Yesterday I was running south on Knox Avenue, past the middle school on my left and a park on my right. I became aware of a male voice yelling, the sound coming from in front and to the right. I looked toward the source of the voice: a guy is standing there looking at me. I keep running, looking toward this guy, when suddenly emerging out of the background visual array I detect an object flying through the air toward me at speed, just about to hit me. Immediately I recognize it as a frisbee. I could have tried to catch it in stride, but I figured that this guy who yelled and who had almost surely thrown the frisbee was probably playing frisbee golf, a game for which the park is equipped. I pulled myself back from the frisbee’s trajectory, letting it sail past me. I yelled to the guy “almost a hole in one,” and ran on.
In an earlier post I presented a brief case in support of the idea that minds and brains have direct access to themselves. Can a case be made that minds/brains have direct access to the real world as well?
Shaviro, in a recent post, writes:
I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.” This is because contact or encounter cannot be reduced to cognitive access. In Kant’s account, we are affected by things-in-themselves, even though we can never know them.
That’s fine as far as it goes: I can get hit by an object even if I never see it coming. If the object hits me without my knowing beforehand what it is, my encounter with it, though direct, will have been only partial: its color, the material from which it’s made, the cause of its specific trajectory — these and other properties of the object would not participate in the encounter. But what if I do see it coming, recognize it as a frisbee, realize that it’s probably going to hit me if both it and I continue on our current paths, decide whether to catch it or to take evasive action? Isn’t my cognitive interaction with the frisbee just as direct as if it had hit me without my knowing what it was? For that matter, doesn’t my cognitive interaction with the frisbee encounter more properties of the frisbee than if it had merely hit my body without my prior awareness?
If it is possible for objects to encounter one another directly, and if cognition is a form of inter-object encounter, then I suggest that it’s possible to have direct cognitive encounters with objects.
One could contend that cognition is indirect because it’s a higher-order processing capability, interpreting perceptual inputs which are in turn mid-level interpretations of raw sensory inputs. Arguably some sort of transformation or translation of inputs takes place at each hierarchical level of the organism’s functioning. However, the relationships between sensation, perception, and cognition aren’t entirely separate and hierarchical. When I see a colorful flat object sailing toward me from the direction of a frisbee golf course, I’m prepared, unconsciously and without sequential delay, to compare the pattern of sensory visual inputs with my stored cognitive schema for frisbee. Cognition emerges bottom-up from sensation and perception to be sure, but cognition also exerts top-down effects on sensation and perception. In fact, this top-down impact of cognition enables the sensory-perceptual apparatus to render even more accurate information about objects than would otherwise be the case.
There’s no reason to reduce cognition to lower-level brain activities like sensation and perception. Minds interact with the world cognitively: that’s what they do. Even if all sorts of transformations take place at lower levels to produce the emergent properties of minds and thoughts, these emergent entities are real in their own right. To contend that other kinds of inter-object relations like physical touching can be direct while cognitive interactions can only be indirect is seemingly to dismiss mind as something less than an object. Either that, or mind must be a qualitatively different sort of object that engages in qualitatively different sorts of encounters with the real.
Isn’t it a variant of idealism to view cognition as being not quite physical enough to touch the real? It’s a sort of inverted idealism, in that cognitive encounters are deemed incapable of accomplishing what raw physicality can achieve in the realm of the real. I am supposed to regard my cognitive encounter with the flying object not as a means of gaining more complete access to some real thing that’s about to strike me, but as a filter or screen that inserts itself between me and the real, blocking whatever direct access I might otherwise have experienced.
Shaviro goes on:
So I agree with Levi and Graham that an object never cognitively grasps any other object in its entirety. (This is what Levi calls epistemological anti-realism). My non-vicarious version of ontological realism consists in claiming that objects do directly encounter (or affect) one another — only they do so non-cognitively. This is precisely why our ontology can be realist, even when our epistemology is confessedly anti-realist.
Okay fine: let’s presume that it’s not possible cognitively to grasp another object in its entirety. But can’t knowledge, like other kinds of inter-object encounters, be incomplete but also direct? Knowledge isn’t only a mechanism for constructive interpretation of the real; it’s also a kind of recording device. If the object had physically struck me it would have recorded one sort of impression, a tactile one. Instead the object recorded cognitive impressions: it’s an orange frisbee, errantly thrown by that yelling guy in the park, aimed not at me but at one of the holes on the golf course.