Ktismatics

13 August 2009

Ontology of Epistemology?

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:10 am

As far as I know, only creationists, panpyschists and solipsists content that outside reality is contingent on consciousness. Realists and antirealists alike distinguish between reality and epistemology, between what reality is and what humans can know about it. But the human ability to know is real in its own right.

What happens when some aspect of reality enters into my conscious awareness? Say I realize that it’s raining outside. It was already raining before I realized it. I might even have been subliminally aware of the sound of the rain falling on the windows. But now that sound has crossed the threshold into consciousness, and I think: it’s raining. The rain has now had an impact on my consciousness. I don’t have to create a mental representation of the rain, so that a mental image of the rain is created in my mind as a sort of shadow reality. My consciousness operates as a kind of rain gauge: its change of state — a new awareness that it’s raining — points to the presence of something real happening in the world. The rain registers its already-existing reality by changing the state of my conscious awareness, just as it did earlier to my window and to my auditory sensory apparatus. The rain has extended its sphere of influence, the extent to which it makes differences happen in the world.

The rain causes these changes of state in the world, but the changes happen to the window, to my audition, to my consciousness. The window is percussed and covered in water; my ear and brain hear new sounds; I think a new thought: these changes are real and distinct in their own right, apart from their common cause. In its interaction with the external reality of the rain, my consciousness demonstrates its own reality.

This description regards consciousness as a kind of object, a recording surface not unlike a window. And in many ways the brain is that sort of object — a congeries of neurons and synaptic connections physically located in the central nervous system. But consciousness isn’t just the static state of the brain; it’s more like a device that keeps track of changes in brain state. Some of these brain-state changes are triggered by changes in the state of the environment. Changes in brain state result from changes in brain processes: the auditory sensory input triggers activation of the “it’s raining” thought that’s already associated in the cerebral network with this kind of sound. Of course consciounsess often takes a more active role, but a major aspect of its own reality is its ability to detect external reality.

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33 Comments »

  1. I appreciate your quest here, I’ve studied Buddhism lots this year and kept knocking into the problem of whether things exist or not, it’s a hugely complicated matter. I’m learning that this is also a hairpin turn in philosophy. In Buddhism, the world is described as emptiness, and nirvana is the conceptual understanding of reality as emptiness coupled with a direct experience of phenomena as emptiness. Sound becomes one of the key examples of teaching the emptiness of phemomena because it’s emptiness so apparent.

    I should probably keep quiet until I have organized my thoughts more, as you are doing here so well. But just want to say that I’ve considered the mind that represents reality to us as a sort of holographic emulsion wherein we try to grasp the essence of objects that are portrayed in that emulsion as if they have a true existence. And yet, they also have a true existence, or else we couldn’t talk about the same things. So I think we have to walk the middle road of absolute truth (emptiness) and conventional, finite truth (stuff,) and how one manages to do that is something I’m not the least bit equipped to explain except to say that we have to accept paradox and faceted, contradictory truths with very subtle facets. The beauty of this is that it allows us to take responsiblity for how we experience things and so master our minds, perhaps for one person rain is a source of happiness, another a source of aggravation, but each one would like to tell you what rain “is” because we are all unconscious practitioners of what Buddhists call “self-grasping.” (awkward term – still looking for alternate wording for that, it’s the idea that when we grasp at the meaning of things we are really only encountering the mere appearances of things to our minds, we’ve mistaken reality for appearance.) If that’s not enough, we then indulge ourselves in reacting to our experience as if it’s essential reality, pathetically boxing with shadows, writing off quadrants of the “real,” arrogantly dismissing them as somehow unsavory.

    My apologies for attempting to take your well worded philosophical inquiry into the realm of the mystical, if that’s a problem for you, I understand, just delete this comment. Like you, I’m trying to reconcile contradictions within schema the I’ve been fortunate enough to learn. I’m also frustrated with the limitations of “continental” philosophy, and wonder with curiosity why one never comes across the word “wisdom” in any of it.

    Comment by Amarilla — 13 August 2009 @ 8:05 am

  2. Oops, mucho pathetic grammar up there in my comment. Haven’t woken up yet this morning.

    Comment by Amarilla — 13 August 2009 @ 8:22 am

  3. John: “As far as I know, only creationists, panpyschists and solipsists content that outside reality is contingent on consciousness. Realists and antirealists alike distinguish between reality and epistemology, between what reality is and what humans can know about it. But the human ability to know is real in its own right.”

    Kvond: I know that you are not in love with my Spinoza references, but I have to correct something in this first statement. Spinoza is a panpsychist, but he does not make reality contingent upon consciousness, in fact most panpsychist positions do not do so. Panpsychism in the most general sense is simply the contention that all things think. This does not make reality contingent upon thinking at all. But, as in Marx so in Spinoza, there is a concrete consequence for our illusions and imaginary relations.

    Comment by kvond — 13 August 2009 @ 8:39 am

    • I just knew this opening sentence wouldn’t stand unchallenged, kvond. I could have said “some” panpsychists, but that wouldn’t have as much punch. Is there a sense in Spinoza that all things think because God is thinking through them, God being thinking itself? And if the mind-matter duality is dissolved, doesn’t matter itself become imbued with this universal thinking-force, as a sort of materialization of thinking? If not, I suspect you’d agree that at least SOME panpsychisms hold this position.

      Comment by john doyle — 13 August 2009 @ 9:28 am

  4. Which panpsychists are you referring to?

    Comment by kvond — 13 August 2009 @ 9:31 am

  5. It’s another interesting alternative you bring up here, Amarilla, that difference and materiality are illusions on the unenlightened mind. The Western mystical tradition, of which I was once a practitioner, isn’t quite as committed to the Buddhist view here, but merging with the One is definitely the direction they’re taking. It’s funny, but when we were talking about music and catchiness and so on, I found myself captivated by this old song playing on the radio. “Everything emptying into white” soon manifested itself for Cat Stevens as Islamic mysticism.

    Comment by john doyle — 13 August 2009 @ 9:36 am

    • That’s interesting. That reminds me of a good friend who wakes up to terrifying nightmares where she can’t see anything but white light, and my son, who once woke in terror telling me of his “lightmare.” Does anyone really want to give up their anchoring in the finite, even with all its pain, and free fall into the infinite. It’s a rare individual I think.

      Comment by Amarilla — 13 August 2009 @ 11:43 am

  6. This is what you described: “Is there a sense in Spinoza that all things think because God is thinking through them, God being thinking itself? And if the mind-matter duality is dissolved, doesn’t matter itself become imbued with this universal thinking-force, as a sort of materialization of thinking?”

    Because I don’t know how you are qualifying your terms, I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t know what “imbued with thinking” means. Do you think this means that matter is kind of soaked in thinking? I don’t know who holds this position, a panentheist perhaps. But this isn’t panpsychism in the general sense. Being a “materialization of thinking” does not mean “is a thinking thing”.

    Comment by kvond — 13 August 2009 @ 10:00 am

    • Panpsychism, per Wikipedia, “is either the view that all parts of matter involve mind, or the more holistic view that the whole universe is an organism that possesses a mind.” If matter can’t exist separate from mind, then the real is contingent on mind, no? If you like, Kvond, feel free to skip the first sentence of the post, or to disregard the word “panpsychists” and stick with “creationists and solipsists” — this wasn’t the focus of my attention. I’m mostly looking at blurring the line between what is and what is known, which topic I take up in the second sentence.

      Comment by john doyle — 13 August 2009 @ 10:18 am

  7. You read “possesses a mind” as somehow that a mind is independent from its materiality, as if the “the mind” is like an object. Where as the usual thought is that “possesses a mind” means simply “can think”. But thanks for the wikipedia reference.

    And thank you for the permission to skip the first sentence of your post, or words therein. I’m sure you realize that readers a priori have this permission not only for first sentences, but more, no reason to grant it. If you are simply saying that you are a bit unfamiliar with panpsychism, that’s okay too, (but probably there are better ways of admitting such). The point wasn’t to chastize your use of the word “panpsychist” but rather to seriously engage the thought you brought up, which included the exclusion of a panpsychist solution to the epistemology/ontology divide. The truth is this exclusion is not only unwarrented, but also in my view a problem, because the panpsychist position actually solves the difficulty quite well. This is shown I believe in difficulty Levi has in holding onto his notion of Epistemic Fallacy (is that what he calls it?), and his Spinozism. Quite simply put, if all things think, then any epistemic act must be read as an ontological act.

    There is some debate over just what Panpsychism is, and perhaps there are forms of it that match up with what you are trying to argue for. You may find some interest in the new book edited by Skrbina, for which Harman even contributed an article: http://books.google.com/books?id=R6fNPulyndcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Mind+that+Abides#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    Comment by kvond — 13 August 2009 @ 10:36 am

    • “You read “possesses a mind” as somehow that a mind is independent from its materiality, as if the “the mind” is like an object.”

      No, I’m saying that, as I understand some variants of panpsychism, matter cannot exist independently of mind, that raw matter cannot be disconnected from mind. I’m not saying that matter results from mind: that would be creationism or solipsism. I’m not “arguing for” any version of panpsychism, or against any version either for that matter. I’m mostly just setting it to one side for the time being. Creationism offers a particular solution to the ontology/epistemology divide too, but I’m arguing neither for nor against creationism either in this post. Thanks for the link to the Skrbina book.

      Comment by john doyle — 13 August 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  8. Interesting comments regarding Buddhism and mysticism.

    As I understand it, here are a few things that many (though not all, of course) Buddhists and mystics tend to agree with:

    1–All things are interconnected. No being is independent. What one does is effected by myriad events before and has myriad implications for all other beings. The famous “butterfly effect.”

    2–All things are in flux. Everything is constantly changing. There is nothing in this world that is absolute. For Qohelet (Old Testament, Ecclesiastes) this is “hevel,” variously translated as “vanity,” “futility,” “meaningless,” etc. “All is vanity, a chasing after the wind.”

    3–One of the keys to enlightenment is to understand that there is “no self.” Or, in Christian mysticism, the “death to self.”

    The Buddhist doctrine of “no-self/soul” or “Anatta” does not deny consciousness, rather (as I understand it) the general thrust is to deny that anything in our consciousness is actually permanent. When this mystic/spiritual insight is fused with modern psychology, such thinking tends to focus on personality. We are not to be equated with personality. Suffering, mental distress, psychological disorders, etc. stem from equating our identity with our personality. We are not other than personality, but we are not identical with personality. That’s one way of putting it.

    This little bit from wikipedia is helpful, for further clarification:

    “Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent entity that remains constant behind the changing bodily and non-bodily components of a living being. Reportedly, the Buddha reprimanded a disciple who thought of consciousness as a permanent substance within a person. Just as the body changes from moment to moment, so thoughts come and go; and according to the anatta doctrine, there is no permanent conscious substance that experiences these thoughts, as in Cartesianism: rather, conscious thoughts simply arise and perish with no ‘thinker’ behind them.”

    I think many Christian mystical traditions go different directions from Buddhists, saying that the death to self means going a bit further: union with God. But, then again, if “God” is the oneness of all things, then some Christian mystics wind up in the same place, I think.

    The helpful point that applies to this post is that in mystical traditions, this world is not necessarily an “illusion” to be transcended. As far as “consciousness” is concerned, the point seems to be primarily psychological: deepen one’s consciousness, develop and practice awareness and mindfulness. All things are one, that is, there is no Cartesian duality of subject-object. Yet we experience life as a subject-object duality. Amarilla, this is where I find continental philosophy to be helpful, at least those that follow Heidegger in breaking down the subject-object dichotomy. From a philosophical perspective, the Cartesian dichotomy generates a good deal of unnecessary philosophical problems. From a mystical perspective, this subject-object duality is something that keeps the psyche/soul/mind steeped in illusion.

    Comment by Erdman — 13 August 2009 @ 11:26 am

    • Thanks, Erdman. There’s interesting parallels to the death of self in Hinduism. I’m thinking of Kali with all her knives, the belt of skulls around her waste, representing all those identities (loaded with lies about who one is) that limited the freedom of consciousness. They are remnants of human ecdysis. Those skull bowls, too, are such beautifully rich symbolism for thinking beyond the head, and many other things.

      Comment by Amarilla — 13 August 2009 @ 11:50 am

  9. John: “No, I’m saying that, as I understand some variants of panpsychism, matter cannot exist independently of mind, that raw matter cannot be disconnected from mind.”

    Kvond: And why would this mean that the mind is independent of matter?

    Comment by kvond — 13 August 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    • It doesn’t, and I don’t recall saying that it does.

      Comment by john doyle — 13 August 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  10. John: “It doesn’t, and I don’t recall saying that it does.”

    Kvond: What you said was that such a panpsychism makes “outside reality is contingent on consciousness”. What seems implicit in this statement is that mind is NOT contingent upon (independent of) matter, but only the reverse. Its hard to tell though if this is precisely what you mean because while are are at pains to describe the dependence of matter (“outside reality” as you called it) on mind, you leave out the relationship between mind to matter. The two other examples you put panpsychism with, Creationists and Sopilists, EXPLICITLY take questions of matter to be dependent upon mind.

    But if you take mind to be just as equally dependent upon matter in the panpsychism you imagine, where do you find the epistemic/ontological divide to be inadequately addressed? Or, to put it another way, if mind is indeed dependent upon matter, doesn’t the whole idea,

    “My consciousness operates as a kind of rain gauge: its change of state — a new awareness that it’s raining — points to the presence of something real happening in the world. The rain registers its already-existing reality by changing the state of my conscious awareness, just as it did earlier to my window and to my auditory sensory apparatus. The rain has extended its sphere of influence, the extent to which it makes differences happen in the world.”

    fit perfectly within such a panpsychist position?

    Comment by kvond — 13 August 2009 @ 12:51 pm

  11. “What seems implicit in this statement is that mind is NOT contingent upon (independent of) matter, but only the reverse.”

    That’s not what I had in mind, either implicitly or explicitly. I was merely identifying one commonality among three different kinds of position, even if these positions differed significantly in other ways. I was presuming that in panpsychism “outside reality” — i.e., outside the human head — isn’t reducible to raw matter, but that it’s an inseparable amalgam of matter and thought/mind.

    “doesn’t the whole idea… fit perfectly within such a panpsychist position?”

    That’s an interesting possibility, kvond. As you’ve observed, I’m skeptical about non-sentient things and beings and forces thinking. When an outside force/object registers its presence in my conscious awareness, would you regard this as evidence that that force/object is thinking in or through me?

    Comment by john doyle — 13 August 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  12. I’ve written about it a number of times, perhaps this is the most condensed version of the panpsychist “difference that makes a difference” approach to “all things think”: http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/02/01/the-ens-reale-and-the-ens-rationalis-spelling-out-differences/

    But I take it to be the case that any determiantive, organizing patterning activity of a “thing” (that is, the refusal of PURELY passive states to matter), IS thinking. Whether this patterning/organizing registers on my consciousness or not doesn’t really matter. But the very connectivity between the two presumes this essential thinking substrate. And it does so in two ways. 1) epistemically we affectively process all things as if they possess SOME form of agentizing, or active force; 2). Rationally there is no grounds by which to deny this categorical activity, nor by which to attribute a perfect passive status to a “thing”.

    Now, once we have accepted that all things “think” to some degree, whether that thing is “thinking through me” is another question, and I would have to have a more precise notion of what this phrase means. The Renaissance panpsychist Tommaso Campanella did have the rather interesting thought that in order for me to know anything, I have to literally become it, be transformed into it. Therefore he presaged Descartes “I think therefore I am” with “To know is to be”. Perhaps this would be a useful way to think about things “thinking through, or in” us.

    Comment by kvond — 13 August 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    • “determiantive, organizing patterning”

      This includes all self-organizing systems that manifest patterns other than those already expressed by the component parts and processes? E.g., the self-organization of water from hydrogen and oxygen and energy is a kind of thinking?

      “we affectively process all things as if they possess SOME form of agentizing, or active force”

      So recognizing that I can’t fly suggests to me that some force is actively keeping me on the ground, and this is my recognition of some sort of thought acting on me in this way?

      Comment by john doyle — 14 August 2009 @ 7:23 am

  13. Though it’s very peripheral to your main point, you did mention creationism in that interesting first sentence… so, God created a reality and introduced us to that, so we, in turn, being godlike in some sense, now create our own meaning and reality. It leaves a gap though as the ‘old’ ex nihilo seemed to point silently to the possibility that what was created may still be imbued with and organically grounded in god the creator. That, I guess, approaches Spinoza and leaves the Buddha to contemplate the emptiness of his/her/its own navel…

    Comment by sam carr — 13 August 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    • Yes, it’s an interesting creation story, Sam. If Yahweh had given birth to the universe, then it would have carried his nature in its genes so to speak. If Yahweh had created the universe as an emanation of himself, then the universe would be God. Speaking things into existence — “let there be light” — seems to impose a gap between creator and creation, as you imply. But do all words carry the power of authorial intentionality in them, such that they are an extention of the author’s will into the world? That’s what I was exploring in the preceding post on the song wanting to be sung. You’re suggesting that the will empowering language transmits itself into the recipient, not just as compliance with that will (“and there was light”) but as a continuing transmitter of that will. So the light would, through transmission of godly agency and power, become in itself a force in the universe. An interesting speculative theology, Sam.

      I’m not sure, but does Buddhism contend that the illusion of materiality and difference is a result, a projection, of human self-deception? That would make Buddhist cosmogeny a variant on solipsism.

      Comment by john doyle — 14 August 2009 @ 7:31 am

      • In Buddhism, things exist but not in the way you think they do. The opportunity is to get very familiar with one’s mind, so that one can stop confusing the reality with the way it appears. Reality is beyond the reach of our conceptual minds, beyond the reach of reflective thought. And yet we never cease in trying to grasp it. But we have intuitive flashes of truth, called prajna.

        The story of the blind men and the elephant makes this point very well. I think that’s a story told by Sufis, not Buddhists. No one religion owns wisdom…

        Comment by amarilla — 14 August 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  14. Thank God Erdman is back with the line of the week,

    All things are one, that is, there is no Cartesian duality of subject-object. Yet we experience life as a subject-object duality.

    Our VISION of life is ”imbued” with duality, we constantly seek to stitch together, to finish the story, to close the window,
    but the wind keeps blowing from cracks and openings. However in God Himself, in His Person, there is no duality, no splitting,
    no conflict, only endless plenitude. When we bleed after our vision is opened, we do that to ourselves, it is not God, who is making
    us bleed. For me the ending of Inland Empire is the possibility of leaving that regret, that guilt, which confines us to
    repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

    Comment by Dejan — 14 August 2009 @ 9:57 am

  15. So, where does Lacan land on this topic of dualism? Or realism versus anti-realism?

    What is Lacan’s view of Buddhism? What about Freud?

    Comment by Erdman — 14 August 2009 @ 8:21 pm

  16. Christians, Buddhists, Spinozans, Lacanians — my oh my. Most of the mystically infused trajectories see subjectivity permeating whatever processes and objects there are in the universe. My sense of the posthuman alternatives is that they’d like to minimize or eliminate the subject. I regard the subject as a fragile and tenuous membrane poised between and emerging from object and process, something that’s continuous with what preceded it but that’s still unprecedented in our corner of the universe. Modernist attempts to bolster the subject have burdened it with unnecessary baggage that’s rightfully being chipped away. Maybe the subject will survive the onslaught leaner and meaner, more aware of its limitations but at the same time more maneuverable and improvisational in its efforts to align with and to deflect the larger forces in which it’s immersed. What do you think: is the individual human subject worth preserving?

    Comment by john doyle — 14 August 2009 @ 9:34 pm

    • Yes. This is what I think and very well said.

      Comment by Carl — 16 August 2009 @ 1:31 pm

  17. John: “What do you think: is the individual human subject worth preserving?”

    Kvond: No. Not in its usual conception.

    Comment by kvond — 14 August 2009 @ 9:38 pm

  18. Kvond, have you been following this series of posts on a Spinozan Christianity?

    Comment by john doyle — 15 August 2009 @ 6:39 am

    • No, I haven’t. But now having read it, I’m not sure where the Christianity comes in, other than perhaps that the author somewhere else argues why she/he is a Christian.

      Spinoza has a problem with the Christian conception of epochal punctuated time.The only way that one could argue any Christian principle would be that the Christological occurs at each and every moment, and not when Jesus died.

      Comment by kvond — 15 August 2009 @ 8:25 am

  19. I suppose one can’t be both an orthodox Christian and an orthodox Spinozan. The other day I went through the earlier posts in the series, and as I understand it Miller is proposing that the continuous burgeoning of life in all its multiplicity all derives from the One. It is this flux of life that should be regarded as the ongoing gift of God — as grace. I’ve not seen Miller put forward an explicit Christology put yet.

    The most recent post proposes that Christians adopt a Spinozan sort of ethic along these lines. You are always in the stream of grace, which will happen whether you want it to or not. If you allow these events to dictate your emotional response, then you’re enslaved to the world. The ethical response is to separate what comes along from your affective reaction; and to accept the events that life throws at you as they come, regardless of whether it meets your expectations and desires. Then accept what you cannot change, change what you can, and thereby find some gracious ethical happiness in the world. Erdman spoke commendingly of this last post, so maybe he’ll return with some thoughts. Is this how you understood Miller’s ethics post? Is it compatible with Spinoza would you say, kvond?

    Comment by john doyle — 15 August 2009 @ 9:47 am

  20. Yes, I can see the sense of a Spinozist interpretation for a constant availability of opportunity for salvation or redemption through exceptance of determinations you have no control over, but even more so in the change in mind, the reactive way that the mind is conditioned to hate (and love).

    But with Spinoza there is always a cognitive attempt to change, whereas “grace” is strictly something passively received.There are elements of this perhaps, but mostly this is something Spinoza is against the notion of passively receiving anything.

    The biggest conceptual problem with Christianity I think would have to do with the notion of Time, and the centrality of historical Christ:

    Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready.

    John 7:6

    Spinoza would embrace the second of these two, but perhaps difficulty with the former.

    I write on this with some reference to Christianity and Milton if you or your readers are interested: http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/06/03/the-unrare-assemblage-and-implicate-power/

    The “Messianic” is an interesting subject for a Spinozist, in particular because Spinoza lived at a time when many of his Jewish community actually anticipated the messiah, or even believe he was living, Sabbatai Zevi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbatai_Zevi

    So the messianic in times of great troubles and prophetic signs was something that Spinoza was quite well aware of. For some thoughts on this, and the context of this question:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/06/06/spinoza-and-the-caliban-question/

    [Sorry to be always referencing my own posts, but it seems to best way to leave doors others can walk through if they wish, if they find a chain of thought interesting. Part of the blessings of hyperlinked thought]

    Comment by kvond — 15 August 2009 @ 10:09 am

  21. Ktismatic,

    You know, I’ve not read or study Spinoza, so I can’t really weigh in on this one with any amount of competency. However, I do think there is something to the brief outline you presented. I’m sympathetic to it.

    Comment by Erdman — 18 August 2009 @ 2:30 pm


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