
They are our brothers. They are the family We have run away from. –Mary Oliver
It is impossible not to possess this heritage, but our minds have acquired endless ideas and conditioning that ultimately makes us feel alone and alienated from any heritage at all. Existence, in the form of The Rigdens, and in every cell of life, does have an allegiance to helping us reunite with our true family heritage. The ultimate and highest dralas are the Rigdens themselves.
How exactly do the Rigdens help us? There is a simple process we must undertake and in the undertaking help arrives inseparable from the process and perhaps, for a long time, unnoticed.
Philosophy must be as complex as the knots it seeks to untie. —Wittgenstein
Derrida linked language to alienation because it is inherently a naming that separates “self” or consciousness from proprioception—our felt self—by inscribing that self within a system of linguistico-social differences. Derrida defined the proper name, in the sense of consciousness, as precisely the inscription of a (human) being within the abstract system of language. For Derrida, language as such produces alienation, and human consciousness as such “is” the experience of alienation, the split between proprioception and perception. –Experience, Representation and Difference, Gwen Gorzelsky
1.3.1 How Do the /Rigdens Help Us?
There is a simple process we can undertake, and as we undertake this process help arrives in a manner inseparable from that process and, for a time, perhaps unnoticed. There are steps in this process, but in no particular order.
We must recognizie our response-ability
We must recognize our response-ability (to separate the word into its obvious halves). Each of us has a unique ability to respond to our life experience and thus effect the world around us.
The great Zen teacher Dogen said, “Everyone has all the provisions they need for their lifetime.” Amidst injustice, deformity, starvation, war and poverty it hardly seems believable that we each still have the provisions we need. The provisions Dogen spoke of were the ones needed to wake up, and waking up can never occur from material other than what we have, however awful. To recognize the material of our response-ability is a life-time process that is too infrequently tried.
As we do try to recognize and commit to our response-ability, the world offers a response—you could say the rigdens respond. Small forms of acknowledgment occur; accidents, synchronicities, threads of new possibility. The sense of “moving in the right direction” is palpable though not always tangible; it is a kind of real support that comes to our aid.
We must begin to simplify and risk
When we realize “luxury is experiencing reality,” simplifying is not a hardship but something natural—and natural things tend to do very well if they are allowed to. Simplifying provides the ground to risk. Most of us in the first world have far more resources available to us than the vast majority of humanity. We not only have the possibility but the responsibility to risk some of our so-called security for benefit of finding and taking our seat and in turn, helping others.
We must realize our privilege.
Most of us living in the so-called first-world have tremendous privileges over the greater majority of human beings who live in the so-called third world. A hundred dollars does not necessarily mean a great deal in, say, middle-class United States, but in terms of the overall world economy where the majority of human beings make only a dollar or two a day—one-hundred dollars is a tremendous amount of money.
That we could leverage our life in an entirely different way—and for very different purposes—is the point of realizing our privilege. Recognizing and acknowledging our privilege takes courage because it begins to dissolve that sense that we are “special,” that we are entitled to what we have and that it will always be there.
Simply put, the dralas do not prefer cowards, whereas any expression of the courage to become more vulnerable will potentially attract the dralas. Acknowledging our privilege means to become more vulnerable. The rigden principle—as the ultimate drala principle—is the self-existing sense of fearlessness we find in ourselves. As we become courageous we become anointee—or self-anointed—with courage, and the process of courage then grows on itself.
Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can No need for greed or hunger A brotherhood of man Imagine all the people sharing all the world –Imagine, John Lennon
Supplicate for vision and support.
If we are unwilling to simplify, risk, renounce our privileges and assume responsibility it is unlikely it would occur to us to supplicate for a vision, much less receive one. Conversely, if we do have this willingness, we already have a vision; vision is surrender to what our heart desires. This is not the vision of ego, which are always “wants” that which will make us more comfortable. A vision will have its way with us, but it will also come with a curious way of
providing the necessary provisions. Simply to supplicate into the unknown is a act of courage and a link with vision.
What is vision? It is the truth of the human heart, which exists in nowness outside of time and can never be discovered through hope and fear. Sleeping in the Forest
I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds. I slept as never before, a stone on the riverbed, nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths among the branches of the perfect trees. All night I heard the small kingdoms breathing around me, the insects, and the birds who do their work in the darkness. All night I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling with a luminous doom. By morning I had vanished at least a dozen times into something better. –Mary Oliver
Chapter 2 The Grapes of Wrath
3.0 Grapes of Wrath
The deconstructive reverse does not result in the silence of language, but rather in the realization that the dynamic tension in the becoming of language is itself the whole. For Derrida, all of this cannot be understood as abstract theorizing. The language we are deconstructing is our own thinking and speaking —our own consciousness. We ourselves are the text we are deconstructing. That is why, for Derrida, there is nothing outside of texts. Deconstruction is the process of becoming self-aware, of self-realization.
—Derrida and Indian Philosophy, Harold Coward
…the French critic Roland Barthes pointed out that each text is a tissue of quotations; not a line of words releasing the single ‘theological’ meaning of an author-god but a multidimensional space where a variety of writings blend and/clash. Today Jacques Derrida argues that the meaning of such a multidimensional space can never be completely fulfilled, for the continual circulation of signifiers denies meaning any fixed foundation or conclusion. Hence texts never attain self-presence, and that includes the text that constitutes me. What would happen if these claims about textuality were extrapolated into claims about the whole universe?… –-Indra’s Postmodern Net, David Loy
One afternoon in a Shakespeare class I commented on how easy it is to confuse the ability to identify and articulate profound themes in literary texts with genuine wisdom, that the real trick is to understand we live in the shadows of the great themes. When I shared this sentiment with the class, the professor remarked, “Do you mean that we live inside texts?”—“Yes,” I replied, “exactly!” It seemed to me that there was no more profound mistake than to conflate glibness and wisdom. One of the students later asked me if I was familiar with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and his comment there is no outside text. I had never heard of him, but once I became familiar with his ideas it was clear that no one I had ever heard of was at once so close and so far from my own philosophy. What I mean by saying, “We live inside texts”—be they literary or existential—both mirrors and differs from what Derrida means when he says, There is no outside text.
When I went from being a student to being a teacher, I asked myself, “What does it mean to learn?”
The first chapter of this book began as an assignment for a Cognitive Psychology class. Chapter One is a rewrite of that paper. The assignment was to get a unit lesson plan from a teacher, observe the classroom instruction, and interview two students to assess the degree to which the teacher was successful in realizing those objectives and goals, then write up an evaluation. If we look at objective 2.9 in the teacher’s lesson plan (Students will be able to analyze the nature of prejudice portrayed, its basis and development), and goals 1.3 (Students will understand/ appreciate the universals shared by all people, cutting across cultural specifics—basic needs, dreams for a “better life.”) and 1.5 (Students will understand the nature of change—social, political, cultural—and will recognize the elements that have potential to be catalysts for change.), they presume access internalism—a reflective awareness granting access to facts that constitute beliefs. They presume beliefs are properties of a conscious agent, not vice-versa. I would suggest that such assumptions are universal in the humanities.
Textbook science, on the other hand, is rooted in materialism—a form of philosophical monism which holds matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material interactions.
The humanities, conversely, presumes some form of idealism, that mind and consciousness are first-order realities to which matter is subject and secondary. In philosophical materialism the converse is true.
In materialism the locus of control for “self” is extrinsic, as the sort of intrinsic volition needed for anything like free will, real learning or ethics is absent—self being a “ghost in the machine.” In the majority of industrialized countries, secondary schools offer four years of language arts (reading and composition) and four years of math and science. What goes under the radar is that these two halves of the secondary curriculum fundamentally contradict one another. If materialistic textbook science is correct, access internalism is false, making goals that presume reflective awareness impossible to realize.
While most of this book is a critique of materialism and determinism, the devil is in the details.
Materialism presumes determinism, and hard determinists believe people are like highly complex clocks, in that they are both molecular machines. Hard determinism (or metaphysical determin- ism) is a view on free will which holds that determinism is true, and that it is incompatible with free will, and, therefore, free will does not exist. This, to my mind, over simplifies a complex issue—as does our commonsense idea of self and free will. I’ll come back to this topic after I share the writeup of my classroom experience but, for now, I’ll offer a brief introduction to a relevant topic—human agency. As it is used in psychology, sociology, and philosophy, agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices. Agency is contrasted to objects reacting to natural forces involving only unthinking, deterministic processes. Conversely, it is also subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined. Human agency makes the claim that humans do make decisions and enact them on the world. How humans come to make decisions, by free choice or other processes, is another issue. The how here is a complex and subtle topic I tackle in the chapters on the philosophy of logician Charles Sanders Peirce.
My vision of a language arts curriculoum is somewhat parallel to the critical pedagogy as defined by educator Ira Schor:
Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional cliches, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse. (Empowering Education, 129)
In my discussion of the drala principle in the introduction, I offered my idea of the nature of the dominant myths, traditional cliches and received wisdom we need to “go beneath” to understand and deal with the root causes and meaning of the growing catastrophe unfolding all around us.
3.1 The Lesson Plan
We are the only species that creates the environment that creates who we become. –Frank Smits
I observed a twelfth-grade Language Arts class for my senior learning project in cognitive psychology. I had been in this class every day for six weeks, but would use only two lessons, one on a Monday, the other on a Wednesday, for the purpose of the learning project. The idea was that I would get a lesson plan from the teacher and then interview two students in order to assess whether their learning matched the stated goals and objectives of the lesson plan (they have been included as an addendum—the reader should be familiar with them before reading the classroom discussion below). I also interviewed the teacher to get a sense of her critical interpretation of the novel. The Monday lesson I observed was the beginning of the last week of the unit, and the unit test was to be given that Friday. On Monday the students finished watching the movie version of the novel. On Wednesday the teacher, Carlene, began a review for the test.
There was little to report about Monday. The students watched the movie and left. There was no class discussion. On Wednesday, the teacher handed out her list of outcomes and objectives and began her review.
3.1.2 Class Discussion
Carlene began by asking students to identify instances of biblical symbolism in the novel.
Students: (no response)
Teacher: What about the names folks?!
S: Oh, Jim Casey…J.C.
T: Right, J.C.—Jesus Christ. Number of people on trip was…how many?
S: Twelve…the twelve apostles…
T: (nods approval) Casey’s wandering mirrors Christ’s wanderings in the desert. Like Christ, Casey comes to conclusions that don’t sit well with traditional religion (she quotes a passage of Casey’s) “You don’t know what you’re doen. You’re starven kids.” And this mirrors Christ’s words “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” Casey is Christ to Tom’s Paul. Tom takes up Casey’s mission as Paul takes up Christ’s. What about the flood in the squatter’s camp?
S: (no response)
T: Come on folks!
S: Oh! (going through notes) John places the dead fetus in the water, just as Moses is placed in the water in Exodus, Chapter Two.
T: (reading from the text) “We couldn’t tell ‘em, you tell ‘em, so people will know what’s happening because of their greed and oppression.”
There’s a part of the book that wasn’t in the movie. Probably even today if they made a movie out of it they couldn’t film it; the part where Ma and Rosa Sharon are in the cave. What did they do? This caused many school districts to ban the book as too “mature” for high school students. What does Ma ask Rosa Sharon to do?
T: She asks her to breast feed the starving man, right? Some people see this as symbolic of the milk of human kindness, but Steinbeck was very earthy. “She has this funny smile on her face, a
smile of pleasure.” His description of her face is hard to reconcile with a purely symbolic meaning.
What about the turtle?
S: Symbolizes the Joad family.
T: It reflects the Joad’s plight. The turtle plants seeds on barren land. The barriers represent
barriers of the spirit. Describe the setting of the novel.
T: Come on folks!
S: (going through notes) Sets a mood. When it’s used symbolically, it’s used to communicate ideas. Creates character…creates atmosphere…communicates ideas.
T: Right! Describe the Joad family unit.
T: Compare it to your family.
T: How many of you live in a family where the mother is head of the family? (some hands are raised) The Joad family starts off as patriarchal, then becomes matriarchal. Ma, and later with the maturity of Rosa Sharon…
In analyzing the teaching and learning I observed the first thing that struck me as significant is Carlene’s tie to and opinion about the book. She told me she felt The Grapes of Wrath and Moby Dick were the two great American novels. She also shared that her parents went through the Dust Bowl experience. Two questions then occurred to me—to what extent did her personal ties to the Joad family influence her critical opinion of the book? and does the fact that she holds the book in high regard affect the way she teaches it? Because I disagreed with Carlene as to the status of the novel, I read some critical commentary and found opinion seemed divided as to whether The Grapes of Wrath was a great novel. In an article from Critical Essays on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath Art Kuhl states…
I think The Grapes of Wrath isn’t even a truly great novel…it is not a case of Steinbeck’s having lost completely his power of realizing a character…But something happens to Steinbeck’s characters as the novel wears on…the first chapters…have admirable characters…But as the novel wears on, these men…disappear and…everyone begins to be a part of a chorus that is singing Steinbeck’s message. Characterization goes by the board.
A counter opinion is issued in a chronicle of reviews edited by Roy Simmonds in the same collection of essays….
The Joads are certainly not the puppets of a theory…they are not mere personifications of…qualities. They are individual men and women.
The class discussion I related is representative of class discussion I observed over a six week period, and there seem to be a couple of things missing. First, the sort of issues literary critics debate are never discussed, such as; “Is The Grapes of Wrath a great novel and, if so, why?” Carlene seemed to have predigested the text in order to feed it to her students, which meant there was no need for students to engage in critical debate. This sort of learning is teacher rather than student centered. It represents the reading of fiction and learning itself as a process of being
handed “received” knowledge from on high. Where is the discovery? the vital engagement? After observing this unit and reading Carlene’s list of outcomes and objectives, I wanted to add one
—“Students will be encouraged to make their own critical evaluation of the novel.” The second crucial missing element was some sense of Carlene’s answer to the question “What is the purpose or primary goal of literary criticism?” This question is different and more basic than the question “What is the primary goal of reading The Grapes of Wrath.” The question is so basic it is easy to overlook, yet until a teacher has an answer to this question the pedagogical ship is at sea without a rudder.
In an article titled New courses in the linguistics of writing Durant and Fabb suggest two basic opposing views on the function of literary criticism; the “familiarization” or “touchstones” argument, and the “defamiliarization” argument. The authors claim the first argument…
Familiarization serves the classical-humanist purpose of supporting forms of cultural hegemony…In this paradigm, the form of “literacy” which results…often comes to mean simply being well-versed in an acknowledged canon of works, rather than having skills which makes possible informed and independent choices about what we wish to read and value.
The second approach views the study of literature as not simply a way of learning about a culture, but also as a tool for examining one. Defamiliarization means finding out things about the world by investigating the established forms, but also the limits of the way things are represented.
Carlene’s opinion about the status of the novel makes it clear she views The Grapes of Wrath as just such a canon. And given the limitations of the class discussion and her list of outcomes and objectives, it seems fair to question whether she feels the function of literary criticism should include “investigating of established forms.” But even if she had included “investigating the established forms” as a critical goal, the established form we are investigating is “culture,” and we need to ask what we mean by “culture.” Specifically, is culture (or world) something “out there” or “in here?” Can self dissect culture as if it were somehow outside it? And if a text is a canon of a culture, can it be dissected as if the reader were outside the text? This seems a crucial aspect of investigating “the limits of the way things are.”
I’ll come back to these questions after I’ve discussed the students interviews. For now I’ll just say that, unlike an essay, for which explicitness is a cardinal virtue, ideas in a novel need to be implicit and connotative rather than descriptive and denotative. In this sense the issue of interpretation of a novel presents more of a challenge than interpretation of an essay. Faced with this complexity and subtlety, the teacher may make the mistake of trying to make what is implicit explicit by predigesting the novel, turning it into an essay—“A Critical essay on The Grapes of Wrath by Carlene.” This approach can translate into a nice looking lesson plan (Students will demonstrate knowledge of…setting, mood…). The teacher knows exactly what the students “should” know about the novel. If the student takes good notes, he or she knows exactly what he or she is supposed to know to get a good grade. The problem with this approach is that it sidesteps real critical analysis and misinterprets the nature of real learning.
When preparing a lesson plan if our primary goal is a narrowly circumscribed clarity such that students or administrators or parents will always immediately grasp what we are trying to do, we may have lesson plans with clear, predetermined outcomes, but is this real education, real learning?
3.1.3 Student Interviews
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. —Kierkegaard
Who Do We Shoot?
Interviewer: What was the lesson about?
Lisa: Use of character. I disagreed with what the teacher said about (Steinbeck’s) use of character. I felt she saw Ma as the main character. She saw Ma as having an overview…I guess that’s why. I felt Tom was the main character. Most of the direction came from him. He gave direction to Al and to Kathy. Tom knew where he was going and what he was doing…
Natural forces and the flood (trying to remember more from the lesson)…
Don’t remember much about that.
I: What was your impression of the book?
L: Had depth, but the book’s given too much credit. Not a lot of representative things…
I: What do you mean by “not a lot of representative things”?
L: The book talks a lot about things directly, doesn’t show…
I: You mean the book talks about a lot of things directly, like issues, rather than showing you by representing them?
L: Yes, exactly.
What struck me about Lisa’s response was that in the time I spent observing this class, I’d never heard a student express a strong opinion about anything under discussion. I watched students react to parts of the novel and the movie, but this was done in a code of grimaces, knowing smirks and whispered asides. When a student did engage in a discussion it was only to ask for the teacher’s clarification of some part of the story. The class was not a forum for real critical discussion, but a place where the teacher imparts critical concepts and themes. The second thing that struck me was how close Lisa’s critical response was to Art Kuhl’s criticism of the novel. Despite the lack of emphasis on independent, critical thought, Lisa engaged in it.
I wanted to know more about Lisa’s real feelings about the book and its characters, so I asked her to respond to what I felt was a provocative scene from the book. In this scene a banker drives to a farm to deliver an eviction notice. As he gets out of his car to deliver the notice he is greeted by a farmer with a leveled shotgun.
Banker: Don’t shoot me! I’m just delivering the notice!
Farmer: Who do we shoot?
Banker: I don’t know. If I did I’d tell you. I don’t know who is to blame.
Lisa: Shoot yourself! (laughs) I don’t know. I’d be gentle. The farmer’s lack of education surprised me. They seemed to lack financial resources. My father always told me to save your
money, try to have at least $6,000. I come from a family that is always well prepared. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for them, but I do.
This last statement shed light on a response to an earlier question.
Interviewer: What was hard about reading the novel?
Lisa: The people seemed very stupid to me in the beginning…had a hard time overcoming prejudice…
A look at Carlene’s stated goals 1.3 (students will understand/appreciate the universals shared by all people, cutting across cultural specifics—basic needs, dreams for a “better life) & 1.7 (Students will understand the contributing factors to and the experience of social and individual displacement) in light of Lisa’ response, it seems clear these outcomes cannot be achieved if students do not examine their underlying interpretive schemes. Like most high school students, Lisa has little experience with the real world beyond late twentieth century suburban America, and no experience or insight into early twentieth century rural America. Simply putting the book under her nose with nothing but an interpretive scheme that is itself skewed by the teacher’s unexamined opinions, is a good way to eviscerate just about any text. Reasoning backward from her seemingly secure life, and unquestioning acceptance of her father’s philosophy that security can be purchased by anyone clever enough to secure their education and thrifty enough to have $6,000 in the bank, she feels sorry for folks who lack this ambition and thrift but, darn it all, it’s really their own fault, isn’t it?
Interestingly enough, the second student I interviewed responded to this same passage in a way that was an almost perfect counterpoint to Lisa’s.
Interviewer: What was the lesson about?
Phil: Today’s class, let’s see. Biblical references, setting as symbol, the flood, his use of character…she really hadn’t gone to the list (of outcomes and objectives)…I could add a lot.
I: Like what?
P: I don’t know, things I noticed. I’d have to think. Biblical references, Moses, sheep, people of character…you will treat people with kindness.
When recalling the lesson, Phil seems to recall general categories of objectives. When he does recall details they seem like flotsam and jetsam, vague renderings of his sense of Steinbeck’s “message”—“You will treat people with kindness!” Phil’s comment that “he could add a lot” seems to indicate he felt he never got the chance to contribute to critical discussion of the novel.
Interviewer: What scene or character sticks out?
Phil: Things strike me, but subconsciously…didn’t identify with a character…
Thought about where they were coming from. I guess I related to Casey and Ma. Casey was very conscious, that’s the most important thing (for Phil about Casey). With Ma I think about having her family uprooted, moving to a strange place. I was born in Buenos Aires. Moved here a few years ago. Spoke English, but felt like an outsider.
Unlike Lisa, Phil does know something about the world outside suburban America. Unlike Lisa, Phil knows what it is like to be uprooted, to be an outsider. Again, as with Carlene and Lisa, we
are getting a peek at the experiences behind the schemata that drive interpretation of the text. When I asked Phil to respond to the “Who do I shoot?” passage, his response was very different.
Phil: Banker is being simplistic…banks must eat profits or die…maybe they should die.
This seems an interesting and complex response. The image of banks needing to eat profits or die comes from the novel. Citing this indicates an attempt to grapple with some of the real complexity of the novel. But then he pulls back from this confusing complexity and decides “Maybe they should die.” This little dance is a distillation of the reader’s dilemma. Confronted with characters and dramatic situations, the reader must decide “How do I feel about these people?” The reader’s response will be shaped by his or her experience and background. Any novel of reasonable complexity will set up conflicts that transcend simple strong/weak, smart/dumb, victim/exploiter stereotypes. Whether the reader is able to engage the issues in a complex fashion will depend on the reader’s ability to fathom his or her own reactions to the novel.
This sort of cognitive dissonance represents a potential barrier to engagement with any novel that presents difficult and complex conflicts. Faced with such a conflict Phil tries to accommodate “banks must eat profits or die” and “you will treat people with kindness.” Rather than staking out a more complex and painful middle path between these two poles, Phil, after a moments vacillation, retreats to the safe and familiar.
The functional parallel for (the obstruction of the real) is, for Derrida, the privileging of one of the opposites of language over the other, and thereby destroying the dynamic tension between the opposites. The tension between opposites is, for Derrida, the hallmark of the real. –-Derrida and Indian Philosophy, Harold Coward
If we are to grow, to come into fresh ways of being in the world, we must excavate until we come upon the origins of our notions of self and the world; learning is unlearning. Only by following back our interpretive schemes through the labyrinth of psyche and world can we begin to tap the vital possibilities of education, of living. As teachers we can get stuck in old, comfortable patterns of knowing about the nature of self, world and learning. We can spend a lifetime in the classroom without ever trying to articulate an answer to the question “What does it mean to learn?”
Interpretation is not a reproductive procedure by which fixed cognitive meaning is extracted from the text. Rather it is the production of an understanding that arises from the excess of meaning found in the text—an excess because it can never be encapsulated in words in such a way that all of its meaning is exhausted. –-Derrida and Indian Philosophy, Harold Coward
For Lisa, Phil and Carlene The Grapes of Wrath represented an opportunity for real growth, for greater self-realization. This opportunity seemed largely wasted because the text was treated as if it had a fixed cognitive meaning, and because the teacher acted as if she alone was privy to this meaning. More importantly, there was a failure to understand learning as a deconstruction of consciousness.
If education is to become vital, it must help us understand that real learning involves more than abstract theorizing, it must help us see that literary themes constitute the actual fabric of a real self. Until we bridge this gap between mind and heart, facile insight and true developmental growth, thought and deed, education will remain little more than a superficial exercise by which we, at best, engage in glib discussions of themes such as “prejudice,” “social and individual displacement,” and “universals shared by all people.”
Floyd Merrell, in his book Deconstruction Reframed, makes what seems to me a crucial distinction between the philosophy of Derrida and physicist David Bohm:
Even though the mode of being of each thing can be defined only relative to other things, we are not led to the point of view of ‘complete relativity.’ For such a point of view implies that there is no objective content to our knowledge at all, either because it is supposed to be defined entirely relative to the observer, or to the general point of view and special conditions of each individual, or to special preconceptions and modes…of thinking that may exist in a particular society in a particular epoch of time. In our point of view, we admit that all of the above things actually color and influence our knowledge; but we admit also that nevertheless there still exists an absolute, unique, and objective reality.
…Derrida, on the other hand, appears to reject all pretensions of objectivity…there are no distinctions at all, just play of…presence and absence…This certainly appears indicative of the type of ‘complete relativity’ Bohm rejects…In short, Bohm’s relativity is positive, Derrida’s negative… –Deconstruction Reframed, Floyd Merrell
It’s unclear to me how, without a positive ground, Derrida’s deconstructive process could constitute an ethical soteriology, as is sometimes claimed….
Norris…makes a good case to show that Derrida’s thought does not end up in playful nihilism, as is frequently assumed, but rather has a strong ethical dimension. —Derrida and Indian Philosophy, p. 19, Harold Coward
He (Derrida) belongs to a school of modern philosophy that…includes such diverse names as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Quine and Sellars–all of whom, despite their diversity, are united in their criticism of the idea that knowledge can have a firm foundation in anything. Not in sense data, nor intuition nor divine revelation. London Review of Books, E.D. Hirsch, Vol 5 NO. 13
When the deconstructive project goes too far, I’d suggest it is because it fails to distinguish between perspectivism and constructivism (Philosophical Writings Vol 40 No. 1, Ian James Kidd, 2013):
The distinction between constructivism and perspectivism hinges on the compatibility of scientific realism with the ‘human dimension’ of science. A social constructionist maintains that knowledge is generated entirely through the social and material particularities of human epistemic activity; in the case of the sciences, these include experimental arrangements and the sociological structures of research communities. Some radical social constructionists argued that scientific entities—like elementary particles—only exist insofar as they are generated by our social and material practices; on this account, the world itself plays little to no substantial role in determining the ontological commitments of scientific practices…A constructionist is committed to the metaphysical thesis that the world imposes no strict constraints upon the range of efficacious epistemic activities that human beings can engage in; one can ‘construct’ any sort of world one likes. Constructivism is therefore allied with scientific antirealism…Perspectivism, by contrast, is not committed to any form of anti-realism. Indeed, one great virtue of perspectivist theories is that they reconcile robust forms of realism with the active role of human agency. Our perspectives are indeed constituted by material, social, and intellectual conditions which are contingent upon human agency, but they are nonetheless perspectives upon an objective reality which has some mind-independent structure and properties.
That there is an objective reality with mind-independent structure and properties seems (to me) self-evident. That, at any one moment in time, our ideas or beliefs about the nature of that reality may be proven false is not proof there is no objective reality. It is proof that, in Peirce’s words, truth is (an indefinitely) future conditional.
In this light, as we go forward we’ll explore the possibility of a positive ground or foundation for moral and intellectual truth. We’ll ask in what kind of frame a deconstruction of consciousness might lead to ethical action—as this, it seems, the “great theme” of Judaism, Christianity, and The Grapes of Wrath. This will entail asking whether concepts such as text, self and world are segreagable, mechanistic elements in external relationship, or aspects of a single continuum. Is textbook science adequate for addressing such questions, or might this require some combination of science and religion? The word education is derived from the Latin root educere meaning to lead out—as in giving birth…
Most people fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit…(but)…we can never be born enough. We are human beings; for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery, the mystery of growing; the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. —e.e.cummings
3.1.4 Goals & Objectives
1.1—Students will understand the unique contributions of the historical novelist as contemporary chronicler and critic.
1.2—Students will understand/appreciate the interdependency of nations of the world—economically and politically.
1.3—Students will understand/appreciate the universals shared by all people, cutting across cultural specifics—basic needs, dreams for a “better life.”
1.4—Students will understand the historical context of the novel.
1.5—Students will understand the nature of change—social, political, cultural—and will recognize the elements that have potential to be catalysts for change.
1.6—Students will understand the varying nature of the family unit and its role in maintaining individual stability.
1.7—Students will understand the contributing factors to and the experience of social and individual displacement.
2.1—Students will be able to describe the nature of the Joad family unit—the hierarchy of individual members, the basic values, and the role of each member.
2.2—Students will be able to identify and analyze Steinbeck’s methods of characterization.
2.3—Students will be able to describe the use of setting in the novel.
2.4—Students will be able to identify and explain Biblical and Christian symbolism in the novel.
2.5—Students will be able to identify elements of Jeffersonian agrarianism in the novel.
2.6—Students will be able to describes the elements of Emersonianism in the novel.
2.7—Students will be able to match major speeches with the characters.
2.8—Students will be able to explain the uniqueness of the migrant farmworkers of the 1930’s.
2.9—Students will be able to analyze the nature of prejudice portrayed, its basis and development.
2.10—Students will be able to explain the use of imagery, particularly that surrounding banks..
2.11—Students will be able to explain context for and the nature of Communist Party activities alluded to in the novel.
2.12—Students will be able to use citations from the novel.
3.2 Agency, Schema and Attribution
It seems to me that appreciating the complex and subtle nature of agency gives us a crucial means of sifting through and evaluating our schemata and consequent attributions. Faced with a text filled with characters from another time and place, students fall back on the familiar—their familial and social schemata—to make sense of the unfamiliar. As these processes are part of what goes on beneath the surface, I’d suggest making it an explicit part of the curriculum.
Exploring great literature in a classroom can be a grand adventure where the reader encounters a multidimensional space within which they discover how their reactions and interpretations blend and clash with others in a manner that affords an opportunity to learn that every reader is naïve in the sense that meaning seems, at first, singular, mono-dimensional. The discussion of schema and attribution that follows spotlights aspects of human agency going on beneath the surface in the classroom. I’d suggest having students research these type of key terms as part of learning what it means to deconstruct a text.
Schema (from then Greek, meaning “figure or shape”) is a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. It is a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing as aspect of the world, a system of organizing and perceiving information.
Schemata influence attention and absorption of new knowledge. People are more likely to notice things that fit their schemata, reinterpreting contradictions as exceptions, or distorting them to fit their schema. Schemata can help in understanding the world and a rapidly changing environment.
Schemata can also hamper uptake of new information (proactive interference) in learning. Interference occurs when there is an interact between new material and transfer effects of past learned behavior, memories or thoughts that negatively impact comprehension of new material.
Humans are motivated to assign causes to their actions and behaviors. In social psychology, attribution is the process by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events. The development of models to explain these processes is called attribution theory. Psychological research into attribution began with the work of Fritz Heider in the early part of the 20th century.
Fritz Heider was a gestalt psychologist. The central principle of gestalt psychology is that the mind forms a global whole with self-organizing tendencies—an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts. As such it contradicts both materialism and mind-body dualism.
In his 1920s dissertation, Heider addressed the problem of the seeming dualism of phenomenology: why do perceivers attribute the properties such as color to perceived objects, when those properties are mental constructs? Heider’s answer was that perceivers attribute that which they “directly” sense—vibrations in the air for instance—to an object they construe as causing those sense data. “Perceivers faced with sensory data thus see the perceptual object as ‘out there,’ because they attribute the sensory data to their underlying causes in the world.” (Malle, Bertram F. (2004). How the Mind Explains Behavior: Folk Explanations, Meaning, and Social Interaction. MIT Press)
Heider extended this idea to attributions about people: “motives, intentions, sentiments…the core processes which manifest themselves in overt behavior.” (Malle, Bertram)
Types of Attribution
External attribution, also called situational attribution, refers to interpreting someone’s behavior as being caused by the situation that the individual is in.
The process of assigning the cause of behavior to some internal characteristic, rather than to outside forces.
3.2.3 Theories and models
From the book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958), Heider tried to explore the nature of interpersonal relationship, and espoused the concept of what he called “common sense” or “naïve psychology.” In his theory, he believed that people observe, analyze, and explain behaviors with explanations. Although people have different kinds of explanations for the events of human behaviors, Heider found it is very useful to group explanation into two categories; internal (personal) and external (situational) attributions. When an internal attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is assigned to the individual’s characteristics such as ability, personality, mood, efforts, attitudes, or disposition. When an external attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is assigned to the situation in which the behavior was seen—such as the task, other people, or luck (that the individual producing the behavior did so because of the surrounding environment or the social situation). These two types lead to very different perceptions of the individual engaging in a behavior.
3.2.4 Bias and errors
While people strive to find reasons for behaviors, they fall into many traps of biases and errors. As Fritz Heider says, “our perceptions of causality are often distorted by our needs and certain cognitive biases.” The following are examples of attributional biases.
Fundamental attribution error
The fundamental attribution error describes the habit to misunderstand dispositional or personality-based explanations for behavior, instead considering external factors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain and assume the behavior of others. When evaluating others’ behaviors, the situational context is often ignored in favor of the
disposition of the actor to be the cause of an observed behavior. This is because when a behavior occurs attention is most often focused on the person performing the behavior. Thus, the individual is more salient than the environment and dispositional attributions are made more often than situational attributions to explain the behavior of others. However, when evaluating one’s own behavior, the situational factors are often exaggerated when there is a negative outcome while dispositional factors are exaggerated when there is a positive outcome.
Culture bias is when someone makes an assumption about the behavior of a person based on their cultural practices and beliefs. People in individualist cultures, generally Anglo-America and Anglo-Saxon European societies, value individuals, personal goals, and independence. People in collectivist cultures see individuals as members of groups such as families, tribes, work units, and nations, and tend to value conformity and interdependence. In other words, working together and being involved as a group is more common in certain cultures that views each person as a part of the community. This cultural trait is common in Asia, traditional Native American societies, and Africa. Research shows that culture, either individualist or collectivist, affects how people make attributions.
People from individualist cultures are more inclined to make fundamental-attribution error than people from collectivist cultures. Individualist cultures tend to attribute a person’s behavior due to their internal factors, whereas collectivist cultures tend to attribute a person’s behavior to his external factors.
Research suggests that individualist cultures engage in self-serving bias more than do collectivist cultures, i.e. individualist cultures tend to attribute success to internal factors and to attribute failure to external factors. In contrast, collectivist cultures engage in the opposite of self-serving bias i.e. self-effacing bias, which is: attributing success to external factors and blaming failure on internal factors (the individual).
People tend to attribute other people’s behaviors to their dispositional factors while attributing own actions to situational factors. In the same situation, people’s attribution can differ depending on their role as actor or observer. The theory of the actor-observer bias was first developed by E. Jones and R. Nisbett in 1971, whose explanation for the effect was that when we observe other people, we tend to focus on the person, whereas when we are actors, our attention is focused towards situational factors. The actor/observer bias is used less frequently with people one knows well, such as friends and family, since one knows how his/her close friends and family will behave in certain situation, leading him/her to think more about the external factors rather than internal factors.
Dispositional attribution is a tendency to attribute people’s behaviors to their dispositions; that is, to their personality, character, and ability.
Self-serving bias is attributing dispositional and internal factors for success, while external and uncontrollable factors are used to explain the reason for failure. Originally, researchers assumed that self-serving bias is strongly related to the fact that people want to protect their self-esteem. However, an alternative information processing explanation is that when the outcomes match people’s expectations, they make attributions to internal factors. People also use defensive attribution to avoid feelings of vulnerability and to differentiate themselves from a victim of a tragic accident. An alternative version of the theory of self-serving bias states that the bias does not arise because people wish to protect their private self-esteem, but to protect their self-image (a self-presentational bias). This version of the theory would predict that people attribute their successes to situational factors, for fear that others will disapprove of them looking overly vain if they should attribute successes to themselves.
For example, it is suggested that coming to believe that “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people” will reduce feelings of vulnerability. This belief would have side-effects of blaming the victim even in tragic situations. Another example of attributional bias is optimism bias, in which most people believe positive events happen to them more often than to others, and that negative events happen to them less often than to others. For example, smokers, on average, believe they are less likely to get lung cancer than other smokers.
Defensive attribution hypothesis
The defensive attribution hypothesis is a social psychological term referring to a set of beliefs held by an individual with the function of defending themselves from concern that they will be the cause or victim of a mishap. Commonly, defensive attributions are made when individuals witness or learn of a mishap happening to another person. In these situations, attributions of responsibility to the victim or harm-doer for the mishap will depend upon the severity of the outcomes of the mishap and the level of personal and situational similarity between the individual and victim. More responsibility will be attributed to the harm-doer as the outcome becomes more severe, and as personal or situational similarity decreases.
An example of defensive attribution is the just-world hypothesis, which is where “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people”. People believe in this in order to avoid feeling vulnerable to situations that they have no control over. However, this also leads to blaming the victim even in a tragic situation.
Another example of defensive attribution is optimism bias, in which people believe positive events happen to them more often than to others, and that negative events happen to them less often than to others. Too much optimism leads people to ignore some warnings and precautions given to them. For example, smokers believe that they are less likely to get lung cancer than other smokers.
Attribution theory can be applied to juror decision making. Jurors use attributions to explain the cause of the defendant’s intent and actions related to the criminal behavior. The attribution made (situational or dispositional) might affect a juror’s punitiveness towards the defendant. When jurors attribute a defendant’s behavior to dispositional attributions they tend to be more punitive
and are more likely find a defendant guilty and to recommend a death sentence compared to a life sentence.
In criminal law, intent is one of three general classes of mens rea necessary to constitute a conventional, as opposed to strict liability,crime. A more formal, generally synonymous legal term is scienter: intent or knowledge of wrongdoing.
A range of words represents shades of intent in criminal laws around the world. The mental element, or mens rea, of murder, for example, is traditionally expressed as malice aforethought and the interpretations of malice, “maliciously” and “willful” vary between pure intent and recklessness or negligence, depending on the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed and the seriousness of the offense. The intent element of a crime, such as intent to kill, may exist without a malicious motive, or even with a benevolent motive, such as in the case of euthanasia.
A person intends a consequence when they 1) foresee that it will happen if their given series of acts or omissions continue, and 2) desire it to happen. The most serious level of culpability, justifying the most serious levels of punishment, is achieved when both these components are actually present in the accused’s mind (a “subjective” test). A person who plans and executes a crime is considered, rightly or wrongly, a more serious danger to the public than one who acts spontaneously (perhaps because they are less likely to get caught), whether out of the sudden opportunity to steal, or out of anger to injure another. But intent can also come from the common law viewpoint as well.
I would suggest that exhaustive research on human agency (see my analysis of Charles Peirce) reveals a level of complexity that makes determinations regarding intent so problematic we should admit it is simply a black box to which we will probably never have access. Given that, we should distinguish between responsibility (which deals with intent and guilt) and accountability (which deals solely with protecting others from someone who has shown themselves to be in some manner a bad actor). A legal system that presumes intent and guilt tends to emphasize punishment or retribution (such as the death penalty). It seems to me there is zero scientific evidence allowing us to assess intent and, therefore, we should take seriously the idea of a “correctional facility” that seeks to correct or adjust maladaptive and destructive behavior, when possible. Conversely, depending on the seriousness of the behavior, the weight needs to be on rigorous evidence for the efficacy of correctional treatment. The fact we may not be able to determine intent and therefore the “guilt” of the criminal means we can’t know if it is “just” to incarcerate him or her. As a society however, we need to realize that, “guilty” or not, we are accountable to each other for our actions.
The Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce—An Introduction
The sincere student of logic must certainly already believe, or at least hope that there is such a thing as The Truth, at least with reference to some questions. He must therefore think that there is some reality which is independently of its being represented to be. He must therefore think that there is an external world, however intimately it may be connected with himself, or he with it. He must agree that things happen, and that there is some such thing as compulsion, or at least force. He must agree that there is such a thing as the influence of abstract ideas, such as The Truth, upon hard facts. That it is really true, not mere metaphor, that The Truth is a great power. –Peirce, Draft B-Ms L75.18
4.0 Non-Realism, Naïve Realism & Critical Realism
Our present situation might be characterized by two central issues; the seeming demise of epistemic foundationalism (epistemology being the study of what distinguishes justified belief from mere opinion), and the nature of criteria for truth (the possibility of a positive ground where opinion and justified belief can be distinguished). These two features seem problematic as, currently, we have relativized all intellectual and moral truth claims. How did we get here? It began with questions Immanuel Kant asked but was ultimately unable to answer regarding how we might know that the properties generated by our minds are able to comprehend reality.
Foundationalism is a question about the nature of reality and, for our purposes, it’s useful to parse out different types of realism; non-realism, naïve realism, and critical realism. In its pure form naïve realism is the claim that there is a literal, one-to-one correspondence between ideas and the objects represented by those ideas. Naïve realism posits ultimate reality as an original, irreducible object, and thoughts (beliefs) to be rooted in a direct experience of that Reality. Pure non-realism holds there is no correspondence whatever between ideas and ultimate reality and, what’s more, there is no ultimate reality. Critical realism seeks a middle way between these two extremes.
French philosopher Renee Descartes, seeking an adequate foundation for justified belief, pursued a process of methodical doubt that led him to develop an ontology of radical dualism. He concluded that the cogito (cogito ergo sum) was the thing (substance) on which he could erect a viable theory of knowledge. Descartes viewed matter as res extensa–“extended thing” (corporeal substance)–and mind as res cogito–thinking thing” (mental substance). He saw God as the third “thing” joining the dualism of mind and matter.
He viewed all knowledge as either inherently justified on self-evident grounds, or incorrigible beliefs (eminently rational), or founded on such beliefs (the cogito). Later Enlightenment thinkers who built on Descartes foundationalism assumed this as a universal rationality, resulting in the enthronement of reason. From this perspective, the Enlightenment (Age of Reason) can be seen as a critique of the Age of Faith, whose criteria for truth was rooted in external forms of authority (religious texts and priests).
Almost immediately skeptics like the Scottish philosopher David Hume questioned Descartes explanation of the connection between knower and known, as well as the cogito itself. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche later objected to the idea of a universal rationality. His
critique led to a view of knowledge as subjective, contextual, and relative, leading to the postmodern deconstructivism of the American philosopher Richard Rorty and French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In this, our current framework, it is denied truth can be objectively known, leading to the collapse of epistemic foundationalism and the consequent relativization of all intellectual and moral values.
In the west it was Immanuel Kant who first mounted a reevaluation of the notion of a direct correspondence between ideas and Reality, as he held that our representation of Reality was shaped by features intrinsic to the perceiving subject. His ideas have been massively affirmed by modern research. Nevertheless, Kant theorized man is able to comprehend Reality because “categories” exist within our minds that actively generate our perceptions. He held these categories to be universal, which explains why we all perceive the world in the same way. But this raised the question: “How do we know the perceptions generated by our minds are universal, and that they correspond to Reality?” Kant never provided an adequate answer to this question.
A thinker who seems to offer a middle way between naïve realism and non-realism, as well as an answer to Kant’s truth problem, is the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s philosophy has been characterized as a pragmatic, semiotic, evolutionary, panentheist,
conception of science. In a reformulation of Kant’s categories, Peirce proposed three categories of his own. Peirce’s categories are the most subtle and complex aspect of his philosophy, and to understand them one first must understand what is meant by the above terms and their relationship to science. “Evolutionary” seems the most familiar term, but when you combine it with pragmatism, semiosis and (especially) panentheism it’s clear we’re in uncharted territory. My approach is to define each term separately, and only then try to explain Peirce’s philosophy.
Regarding Peirce’s categories, he defined “firstness” as pure potentiality, a simple quality of feeling—something like “aesthesis”—an elementary awareness of an unelaborated stimulation. Firstness might be described as “prior to” sensation and perception, but as it is prior to time and space, it cannot be imagined to fit in any type of sequence. He characterized “secondness” as brute actuality, resistance, that by which a thing is related to others. This is something like an infant discovering the world is not simply an extension of itself, that it might be indifferent, even hostile to its needs and expectations. The final category is “thirdness,” that which mediates between firstness and secondness—the universal laws and generalities or habits that ensure the continuity of the process of reality
Consider the practical effects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object. –Charles Peirce
The word “reality” is pervasive throughout Peircean philosophy. For Peirce, reality is what we encounter, and that which our thinking attempts to comprehend. Pragmaticism for Peirce was a method for ascertaining and articulating the meaning of anything. Peirce argued that the path of inquiry is best accomplished methodologically by scientific investigation. He rejected the path of tenacity (which grasps a desired end regardless of outside influences or resulting consequences),
the method of authority (which subjects itself sometimes uncritically to the powers that be), and the a priori method (which claims to be reasonable when oftentimes it is no more than an expression of intellectual taste). Instead Peirce advocated a method “by which our beliefs may be determined by nothing human, but by some external permanency—by something upon which our thinking has no effect.” The objective of Peirce’s pragmaticism was to get at the truly real.
Part of fully understanding one’s method and objective, however, involves its adequate articulation. If it is the truth of reality that shapes our beliefs, then Peirce sought to know how it is that we can attain proper beliefs. Peirce outlined the process by which beliefs are formed. It begins with an initial awareness of something, proceeds to remove doubts regarding the thing, and concludes with the establishment of habits of action relative to the object of belief. This led Peirce to define the meaning of anything as the habits it involved “Consider what effects, that conceivably might have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” If effects are inconceivable for anything, such a “thing” is probably meaningless, and, as such neither true nor false. To get at the truth of anything is to formulate an hypothesis about its effects. True beliefs are those reached when the effects predicted are borne out in experience. This leads to full beliefs, that upon which we are willing to risk ourselves, in contrast to mere opinions. Opinions that do not lead even to insignificant actions probably either mean that hypothesis about them have not been framed, or that there is no truth to them.
Peirce saw that in order to demonstrate the truth of his pragmaticism, he had to show that it was normative for the process of thinking. Rather than analyzing the psychological aspects of pragmatism, Peirce sought to establish its logical basis in order to argue for its truthfulness. What motivated his inquiry into the logic of reasoning was the question of how the process of experience enabled the mind to engage the world and understand it truly, or how the signs with which the mind worked mediated reality accurately. In order to answer these questions, however, Peirce had to develop a metaphysics.
Semiosis is any form of activity or process that involves signs, including the production of meaning. The study of signs goes back to Plato and Aristotle, but the term semiotics was coined by Peirce. Semiosis is the performance element involving signs. Individuals usually speak or write to elicit a response.
As an insect or animal, human or otherwise, moves through its environment (umwelt), all the senses collect data that are made available to the brain. However, to prevent sensory overload only salient data will receive the full attention of the cognitive elements of the mind. This indicates that a part of the process must be controlled by a model of the real world, capable of ranking elements in terms of their significance and filtering out the data irrelevant to survival. A sign cannot function until the brain or audience distinguishes it from the background noise. When this happens, the sign then triggers cognitive activity to interpret the data input and so convert it into meaningful information. This would suggest that, in the semiosphere, the process of semiosis goes through the following cycle:
The plant, insect, or animal with the need to communicate (recognize food/mate/prey) will know what needs to be said and assess the best means of saying it (that is, start an action pattern);
This information will then be encoded and relevant muscle groups will effect transmission—although to some extent intentional in the human, the actual movements of the body are autonomic, that is, the individual is not aware of moving individual muscles, but achieves the desired result by an act of will.
The audience filters ambient data and perceives the uttered code as a grouping of signs;
The audience then interprets the signs (sometimes termed decoding) to attribute meaning. This involves matching the signs received against existing patterns and their meanings held in memory (that is, learned and understood within the community). In plants, insects and animals, the results of a successful interpretation will be an observable response (action plan to the stimuli perceived).
In biology, scout bees and ants will return home to tell the others where food is to be found, fertility announced to prospective mates, and danger communicated to others in the group. Such transmission may be chemical, auditory, visual or tactile, singly or in combination. A new field of research termed biosemiotics makes the claim that endosymbiosis, self-reference, code duality, the availability of receptors and autopoiesis are general properties of all living systems. Thomas Sebeok suggests a similar list of properties for life may coincide with a definition of semiosis, that is, the test of whether something is alive is a test to determine whether and how it communicates meaning to another of its kind. This has been called the Sebeok Thesis.
For humans, semiosis is an aspect of the wider systems of social interaction in which information is exchanged. It can result in particular types of social interaction in which information is exchanged. It can result in particular types of social encounter, but the process itself can be constrained by social conventions such as property and privacy. This means semiosis can be understood only by identifying and exploring all the conditions affecting the effective transmission and acceptance of signs. When two humans meet, the ways in which they think, the identities they assume, their emotional responses, motives and purposes, all frame the situation as it dynamically unfolds and tests the legitimacy of the outcomes. All these elements are semiotic in that prevailing codes and values are being applied.
No transcendental subject is present in Peirce’s definition of the sign, leading some to suggest Peirce was the first true postmodern philosopher.
4.3 Evolutionary: A Brief History of Mind
In A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness, Nicholas Humphrey presents a materialist view of the evolution of mind, where mind is seen to supervene on matter. In more recent works (Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness) he claims to have solved the hard problem of consciousness, yet never undertakes the complete rethinking of mind-body questions needed to actually solve that problem. This rethinking (as mentioned previously) would need to center on the concept of matter itself. Matter is still often imagined 17th century style, as an inert, passive stuff moved only by impact from outside. But this view is not rooted in the
empirical facts of hard science, but was articulated by devout scientists to leave room for God as the source of all activity. Matter then rather naturally becomes unknowable once that somewhat assertive God has been removed. Inert stuff could never have produced the galaxies, volcanoes and, above all, living things that have evolved out of some original portion of physical matter. Until someone explains, exactly, how and when the water of matter turns into the wine of consciousness, the hard problem remains unsolved. Some, like the behaviorists, evade it by saying subjectivity is illusory. Others find the task of believing in a world of objects-without-subjects too difficult to imagine. Humphrey still holds our everyday consciousness to be illusory. He seems not to notice that illusions are impossible unless there is somebody conscious to be deluded.
What follows is a summary of an otherwise eloquent description of the evolution of mind in A History of the Mind.
In the primeval soup, chance brought together the first molecules of life with the capacity to generate copies of themselves. Time passed and Darwinian evolution got to work selecting packets with ever greater potential for maintaining their own integrity and reproducing; complex cells (bacteria or amoebae), then the multicelled (worms or fish, or us).
Living animals had their own form and substance. Whether at the level of an amoebae or elephant, the animal was a self-integrating and self-individuating whole. Unlike other bounded objects—like a raindrop or a pebble—its boundaries were self-imposed and actively maintained. On one side of its boundary wall lay “me,” and on the other “not-me.”
So boundaries—and the physical structures that constituted them, membranes, skins—were crucial. First, they held the animal’s substance in, and the rest of the world out. Second, by virtue of being located at the animal’s surface they formed a frontier—the frontier at which the outside world impacted the animal, and across which exchanges of matter and energy and information could take place.
Light fell on an animal, objects bumped into it, pressure waves pressed against it, chemicals stuck to it. Some of these events were “a good thing” for the animal, others were neutral, others were bad. Any animal that had a means to sort out the good from the bad—approaching or letting in the good, avoiding or blocking the bad—would clearly have been at a biological advantage. Natural selection was therefore likely to select for “sensitivity.”
Being sensitive need have meant, initially, being locally reactive—that is, responding selectively where the surface stimuli occurred. The first types of sensitivity would have involved, for example, local retraction or swelling or engulfing by the skin.
Soon more sophisticated types of sensitivity evolved. Sense organs became more discriminatory between different kinds of stimuli, and the range of possible responses increased. Instead of or as well as a stimulus inducing a local reaction, information from one part of the skin got relayed to other parts and caused reactions there. And by the introduction of delays in transmission and the combination of facilitation and inhibition, the way was open for the animal’s responses to
become better adapted to its needs—for example by swimming away, rather than just recoiling from a noxious stimulus.
In time, different stimuli came to elicit different action patterns. We might imagine that an animal living in a pond swam upward in response to red light, and downward in response to blue light. Since information about the particular stimulus was now being preserved and carried through into the particular action pattern, the action pattern came to represent—to at least to replicate symbolically—the stimulus.
With this level of sensitivity and reactivity, however, it could hardly be said that environmental events had acquired much “meaning” for the animal. But, at this stage something about the status of the world was changing. Certain events were being responded to as good and bad, as edible or inedible, as of significance to “me.”
Compare, for example, the effects of low humidity on two bounded objects—a wood louse and a puddle. The heat is “bad” for both because it dries them up. But whereas the puddle just sits there and shrinks, the wood louse runs away. Both react to low humidity—but while the puddle’s response is nonadaptive and carries no implication of being meaningful, the wood louse’s response potentially does—it implies “here is a situation not to my liking.”
As animals became increasingly sophisticated at attuning their behavior to the environmental situation, the sensory and response side of the process must have been partially decoupled. Before long a central site evolved, where representations—in the form of action patterns—were held in abeyance before they were put into effect. Thus action patterns had become action plans, and representations had become relatively abstract. The place where they were held in store could be said to be the place where they were held in mind.
Humphrey, as a materialist, is asserting that it is at this juncture (exact place unspecified) in the evolutionary process that what he calls “prototypical minds” emerge, with some events in the world taking on the status of meaningful phenomena. Here (exact time/place unspecified) for the first time since the universe began certain events, namely those occurring at the surfaces of living organisms, begin to exist as something for someone. In materialist biology such events, while meaningful to specific living organisms, can have no larger meaning, as they are emergent properties of insentient matter. The presumption here is that mind is not a latent property of matter from the beginning—that is, it is not actual—but a mere chimera which, at bottom, is insensate mechanism. And as noted earlier, this materialistic, mechanistic ethos is not rooted in hard scientific data but is a schema rooted in theology. So while never showing exactly where and why mind emerges, they also never show why it can’t be latent in matter from the beginning.
(I’ll offer more detailed criticism of this position in my discussions of the event ontology of Whitehead.)
So the phenomenology of sensory experiences came first. Before there were any other kinds of phenomena there were “raw sensations”—tastes, smells, tickles, pains, sensations of warmth, of light and sound. But from early on there was another track to mental evolution. On the one hand animals benefited from having an ability to assess their own current state of being—to answer
questions about “what is happening to me”—”What is it like to have red light arriving at my skin?” But on the other hand they would certainly have benefited further if they had an ability to assess the state of the external world—to answer questions about “what is happening out there”—for example, “Where is the red light coming from?” But the questions “What is happening to me?” and “What is happening out there?” are different kinds of questions, which must always have required different kinds of answers.
Consider a patch of sunlight falling on the skin of an amoeba-like animal. The light has immediate implications for the animal’s own state of bodily health, and for that reason it gets represented as a subjective sensation. But light also signifies an objective physical fact, namely the existence of the sun. And although the existence of the sun might not matter much to an amoeba, there are other animals and other areas of the physical world where the ability to take account of what exists “out there beyond ‘my’ body” could be of paramount survival value. Consider a shadow crossing the skin of an amoeba. Here an ability to represent the objective fact of an approaching predator would—if only it were achievable by an amoeba—clearly be of considerable more consequence to the animal’s survival than the ability to represent the body surface stimulus as such.
But how to do it? How to interpret a stimulus as a “sign” of something else? To move from a representation of the sign to a representation of the signified? By the end of the first stage of evolution sense organs existed with connections to a central processor, and most of the requisite information about potential signs was being received as “input.” But the subsequent processing of this information, leading to subjective sensory states, had to do with quality rather than quantity, the transient present rather than the permanent identity, me-ness rather than otherness. In order for the same information to now represent the outside world, a whole new style of processing had to evolve, with an emphasis less on the subjective present and more on object permanence, less on immediate responsiveness and more on future possibilities, less on what it is like for me and more on how what “it” signifies fits into the larger picture of a stable external world.
Phenomenal consciousness (p-consciousness) is then poised to have an impact on the subjects beliefs and practical reasoning processes in such a way as to guide behavior. Understanding p-consciousness then involves understanding discrete transitions in its development: from a) organisms with a repertoire of behavioral reflexes, triggered by simple features of the environment; to b) organisms whose innate reflexes are action-plans guided by incoming quasi-perceptual information; to c) organisms which can also possess a suite of learned action-plans, also guided by quasi-perceptual information; to d) organisms in which perceptual information takes the form of simple conceptual thought and reasoning.
A few examples might lend clarity. As an example of a) — an organism relying on environmental triggers—consider a tick, which drops from its perch when it detects butyric acid vapor (released by all mammals) and then burrows when it detects warmth. These are fixed action-patterns released by certain triggering stimuli, but which do not seem in any sense to be guided by them. As an example of b) — an organism with a set of innate action-plans guided by quasi-perceptual information — consider a Sphex wasp, whose behavior in leaving a paralyzed cricket in a burrow with its eggs seems to be a fixed action-pattern, the details of whose
execution depends upon quasi-perceptual sensitivity to environmental contours (“quasi-perceptual” as—hypothetically—the wasp lacks a capacity for conceptual thought); its “percepts” feeding directly into behavior-control, and only into behavior-control). For examples of c) — organisms with learned action-patterns—we can turn to fish, reptiles and amphibians, which are capable of learning new ways of behaving, but which may not yet be capable of anything resembling practical reasoning. Finally, as an example of d) — an organism capable of conceptual thought—consider the cat, or the mouse, each of which probably has simple conceptual representations of the environment generated by perception, and is capable of simple forms of reasoning in light of those representations.
Evolutionary gains, at each stage, come from the increasingly flexible behaviors. With the transition from triggered reflexes to perceptually-guided ones we get behaviors which can be fine-tuned to the contingent features of the organism’s current environment. And with the transition from a repertoire of perceptually-guided action-patterns to conceptual thought and reasoning, we get the possibility of subserving some goals to others, and of tracking and recalling the changing features of the objects in the environment in a much more sophisticated way.
Such an evolutionary analysis is crucial in understanding the subtlety and complexity of human agency. Clearly it is inaccurate to conflate human choice with an asteroid striking a planet—something that could be legitimately inferred from hard determinism. It also shows so-called “free will” is not as simple or obvious as it might seem.
Vision is the dominant sense; the sense that has been most widely studied by psychologists and philosophers. The most primitive organisms did not have eyes. Like present-day amoebae they were probably sensitive to light all over their body surfaces. What is more, they did not have specialized photoreceptors sensitive to light alone—the same sensory receptors might have been responsive not only to light but also to high salt concentrations or mechanical vibration.
When photoreceptors did evolve they were not an entirely new kind of receptor. They were simply nonspecific receptors that had evolved to be relatively more sensitive to light than to other kinds of stimulation. It seems likely they developed from sensory cilia. Cilia are hair-like structures that stick out from the surface of a cell and can serve either in a motor capacity to move the animal around, or in a sensory capacity to detect local disturbances in the environment. By packing a sensory cilium with photosensitive pigment, it could be made to be specifically excitable to light. Even the rods and cones in the retina of our own eyes show evidence of having started out this way in evolution—as cilia that were sensitive to touch.
The function of photoreceptors in the earliest organisms must have been to detect the general level of illumination. If the light level was “good” the animal could stay where it was, and if it was “bad” it could move about until things improved. But without any way of telling where the light was coming from, it would have taken a long time to achieve the desired state. And it would not have been until animals developed the ability to compare the local illumination falling on different parts of their body surfaces that they would have been able to move purposefully (and efficiently) in the right direction.
An earthworm, like an amoeba, has photoreceptors all over its body surface. Earthworms do not like illumination (being at risk from daytime hazards in the open). If a flashlight is shone on a worm on the lawn at night, it runs away. The worm is comparing what is happening on the bright side of its body with what is happening on the dark side, and on the basis of this comparison it is able to direct its escape.
While the way the earthworm is representing the light would not be counted as visual perception, it should be counted as visual sensation. It makes sense to say that the worm’s nervous system is representing the light as “something happening to me,” and as something “disagreeable.”
What happened in evolution was that photoreceptors at the body surface clustered together as “eyespots.” Even singled-celled animals sometimes have a specialized light-sensitive patch where the threshold for light stimulation is much lower; and most multicelled animals that do not have proper eyes have one or more such patches strategically located at their boundaries. The reason for developing these eyespots was that it is more efficient to compare the illumination at several specific locations than to compare the illumination over wide areas of the body.
There proved however to be a better way of determining the direction of a source of light—and this was to transform a single eyespot into a genuine “eye” with an image-forming mechanism. When light from one direction falls on a flat patch of photoreceptors, the patch is evenly illuminated and there is no way of telling which direction the light is coming from; but when the patch is transformed into a cup, light from one direction produces a gradient of illumination; and when the cup is further transformed into a spherical cavity with a narrow aperture at the surface, the arrangement becomes a kind of “pinhole camera” where the direction of the light is precisely correlated with the position of the image. It is only a small step further to fill in the pinhole with a translucent droplet, to produce a full-blown camera with lens.
Camera-like eyes appeared early on in evolution, and have been reinvented several times. But despite their image-forming properties, originally their only important function remained that of assessing the level and direction of illumination arriving at the body surface. So even after the eyes evolved, the sense of vision at first had only a single province, not a double one. When, for example, the image of a bright object moves across the retina, the only experience the animal would have had would have been that of being “stroked” by the visual stimulus.
But this is not where evolution rested. Once the image-forming eye had been invented, a whole new world was potentially opened up for perceptual analysis. Different-shaped objects, for example, cast different-shaped images on the retina; objects at different distances cast different-shaped images; different-colored objects cast different colored images. Thus light stimulation had become in principle a source of information about the outside world.
By developing a different channel for visual perception, alongside the existing channel for visual sensation, animals could take advantage of the defining properties of light while retaining their primary interest in light as an intimate event affecting their own bodies.
Consider a shadow crossing the skin of an amoeba. Here an ability to represent the objective fact of an approaching predator would—if only it were achievable by an amoeba—clearly be of
considerable more consequence to the animal’s survival than the ability to represent the body surface stimulus as such.
Below I define a few philosophic terms useful in understanding Peirce’s evolutionary theory.
4.4 Scientific Realism, Ontological Naturalism, and Representational Naturalism
Science is supposed to provide us with a picture of the world so much more reliable and well-supported than that provided by any non-scientific source of information, that we are obliged to withhold belief in anything that is not a part of our best scientific picture of the world. This scientism is taken to support philosophical naturalism (PN), since (according to textbook science) our best scientific picture of the world is a materialistic once, with no reference to causal agencies other than those that can be located within space and time. This defense of naturalism presupposes a version of scientific realism (SR): Unless science can provide us with an objective truth about reality, it has no authority to dictate to us the form which our philosophical ontology and metaphysics must take. Science construed as a mere instrument for manipulating experience, or merely as an autonomous construction of our society, without reference to Reality, tells us nothing about what kinds of things really exist and act.
- Scientific Realism (SR) is the conjunction of two claims: a) Our scientific models are theories and models of the real world; and b) Scientific methods tend, in the long run, to increase our stock of real knowledge.
- Ontological Naturalism (ON) is the thesis nothing can have any influence on events in space and time except other events and conditions in space and time. According to the ontological naturalist, there either are no causal influence from such things, or they have nothing to do with us and our world.
- Representational Naturalism (RN) is the proposition that human knowledge and intentionality are parts of nature to be explained entirely in terms of scientifically understandable causal connections between brain-states and the world. Intentionality is that feature of our thoughts and words that makes them about things, that gives them the capability of being true or false of the world.
- Philosophical Naturalism (PN) is the conjunction of ontological and representational naturalism. But these two thesis are logically independent: It is possible to be an ontological naturalist without being a representational naturalist, and vice versa. There are eliminativists (a materialist philosophy of mind that claims our common-sense understanding of mind is false) who are ontological naturalists yet who reject RN as they don’t accept the reality of knowledge and intentionality. Conversely, a Platonist might accept that knowledge and intentionality are to be understood entirely in terms of causal relations without being an ON.
Charles Peirce is a SR and, while he accepts some aspects of RN, he is not an ON. As a panentheist he breaks ranks with materialists and ontological naturalists as well as rejecting reductionist elements of RN that posit mind as a simple epiphenomena of matter (brain states).
Realism in general and SR in particular are themes we will return to again and again, as without some degree of realism both philosophy and science devolve into incoherence. Regarding Peirce’s critical realist stance, it’s important to understand that RN must make sense of some form of reliability; a rightness of belief that qualifies a belief as knowledge that must consist in some relation between the actual processes by which the belief is formed and the state of the represented conditions. Since our knowledge is a form of (pragmatic) success, this relation must include a form of reliability—an objective tendency for beliefs formed in similar ways to represent the world accurately. Knowledge could then be identified with true beliefs formed by processes whose proper functions are fulfilled under normal circumstances. While this aspect of RN clearly parallels Peirce’s philosophy, he denies the aspect of RN that holds that knowledge and intentionality are entirely natural (limited to causes within space time only), and explicable in terms of brain states and the represented conditions.
If RN is combined with epistemic realism (what we know about objects exists independently of our ideas about such objects) regarding scientific theories, this conjunction entails that the processes of scientific research and theory choice must reliably converge on truth and, therefore, a RN account of intentionality must also employ some notion of reliability. The association between belief states and truth conditions must, for the RN, be a matter of some sort of natural causal relation between the two. This association must consist in a regular correlation between the belief state and its truth-condition, under normal conditions.
Beliefs have teleological purposes and these purposes fix their truth-conditions. Since beliefs are true when they fulfill their purpose of co-varying with the relevant circumstances, this co-variation of representation and represented conditions is what gives the capacity for belief its biological value according to the natural selection story. It is the fact that a belief type typically obtains in certain circumstances that will explain our having it in our repertoire. This regular association of belief type and truth conditions, and the biological purposes which the association serves, provides the sort of naturalistic explication of intentionality that RN requires. This regular association is what is meant by reliability.
There is a connection between the etiology of representation and their truth-values—representations generated in teleologically normal circumstances must be true. This reliability is only a conditional reliability, reliability under teleologically normal circumstances. This condition provides the basis for a distinction between knowledge and true belief. But an act of knowledge formed by processes in actual circumstances can vary from an act of knowledge formed by processes in normal circumstances. It is possible for reliability to be lost. Conditions can change in such a way that teleologically normal circumstances no longer obtain. In such cases old beliefs about certain subjects may become unreliable (It is known,for instance, that the ability to judge the size and distance of objects underwater changes).
It is the past predominance of true belief over false that is required. This leaves open that the statistical norm from now on might be falsity rather than truth. One obvious way in which this might come about is through a change in the environment (land to water). In addition, there might be specifiable conditions that occur with some regularity in which our belief forming processes are unreliable.
Finally, the reliability involved might not involve a high degree of probability. The correlation of belief type and represented conditions does not have to be close to 1. It is conceivable that the devices that fix human beliefs fix true ones not on average, but just often enough. For example, skittish animals may form the belief that a predator is near on the basis of very slight evidence. This belief will be true only rarely, but it must have a better-than-chance probability of truth under normal circumstances to have a representational function at all.
Thus despite these qualifications, it remains the case that a circumscribed form of reliable association is essential to the naturalistic account of intentionality. The reliability is conditional, holding under normal circumstances, and it may be minimal, involving a barely greater-than-chance correlation. Nonetheless, the representational naturalist is committed to the existence of a real, objective association of the belief state with its corresponding condition.
Peirce is a scientific realist with the caveat he believes only some conjunction of science and religion is sufficient to understand life in its entirety—or, conversely—he holds that, as a more logically consistent analysis of evolutionary theory blurs the lines between subject and object, fact and value—this opens the door to a synthesis of the exoteric and the esoteric.
He is an epistemic realist in that he believes:
…there is some reality which is independently of its being represented to be.
(And) therefore there is an external world, however intimately it may be connected with himself, or he with it.
Chapter 4 Perice’s Philosophy
The Process of Thinking
(Details of Peirce’s philosophy in 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3 are taken from The Dialogical Spirit, Amos Young, Chapter 1; The Demise of Foundationalism and the Retention of Truth.)
5.0 Perceptual Judgments and Perceptual Facts
Charles Peirce asked questions about the nature of scientific knowledge and its relation to the functions of the human mind. Modern science attempts to produce an all-encompassing view of the world by putting the human mind—consciousness—the feeling, willing, knowing subjects that produce science with other subjects through semiotic interaction into parenthesis, and then try to use this type of objective knowledge by gathering it into theories, which in the end should explain the self same consciousness they excluded from their knowledge in the beginning. But the prerequisite for science are embodied conscious minds connected and made self-conscious through communication based on a culturally based language system. Thus our ability to experience, to produce interpretive understanding and to communicate meaningfully exist before science and are artificially placed outside scientific knowledge gathering methods, supposedly rendering scientific methods objective, but also neglecting to acknowledge that they are inadequate to reflect on the whole human reality.
If we try to understand experience from an objective viewpoint that is distinct from that of the subject of the experience then, even if we continue to credit its perspectival nature, we will not be able to grasp its most specific qualities unless we are able to imagine them subjectively. No objective conception of the mental world can include it all. –Ernest Nagel
One of the seminal differences between Peirce’s (and Bohm’s) philosophy and textbook science is that Peirce attempts to describe the relationship between scientific knowledge and the functions of the human mind. Peirce’s philosophy is a reformulation of Kant’s categories, which was a response to Hume’s skepticism about the ability of the self to comprehend reality, which threatened to collapse the modernist, Newtonian-Cartesian worldview. To reiterate, Kant created a new basis for knowledge, arguing that knowledge depends on the structure of the perceiving mind. He held 1) we are able to comprehend reality and, 2) we are able to do so because categories exist within our minds that actively generate our perceptions. Kant held these categories to be universal, which explains why we all perceive the world in the same way. This raised the question: “How do we know the perceptions generated by our minds truly corresponds to reality?” Kant never provided an adequate answer to this problem. Kant’s problem was a truth problem. Peirce’s philosophy offers an answer to the truth problem Kant was unable to provide.
Key to Peirce’s thought is the relationship of his fallibilism to his theory of truth. Peirce was convinced the Cartesian quest for certainty was a mistaken enterprise. Whereas the Cartesian cogito presupposes a dualism between knower and known, Peirce saw a continuity between the
two. Peirce rejected the atomism inherent in Cartesianism, and suggested a continuity in the world itself. This is reflected in the fact our knowledge of the world arises in our continuous
experience of it. This experience consists of two aspects. The first Peirce termed the perceptual judgment; the uncontrollable operation of grasping, assenting, and acting on sensation. This primary stuff of experience played a similar role in Peirce’s epistemology as the notion of sense datum did for the older British empirical philosophers. However, against their atomistic conception of sense datum, Peirce anticipated William James’s theory of mind as a “stream of consciousness,” and regarded perceptual judgments as a continuous stream of inferences. Being continuous, they are abstract, vague, and not segregable, making them uncontrollable and indubitable in and of themselves. This non-dual continuity has startling implications, as it suggests reality is not, primarily, composed of material substances that endure through time, but sequentially ordered experiential (phenomenological) events.
Perice argued that Descartes’s methodological and universal doubt was impossible, the individualism of cogito ergo sum unreasonable, that thinking proceeded in a spiral rather than in a Cartesian line, and that dualism leaves things ultimately inexplicable.
According to Zen, we are too much a slave of the conventional way of thinking, which is dualistic…This is the way things go in this universe of the senses. Whether such ideas correspond to facts is another matter. –D.T. Suzuki
Yet Peirce understood that even while perceptual judgments are not consciously identifiable and dubitable, a fallibilistic epistemology requires they be open to correction. This led him to identify a second aspect of experience, which he called perceptual facts. These are the controlled cognitions or ideas which follow upon perceptual judgments. He described them as “the intellects description of the evidence of the senses made by my endeavor. These perceptual facts are wholly unlike the percept.” This is the case because perceptual facts are not immediate, but temporally removed from perceptual judgments, and therefore inferentially dependent upon memory. Memory, however, is fallible, and since perceptual facts in their final form are propositions produced by controlled cognitions, thinking can only grasp reality partially and inexactly.
In a sense it is correct to call Peirce a foundationalist. But where Peirce differed from classical and weak foundationalists was in denying immunity to and positively criticizing “basic beliefs.” Peirce distanced himself from Kant’s unknowable Ding an sich and from something known as “Common-Sensism.” His quarrel with Common-Sensisim was that it did not develop a means by which to address the emergence and resolution of doubts that arise from experience. Since all knowledge is fallible, Peirce insisted “there are three things to which we can never hope to attain by reasoning, namely, absolute certainty, absolute exactitude, and absolute universality; and further, if these are not to be attained by reasoning, there is certainly no other means by which they can be reached.”
5.1 Firstness, Secondness & Thirdness
Perice had come to understand reality in terms of three fundamental categories which he termed firstness, secondness, and thirdness. Firstness is pure potentiality, the simple quality of feeling, that which makes a thing what it is, in and of itself. Secondness is the element of struggle or of brute, resistant fact, that by which a thing is related to others. Thirdness is what mediates
between firstness and secondness; the universal laws, generalities, or habits that ensure the continuity of the process of reality.
The evolution of forms begins as a vague potentiality that either is, or is followed by, a continuum of forms having a multitude of dimensions too great for the individual dimensions to be distinct. It seems then it is by a contraction of the vagueness of that potentiality of everything in general, but of nothing in particular, that the world of forms comes about. The idea of the absolutely First must be entirely separated from all conception of, or reference to, anything else. The first is present and immediate, never a second to a representation. It is fresh and new. It precedes all synthesis, all differentiation; it has no unity and no parts. It cannot be articulated: assert it, and it has already lost its characteristic innocence; for assertion always implies a denial of something else.
Firstness transcends uniary/binary distinctions, as it cannot be subjected to articulated thought. Secondness, on the other hand, is binary. It entails relation, and hence the idea of something “other.” Just as we become aware of our self only on becoming aware of the non-self so we, on distinguishing something from Firstness, must become aware of that with respect to something it is not. Firstness is pure feeling, anesthesis, potentiality. Secondness is the “what” that is experienced, the actual. When one has developed at least a rudimentary idea of ‘reality’ as apart from one’s self, Secondness is predominant, for the real is that which insists upon forcing its way to recognition as something “other” than the mind’s creation.
Thirdness is cognition, which is necessarily constructed on the foundations of Firstness and Secondness. Thirdness entails representation, the third leg of the triad including relations between things (Secondness) and pure quality (Firstness). Essentially it can be said that Firstness is potentiality, a “might be” without there yet being any awareness of what it is that might be. Secondness, the actual, is a “happens to be” through consciousness that “what is” is “with respect to” something which it “is not.’” Thirdness, then, is a “would be.” It is a hypothetical that includes consciousness of a “happens to be.” Firstness can be termed “seeing”; Secondness “seeing as”;Thirdness “seeing-as-it-could-have-been.”
Peirce considered these categories to be universally applicable to all phenomena, irreducible, able to comprehend all other categorical distinctions, and not only descriptive of reality, but reality itself. Thirdness signaled Peirce’s revolt against the nominalism embraced by William James—its denial of the reality of laws or generals (doctrine that universals are mere names without any corresponding reality).
5.2 Abduction, Deduction, Induction
Whereas the history of Western thought has generally attempted to comprehend epistemology in dyadic terms, resulting in the well-known dualisms of knower and known, subject and object, Peirce explicated such within a traidic framework that combined experience and cognition. Proceeding from perceptual judgments, human cognition typically involves three types of reasoning, all of which are inferential; abduction, deduction, and induction. Abduction is the emergence of a broad inference, a hypothesis, what ensues from the general classification of perceptual judgments. Deduction is the prediction of what should follow from the hypothesis. Induction is the concrete, piecemeal testing of the deduced predictions to see if the hypothesis
holds in reality. What is important is the basic continuity between perception and abduction. From a phenomenological analysis of perceptual experience, Peirce was led to see perceptual judgments or sensations as the continuous activity of engaging with brute singularities or secondness by which the mind registers the general or vague features of the world. Our sensation of a table is fundamentally of the laws to which things such as table conform: hardness, coarseness, color, etc. As such, we can see that perceptual judgments are thirds that connect our sensations with the world.
Since abduction is based on inference, all hypotheses are actually guesses, and since false hypotheses are infinitely greater numerically than true ones, our remarkable guessing ability can be seen as evidence of the adaptation of the mind to the world (when successful). While Peirce drew from Darwinian terminology in calling this ability Insight or Instinct, he did not succumb to the materialistic or mechanistic interpretation of the universe.
From his discoveries, Peirce determined that vagueness, generality, and inference are replete throughout both experience and the process of reasoning. Abduction is thereby connected with perception and occurs simultaneously with it because of the interpretiveness of the perceptive judgment; in fact, Peirce specifically said that a percept or sensation “fulfills the function of an hypothesis.” The various hypotheses are refined in perceptual facts, deductively theorized, and then tested in more specific ways. “Those that prove themselves reliable guides for the course of experience are solidified into habits of thought and action. The process of thinking then is nothing more or less than the drawing of inferences from the generalities of sensations, and the continuous filling in the blanks or making determinate the vague aspects of those perceptual judgments, both by connecting them with previous cognitions and by integrating novel experiences through the ongoing process of reasoning.” Because generalities or thirdness pours in on us continuously in the form of sensations, percepts and perceptual judgments are codified over time as mental signs (interpretations) that grasp the laws and habits of things. This in turn enables us to understand and engage the world. All human experience, from the percepts of feeling to perceptual judgments and on through the entire process of cognition is nothing but inferences from the vague signs of perception, and since there is, at least potentially, an infinite series of interpretations that follow upon the presentation of a sign, all knowledge can only be provisional. This is the case because inductive reasoning can only engage in a finite number of experiments, even if extended indefinitely. Reflecting this fallibilism, Peirce thus admonished the investigator to be watchful for exceptions to the rule. Barring the surprises of experience, thinking proceeds in smooth continuity from perception through action. Peirce summarized the fundamental tenets of his philosophy this way: “The elements of every concept enter into logical thought at the gate of perception, and make their exit at the gate of purposive action; and whatever cannot show the passports at both those two gates is to be arrested as unauthorized by reason.
According to Peirce: “Perceptual judgments contain general elements, so that universal propositions are deducible from them…” The perceptual judgments are to be regarded as an extreme case of abductive inferences from which they differ in being absolutely beyond criticism. The abductive suggestion comes to us in a flash. It is an act of insight, although extremely fallible insight. It is true that the different elements of the hypothesis were in our minds before, but it is the idea of putting together what we had never before dreamed of putting
together which flashes the new suggestion before our contemplation.” That perceptual judgments are thoroughly general, and put us in touch with the laws and habits that structure reality, is one of Peirce’s most important insights.
The essence of pragmatism therefore follows the logic of abduction. Pragmatism is the process of inquiry that seeks to establish firm beliefs about reality from the inferences of perceptual experience. The pragmatic elucidation of truth asks the question—what can be expected to follow from a true hypothesis? The logic of pragmatism is that the vagueness of perception and perceptual judgment lead us to formulate equally general inferences (abductions) from which more specific predictions are made (deductions), which are in turn finally tested in a variety of ways (induction). If confirmed, inductive experience is shaped into provisional habits that inform our actions. As Peirce put it, “The only method of ascertaining the truth is to repeat this trio of operations: conjecture; deductions of predictions from the conjecture; testing the predictions by experimentation.” It follows that only surprises arising from experience jolt us from out habituatedness, triggering doubt, and returning us to inquiry.
Both perceptual judgments and perceptual facts are thus synthesized in our minds in such a manner so as to form habits that enable us to engage our world. So long as things are encountered as anticipated, our habits of thought and action are solidified and confirmed. They begin to be consciously criticized, however, when we are surprised by the unexpected. Such surprises raise doubts that inhibit our ability to function in the world. This leads us to a process of inquiry that has as its goal the resolution of doubt and the establishment of a new mode of belief and action. This new modus operandi, however, will be satisfactory only if it enables us to engage the world truthfully. In this way, that which is experimentally indubitable in perceptual judgments, can be and is, cognitively dubitable when propositionally asserted as perceptual facts and tested against experience. As Peirce said: “The scientific spirit requires a man to to be at all times ready to dump his whole cartload of beliefs the moment experience is against them.” Hence Peirce’s fallibilism.
Surprise and doubt are important concepts in Peirce’s epistemology. The former, Peirce said, “is very efficient in breaking up association of ideas.” What surprises is precisely our being shocked by an unexpected experience of reality. The latter Peirce contrasted with belief. Whereas belief was understood as a self-satisfied habit, doubt was defined as the privation of habit, or as that which “really interferes with the smooth working of the belief-habit.” Peirce insisted, however, that genuine doubt exists not in the laboratory of thought, but in rather the uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves in order to pass into the state of belief. As an example of how the experience of the real duality of secondness caused surprises and raised doubts, Peirce described how the subjective idealist walking down the street and musing about idealism is unable to persist in denying the reality of the external world after being staggered by the flying fist of a drunkard. “What has become of his philosophical reflections now?” Peirce asked.
This discussion shows how Peirce understood all knowledge to be fallible yet truthful. Peirce viewed truth as correspondence (propositionally), and that such propositions connect our cognitions with Reality. This was the case as Peirce viewed truth as exclusively propositional. Any real proposition, as a semiotic relation, must be categorically triadic in itself (as a first); a proposition is a sign that stands against an object (a second) and is capable of determining an
interpretation (a third). The interpretation either gets at the relation between the sign and the object correctly or it does not. This is what allowed Peirce to say “every proposition is either true or false.” But because our initial perceptual judgments are vague, they have to be rendered more precise by the many perspectives of interpretation. Propositional signs thus function by addressing and creating in our minds other, more developed signs or interpretations, and so on, potentially ad infinitum. A true proposition, Peirce explained, meant that:
Every interpretation of it is true…When we speak of truth and falsity, we refer to the possibility of the proposition being refuted: and this refutation (roughly speaking) takes place in but one way. Namely, an interpretant of the proposition would, if believed, produce the expectation of a certain description of precept on a certain occasion. The occasion arrives; the percept forced upon us is different. This constitutes the falsity of every proposition of which the disappointing prediction was the interpretant.
This, then, is what allowed Peirce to claim that thought had access to the truth of reality. For Peirce, far from truth being subjective, all truth is supremely objective in that there is a correspondence relation between propositions and Reality. The difference is that Peirce recognized the complex operations of thinking. He understood that the correlation of our assertions with Reality take place not directly, but only by means of a semiotic process of interpretation. This process is a triadic relation between signs, objects, and interpretations, which arise from various experiential perspectives. These aspects of interpretation yield successively more determinate aspects of previously less determinate signs.
Two other elements of Peirce’s theory of truth bears mentioning. First is his insistence that the context of inquiry is always a community of inquirers and never an individual. Although Peirce fully acknowledged the provisional nature of all knowledge, he rejected Kant’s idea that Reality is an unknowable thing-in-itself. Peirce preferred instead to speak of practical (pragmatic) certainty, and to rely on the accumulated wisdom of human experience and the consensus of the community of inquirers to establish both truth and Reality. For Peirce, the Real is that which “sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me or you. Thus the very origin of the conception of Reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of community, without definite limits, and capable of a definite increase in knowledge.”
The second aspect of Peirce’s notion of Truth that needs to be mentioned is Truth as that to which opinion converges over the infinite long run. While Peirce’s use of the word opinion is deceiving in that it connotes numerous possible subjective formulations of truth, it should be noted that any particular opinion is always potentially final. Even if there is the notion of Truth as an ideal limit in Peirce, this does not mean that Truth can never be accessed. Because inquiry is the process of setting beliefs, the process of inquiry can terminate whenever particular questions cease to generate doubt, or when satisfactory answers are formulated. In such cases, the community of inquirers has reached a “final opinion”—which “truths” are usually conveyed in textbooks. The fact that any question may be later reopened by a community of inquirers is evidence that later experience calls into question prior conclusions, and that doubt has once again arisen; this is unavoidable given the fallibility of all knowledge.
To sum up, getting at truth involves logic or reasoning, the continuous fallible activity of a community of inquirers, beginning physiologically with vague perceptual mental signs,
proceeding cognitively via abduction, deduction, and induction to render them more completely determinate, and while never amounting to a direct, one-to-one correspondence between thought and its object, always increasingly approximating this concordance through the potentially indefinite process of inquiry, which terminates when a certain degree of actions is made possible and doubt is minimized. The proof of pragmatism as Peirce understood it, lies in its following the logic of reasoning. This logic enables the community of inquirers to decipher signs of themselves and the world, interpret experiences, clarify meanings, understand intellectual concepts, be habituated to Reality, and apprehend Truth.
5.3 The Entanglement of Logic, Ethics and Aesthetics
In The Entanglement of Ethics and Logic in Peirce’s Pragmatism (pp. 35-39) Rosella Fabbrichesi quotes from Peirce’s First Harvard Lecture, The Three Normative Sciences where Peirce notes that the meaning of a concept does not correspond with what we observe in given empirical conditions (effects that have practical bearings), but with what would be pursued under all possible circumstances in an indefinitely prolonged course of action.
As a theory of meaning, pragmatism is a realist theory in the sense of medieval scholastic realism, and hence grounded in generality, possibility, conditionality and vagueness: “The entire intellectual purport of any symbol consists in the total of all modes of rational conduct which, conditionally, upon all different circumstances and desires, would ensue upon the acceptance of the symbol.” Peirce here is making the point that pragmatism does not teach me that the meaning of a concept can be read in the immediate practical effect it produces, but that meaning must be linked to the entire possible and conditional series of resolutions to act I am willing to put into effect in order to demonstrate understanding of that concept. This cannot refer to any simple action, but to the eventual effectuation of habitual behavior, and no concatenation of actual happening can completely fulfill the meaning of a would be.
Peirce’s pragmatism is the supremacy of the pure possibility of an unlimited totality, something that cannot occupy the arena of experience. So while it is no surprise Peirce binds pragmatism to a form of scholastic realism, this is not to say he considers this logical framework to be based on simple belief or faith.
Fabbrichesi cites another definition of pragmatic meaning found in a letter to Italian philosopher Mario Calderoni. It consists of the conception of what our conduct will be on conceivable occasions, which brings us closer to the “ethical” aspect of his pragmatic doctrine. Pragmatic meaning does not consist of a “fact,” but a habit of conduct. “Theories” are not verified by facts, but exist in a pragmatic context of acceptance founded on a willingness to act in accordance with theories.
Peirce also noted in his Harvard Lecture that, if the meaning of a symbol consists of the way it could make us act, then it is evident this is not reducible to a series of mechanical movements, but refers to an action that has a particular end. Continuity has, therefore, a strong internal, teleological and axiological reference, and pragmatism has to do with the intentions of an action, its ultimate ends, and not with its empirical usefulness. If we are to understand pragmatism “it is incumbent upon us to inquire what an ultimate aim, capable of being pursued in an indefinitely
prolonged course of action, can be” in the long run, which defines the space of public truth and reality as an indefinitely future event.
As ethics is precisely the study of what ends of action we are deliberately prepared to adopt, the pragmatist perspective has an invaluable ethical core. More crucially, “an ultimate end of action deliberately adopted” must be a state of things that reasonably recommends itself, aside from any ulterior consideration. It must be an admirable ideal. Aesthetics then is also entangled with logic and ethics; the boundaries between the three are no longer visible.
It is the great fault of learning today that the sentimental side is kept apart, which is the most important side. It is like wanting a person to come, not with his life but as a corpse, as if in order to educate a person the life should be taken out of him, and he should be turned from a living person into a dead one…What is to be revived in the present generation is the capacity of feeling. It is thinking which is developed today, but what is needed now is the battery which stands behind thought, and that is feeling. –Hazrat Inayat Khan
According to Hillary Putnam, the philosophy of science of the last century can be seen as a struggle to escape from this principle. Philosophers attempted to do science using only a deductive logic (Popper), to justify induction deductively (Reichen Bach), to reduce science to a simple algorithm (Carnap), and to select theories according to an enigmatic set of observational conditionals (Quince). Attempts to reduce symbolic mediation to a formalism (20th century logicism), or to equate the working of the human brain with that of a machine by discrete states (current computational cognitivism) could be added to this list. All these approaches attempt to elude the simple conviction that in every acknowledgment of pure fact there is an implicit value judgment. In every assumption of objectivity, we find behavioral and practical habits of who ever understands it as such. Putnam wonders when we will stop avoiding this problem, and give the pragmatist challenge the attention it merits.
What follows is a direct quote from Peirce’s Collected Papers Vol V.
5.4 The Final Interpretant as Universal Experient
Where in the process of cognition does the possibility of controlling it (critiquing it) begin? Certainly not before percept (image) is formed. Even what follows perceptual judgment (formation of a mental proposition combined with an adoption of it or act of assent to it) seems uncontrollable. If we can critique it at all, that criticism would be limited to performing that act of perceptual judgment again and seeing if with closer attention, we get the same result.
But when performed again, with closer attention, the percept is not such as it was before.
Yet what other means do we have of knowing whether it is the same or not except by comparing the former perceptual judgment with the later one? Therefore I consider perceptual judgments to be utterly beyond control.
It follows then that perceptual judgments are the first premises of all our reasonings, and cannot be critiqued. All other judgments are so many theories whose only justification is that they have been borne out by perceptual judgments. But perceptual judgments are qualia that physicists consider mere illusion as there is no room for them in their theories (if facts disagree with theories, so much the worse for them).
Of course, there is such thing as hallucination (including social hallucination), yet such spectres are not real experience, as real experience is that which forces itself upon one despite contrary beliefs. In such cases a camera can be of service.
Of course, all apparitions are entities (entia). The question is whether they are such as they are independently of any single representation, or if their mode of being depends on abnormal conditions.
But as far as the entire universe of qualia, which the physicist pronounces illusory, there is not the slightest suspicion as to their abnormality.
The next question then is what role qualia plays in the economy of the universe. My reply would be the universe is a great symbol of God’s purpose, working out its conclusions in living realities. Now every symbol must have, organically attached to it, its indices of reactions and its icons of qualities; and such part as these reactions and these qualities play in an argument, that they play in the universe—that universe being precisely an argument.
In the little bit you or I can make out of this huge demonstration, our perceptual judgments are the premises for us, and these perceptual judgments have icons as their predicates in which an icon’s qualities are immediately presented.
But what is first for us is not first in nature. The premises of nature’s own processes are all the independent uncaused elements of facts that go to make up the variety of nature which the necessitarian supposes to have been all in existence from the foundation of the world, but which the tychist supposes are continually receiving new accretions.
These premises of nature however, though they are not the perceptual facts that are premises to us, nevertheless must resemble them. In being premises, we can only imagine what they are by comparing them with the premises for us. As premises they must involve qualities.
As to their function in the economy of the universe, the universe as an argument is necessarily a great work of art, a great poem—just as every poem is a sound argument.
But let us compare it rather with a painting—an impressionist seashore piece—then every quality in a premise is one of the elementary colored particles of the painting: they are all meant to go together to make up the intended quality that belongs to the whole as whole—which qualities result from the combinations of elementary qualities that belong to the premises.
This is what’s known as Peirce’s “forgotten argument for God,” demonstrating a panentheist dimension to Peirce’s philosophy. My sense is that anyone who is able to follow Peirce’s logic (and he is considered by many to be America’s greatest logician), sees the illogic of the materialist position, where memory and qualia are considered illusory. And if you understand the logic behind Peirce’s claim that the interpretant (agent, if you will) in the semiotic process is “nothing human,” it is logical to conclude this final interpretant is akin to what in the east in known as the Universal Experient (See The Doctrine of Recognition: A Translation of the Pratyabhijnahrdayam, by Ksemaraja, p. 103; or Svetasvataropanishad: The Knowledge That Liberates, Devadatta Kali, p. 143-4).
Personally, God has so many conflicting meanings that I prefer Rigden or Drala, as the Bon tradition rests on the razor’s edge between sacred and secular, heaven and earth (and I’ve always found the earth quite heavenly).
The message in our time is the awakening of humanity to the divinity of man. –Hazrat Inayat Khan