Against the Computer Model of the Mind: Can We Reduce All Properties to Quantities?

Source: Ghost in The Shell.

I. Strong and Weak Representationalism

Despite Western thought’s persistence to the effect, there are nevertheless reasons to doubt the idea that the mind comes in contact with the world through the mediation of a representation. For that matter, there are also good reasons to doubt the idea that the mind is in some way separate from the world– or that it is made of a different kind of substance.

The first idea, that the mind relates to the world via the mediation of representation is in some sense necessitated by the second idea. If the world is made of something different from the mind, then there is some uncertainty regarding the relations that the world and the mind bear towards each other, especially in terms of causation.

Representationalism, which is the idea that the world relates to the world in some cases via the mediation of representations, allows mental entities to in some way relate to entities ‘out there’ in the world. On this picture, non-representational mental contents relate to the world via relation to representations in the mind. The representations themselves are the way that mental contents gain transitive access to entities in the world. Entity x has transitive access to z if x and z either relate or are related to by some intermediary entity y.

There are two types of representationalism that are worth discussing. The first form is the strong form, where the mind relates to the world solely via the mediation of representations. The second is the weaker form, where the mind bears some relations to the world that are mediated via representation, but that it also bears some direct relations.

The problem with weak representationalism is that it is by no means clear how the mind might bear direct relation to the world. If we adopt the stance that uncertainty about the hows or the whys of some proposition motivates rejecting it, then we are unable to defensibly hold the weak representational position. When a proposition paints a picture that is uncertain or unclear in one or more features, and we say this uncertainty motivates us to reject the proposition, then we have rejected it on the grounds of the uncertainty criterion.

Is this condition similar to Descartes method of doubt? It is true that the picture painted by the weak representationalist claim is neither ‘clear’ nor ‘distinct.’ However, if we opt for strong representationalism, then we rapidly find ourselves in Cartesian sceptical territory. If we rejected weak representationalism on the grounds that its own representation of the direct relation between mental and physical entities was uncertain, where does that leave us on the nature of the representations that mediate on either side of the representationalist fence?

If we reject weak representationalism, then representations cannot be physical entities– this would imply that mental entities could relate without mediation to physical entities. Therefore, we need to make representations into a special class of mental entity for the strong representationalist position to remain tenable. They must be special, because they must bear some feature that enables them to directly relate to physical entities without violating the condition imposed by the strong representational claim.

It is not immediately clear what this special condition could be. One possibility is that representations of physical entities relate to the physical entities themselves through some form of resemblance. This would allow the representations to relate directly to the physical world in a way that is directly explicable, and which therefore does not violate the uncertainty criterion.

While it is by no means clear how the representations come to acquire their resemblance to physical entities, this is not strictly necessary in order to accept the claim that they do resemble physical entities. This move is motivated by the vacuum of any other suitable explanation for the relation between representations and physical entities.

II. The Mode of Representation.

Once we have accepted strong representationalism, and once we have accepted that strong representationalism can be explained in terms of mental entities called representations that bear a resemblance relation to the physical entities that they are supposed to represent, there is still an explanation that we must provide, which is the explanation for how that resemblance is bourne.

For strong representationalism, there is only one option, which is that mental entities resemble physical entities is that the mental representations describe similar ratios between extended magnitudes given by the physical entity that they are supposed to represent. This is why Descartes– the premier strong representationalist– referred physical entities as res extensa: the extended substance.

This means that mental entity x is resembles a physical entity y if the ratios of various quantities described by entity x are congruent with the ratios of various quantities given by physical entity y. This condition is quite strict, so we’ll say that x is a representation of y to a greater or lesser degree if x resembles y to a greater or lesser degree. This also entails that mental representations are the sorts of entities that describe sets of quantities.

It also entails that of all the properties a mental representation could describe, they are either explicable wholly in terms of quantity or else are not representative of the physical entities themselves. This leaves us in a potentially precarious position with properties such as color or taste, which are not obviously explicable in terms of extension in the same way as things like speed, texture, or pliability. It leaves us in a much more precarious position with respect to another certain set of properties.

Before describing the nature of that precarity, and the nature of the properties that we are describing so precariously, it will be necessary to describe another important feature of the Cartesian picture.

III. Entities as Independent.

If the res extensa is the entity whose properties are such that they are determined solely in terms of sets of quantities, then it is also true that every single one of its properties is intelligible without reference to any other property or quantity– each of its properties must be intelligible in isolation. To say that a property is intelligible in isolation is the same thing as saying that a mental entity could represent only that property, and no other property in one instance.

This means that for any given instance of res extensa, any singular property it bears can be represented by a mental entity without any other property borne by the physical entity needing to be represented.

This entails that every instance of res extensa is representable without reference to any other instance of res extensa. To say of something that it is intelligible in certain terms is the same as to say it is representable. This entails that every mental representation of a physical entity is intelligible as isolated from any other mental entity, and therefore that every mental representation is independent from any other mental entity.

To say that x is independent from y is to say that x would not change in itself if y were to change. X changes in itself iff one of its identity-determining properties changes. A property P is identity determining if some entity is an instance of type x iff it bears property P (1).

On the Cartesian picture, all identity determining properties are non-relational. If they were relational, then they would not be intelligible independently, and therefore could not be properties of a representation.

IV. Heidegger’s Critique of the Uncertainty Criterion.

Heidegger’s critique of Descartes’ as found in Sein und Zeit can offer us at least three good responses to the account of mental representation given in sections (I – III). One response is that it may be unwarranted to assume the uncertainty criterion. Another response is that it does not allow for the mind to represent entities that bear identity determining properties as given by the relationships that those entities bear to other entities. The third response, which builds on the first two, is that it is not clear how evaluative properties might be reduced purely to quantitative ones.

The second and third responses will need us to lay more groundwork. As such, we’ll just cover the first response in this section.

Regarding Heidegger’s response to the uncertainty criterion, we might make the following argument: in normal day to day life, we assume a mode of relating to our thoughts and experiences that seeks to deal with them on their own terms, and which does not seek to take a special perspective on them. Heidegger suggests that instead of taking our experiences as something to be interrogated beyond their context, they should instead be understood in terms of their ‘average everyday-ness.’

The fact of the matter is that you and I both manage to get along just fine in our day-to-day lives without the certainty that Descartes demands. While it might seem intuitively true that a more clinical perspective– such as the one implied by adopting the uncertainty criterion– might in some sense allow us a privileged understanding of the phenomena we seek to understand through it, it is also true that in day-to-day life, we are forced to accept as true propositions about which we are not suitably certain, and whose propositional content we cannot fully explain.

If we were to take the uncertainty criterion with complete seriousness, everyday life would not be possible– living simply requires us to believe too many uncertain claims in order to function on a daily basis.The assumption of strong representationalism over weak representationalism solely on the grounds of the uncertainty principle may not be as defensible as it seem.

V. Being-in-the-World.

Heidegger’s analysis also affords us a response to the Cartesian picture inasmuch as it requires the identity determining properties to be relationally independent. If there are some entities whose identities are such that they are not relationally independent, then we have reasons to reject the Cartesian picture.

One example of an entity which may not be relationally independent is a hill or a mountain; or a slope, more generally. To an ant, a hill which is easily surmountable within an hour’s walk for a human being is not easily surmountable. As such, given a particular slope, humans might qualify as the sort of beings which could easily surmount it while ants might not. If ease of surmountability is an identity condition for a given slope, which it may be, or if ease of surmounting a given slope is an identity condition for the type of being which surmounts slopes, then we have a reason to reject the Cartesian picture on the grounds that its independence condition cannot be satisfied.

Furthermore, if ease of surmountability is an identity determining property for entities such as slopes, then we may have an example of a case whereby the qualitative reduction condition cannot be met. In the case of a slope of certain length and incline, while we certainly can analyse the properties of the slope in terms of numerical extension and angle from horizontal, these properties tell us nothing about its surmountability unless we reference the sort of being that can or cannot surmount it.

While it may be possible in theory to offer a relational analysis of the extended properties of the mountain in relation to the extended properties of whichever being is proposed as possibly surmounting it, this would likely require deepening the base of knowledge collected via the behavioural sciences to a degree completely precluded by practicality. While it might be possible in theory to quantify the conditions required for evaluative properties like ease to obtain across cases, it is by no means clear how this could be done. As such, claims in favour of a quantative reduction can be suspended as premature, at least.

Footnotes.

(1). In this sentence, I use the abbreviation ‘iff’ twice– this is not a typo. In analytic philosophy, ‘iff‘ is often written in place of ‘if and only if‘: ‘x iff y‘ means if y then x and if x then y.

Bibliography.

Descartes, R., & Cottingham, J. (1986). Meditations on first philosophy: With selections from the Objections and Replies. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J., & Robinson, E. (1962). Being and time. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Further Reading.

Clark, A., 1997, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. (Cbapter 8)

Healthy Self-Criticism, and a Confession.

Man Carving his Own Destiny”, Albin Polasek.

Last week, I wrote a post reflecting on the time I’ve had for reflection given all that’s going on in the world. In that post, I tried to make use of my time by reflecting on the progress this blog.

I found I learned quite a lot by re-covering my work. Just the act of writing little introductions forced me to think about what I was doing. This activity gave me a better idea of what I’m interested in, too. But it wasn’t all sunshine.

One thing that stood out to me about my work thus far was how sloppy, disorganized, unclear and unsituated it was in the wider discussion regarding each of the topics I cover. This realization made me a little bit embarassed. That embarassment quickly morphed into a desire to improve.

Continue reading Healthy Self-Criticism, and a Confession.

State of the Nos, and a Retrospective Review.

Image: Me.

So, in case you haven’t noticed, everything has stopped. It’s surreal. I can walk outside, and I live in the middle of a major European capital city, and I can see absolutely nobody on main street.

We’re living in some pretty odd times. But I wouldn’t say these times were bad for all perspectives. Consider the following: two weeks ago we were living at the height of world technological progress and acceleration. It was the fastest that humans have ever had to be to survive.

It’s a good time for reflection.

Continue reading State of the Nos, and a Retrospective Review.

Etymologies, and the Basic Idea of Embodied Cognition.

St Jerome Reading’, Georges de la Tour. (Public Domain.)

One time, I read this fascinating book titled ‘Metaphors We Live By‘ by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It was recommended to me by a good buddy– who mostly guides my intellectual development by his whims, and who coincidentally suggested the title of this blog.

The central thesis of this book is what I guess you could call the central thesis of embodied cognitive science. This is the idea that cognition is inseperable from embodiment, and that therefore embodiment influences all cognition. It’s sort of like taking Plato backwards.

I won’t go into it any deeper than that. Instead, I’ll just briefly talk about why I like Lakoff and Johsnon so much by talking about my favorite example of their approach to language: their analysis of undertaking a ‘project.’

They suggest that starting a project involves projecting yourself into the future, which itself is intelligible in terms of literally throwing a personal image into a possibility space like a projectile, forwards in time.

They note that this is something only humans can really do in an embodied sense– our closest relatives, the chimps, aren’t coordinated enough to properly throw things at distance. Now that may or may not be so. But it makes a form of sense.

Anyway, I’ve been spending the last few weeks coming up with analyses like these for some concepts I found interesting. Just noting them down in my spare moments. Maybe some will tickle you. I hope they do. They’re basically pretend, but I think all of them have an interesting idea at the center.

Continue reading Etymologies, and the Basic Idea of Embodied Cognition.

Dreyfus on Heidegger No. 4 and 5; also, The Conclusion to This Series for The Moment.

Some Bloke Taking a Stand on a Rock. Image: Caspar David Friedrich,
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

This is going to be my last set of notes on Dreyfus’ lectures for two reasons. The first is that as I go, I’m becoming really vividly aware of how little of this I get, and the second is that I’m not convinced these pieces are going to be accessible enough to be worth putting up. If I’m wrong, and if anyone is really keen for me to keep going, I’d be happy to– but as it stands without any indication that it’s worth it I’ll probably leave it here.

That all being said, I think the content in these lectures wraps up what we’ve seen so far really nicely, and I think if you listened to lectures one to five and read my notes alongside them you would have an interesting experience.

Continue reading Dreyfus on Heidegger No. 4 and 5; also, The Conclusion to This Series for The Moment.

Dreyfus on Heidegger No. 2 and 3; also, Schizophrenia and Addiction as Loss of Contact.

In this post I’m going to cover what I took away from Dreyfus’ second and third lectures on Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s worth noting that a lot of the material he covers in these lectures is prompted by questions from the audience, and so it gets a little bit circuitous.

The following notes are less an attempt to reconstruct the lectures rather than my attempt to take something somewhat discrete and self-contained from them.

I. The World Relationship and Styles of Being.

A lot of the content of these two lectures is to do with the way that Dasein relates to the World. So, rehashing the definitions we explored in the last post, that has to do with the way that personal being relates to and is interdependent with the being that the world has. Dreyfus acknowledges that it will take a lot of groundwork to explain this fully, so it’s worth bearing in mind that the discussion that follows here will only cover certain aspects of the Dasein-world inter-being relationship.

The most explicitly interesting material in lecture 2 regards what Dreyfus calls the difference between Styles of Being and Modes of Being. I’ve written previously on what Fromm calls the ‘having’ and ‘being’ modes, but in Heideggerian terms, these would be styles.

So, just as a terminological point: a mode of being is the difference between Vorhanden (substances), Zuhanden (equipment) and Dasein (personal being, the being for which being is an issue.) A style of being is something like the way that Dasein relates to the world.

Dreyfus gives the example of Japanese and American parenting styles– he cites a supposed ethnographic point to the effect that Japanese parenting styles emphasize a soothing and calming relational approach, whereas American parenting styles emphasize a the formation of an ‘energetic individual.’ Japanese parents apparently tend to place the baby facing upwards in bed, so they can sing to and soothe it, whereas Americans put babies into bed facing belly down, so that they are more capable of walking and wandering.

Now, whether these findings are representative of actual behavior is neither here nor there. The important part is that for Heidegger via Dreyfus, a style of being is expressed in a not necessarily reflective way, and that these styles of being express structures of relationship and value that we inherit or are situated in as a feature of being Dasein. I don’t need to be aware of the way that I put a baby down for it to be expressive of a style of being that I’ve inherited from my world.

At this point it’s probably worth defining some of the relevant features of the world for Heidegger via Dreyfus. Dreyfus cites an example of dialogue from Terence Malik’s film on Heidegger on the difference between the Earth and the World: “The World has people in it, the Earth doesn’t need to.” 

This also gets us into a position to understand another substantial point of Heidegger’s. Dreyfus explains why Heidegger employs phenomenology to understand being in terms of the relation that Dasein bears toward the world, quoting Heidegger: “Being depends on us, but beings do not.” 

This means that the way we relate to beings says something about being as such, and being as such is dependent on us, in that we are Dasein for its nature. 

However, it is important to note, as Dreyfus does, that this does not mean Heidegger is an idealist. Putting it in the terms of mainstream philosophy: there are mind independent substances– this is confined to the Vorhanden. But the nature of an object as Zuhanden is dependent on Dasein for its nature, because the structure of associations and values that imbues the Zuhanden with the nature of what it is– for example a hammer or a horse’s hairbrush– is dependent on Dasein.

There could be no culture without personal beings. Remember: while being depends on us, beings do not.

This leads into an interesting distinction Dreyfus makes between ‘The Physical World’ and ‘The World of Physics.’ While it’s true to say that there are certain practices, values and customs in the World of Physics without which it would not be what it is, it is not true to say that those practices, values and customs also inhere in the Physical World necessarily.

All of this is to say that for Heidegger via Dreyfus, the world is not the world without Dasein, and Dasein is not Dasein without the world. Each part can only be understood holistically, taking the other into account. Unlike as in traditional substance ontology, for example what we might find in Descartes, there is no separation between subjectivity and objectivity.

My culture and my world are interrelated, and they determine my style of being which in turn determines the ways in which I interact with my culture and my world. My culture and the set of my associations determines the way that the Zuhanden appears to me, and the way that I would equip myself with it.

Given, as we saw in the notes for the last lecture, that Dasein is determined by the way it equips itself through the Zuhanden– for example how a Carpenter becomes a Carpenter when he avails himself of hammers and wood and nails– we start to get an idea for how complex and interrelated the structure of being is.

II. Definition and ‘The Existential Analytic.’

Towards the end of the second lecture, Dreyfus brings up a few definitions, that I think it would be valuable to reproduce here. Those definitions are for ‘the ontic’; ‘the ontological’; ‘the pre-ontological’; and of ‘fundamental ontology.’

To say of an aspect of something that it is ‘ontic’ is to say that it is to do with ways of relating to that something that are substance ontological. That’s a really confusing claim.

Basically, I’m thinking ontically about something if I’m thinking about it in terms that Aristotle or Descartes could understand– in terms of a subject-predicate duality. Remember, this is the view of the world that Heidegger is trying to build on; it is not the only way to relate to being, recall from my last post that the Zuhanden is a pretty clear example of being that is non subject-predicate.

To talk about something ‘ontologically’ is to talk about the mode of being it inhabits. If I’m talking about the distinctions between the Zuhanden and the Vorhanden and Dasein, then I’m talking about ontology.

For Heidegger via Dreyfus, to do or talk about something ‘pre-ontologically’ is to relate to something’s mode of being in a sort of naive or initial way. Japanese and American parents treat babies the way they do in a pre-ontological manner.

If they spoke about the differences without reference to the Zuhanden or the world of associations they inhabited, they would be speaking about the ontological– remember, they’re talking about styles of being– in a pre-ontological manner.

Finally, Dreyfus defines ‘fundamental ontology’ as the study of what any ontology is about. So, for Heidegger, his whole project is the project of a fundamental ontology.

Understanding the relationship between World, Dasein, Vorhanden and Zuhanden is understanding being itself, so that’s what Heidegger is most interested in. Remember that ‘the question is being’ is Heidegger’s question.

If we bear in mind that ‘being depends on us’, then you start to get an idea for why Heidegger is so concerned about Dasein and phenomenology. Recall that Heidegger calls the sort of being that Dasein has ‘existentence,’ and you get why his solution to the problem of fundamental ontology is what he calls ‘the existential analytic.’

In order to get to the bottom of what being is, we need to understand the being for whom being is a problem, because all of being being depends on it.

I found this last bit to be very nifty, because it situates philosophy back in the realm of the personal. There is no understanding without the perspective of some whom that understands. 

So far we’ve mostly spoken about material from lecture two, though I’ve gone over to lecture three to find material to fill in gaps I had. So let’s talk about my main takeaway from lecture three now.

III. Coping with The World, and the Affordances in The World.

I’ll want to come back to some psychological theory here, because behaviorism and the ecological theory of perception are two theories that I think are really interestingly related to the concepts of coping/dealing and affordance respectively.

A personal note: I’m realizing more and more that I should just read Gibson on the ecological theory rather than rely on second-hand accounts as I’ve been doing so far. Maybe I’ll write a book review.

A lot of what follows is going to be interpretative and reconstructive– that’s just my style. If you want Dreyfus’ word for word account, the links for the two lectures are in the first paragraph of this article.

For Heidegger via Dreyfus, coping is part of the way that the world determines the being of Dasein. It does this by offering certain affordances, which Dasein is available to avail itself of in order to cope. Dreyfus notes that another way to understand coping is as ‘dealing’, which is another translation for the German term which he does not give. 

So here’s the model: Dasein is presented with the world, with which it must cope. It copes with this world by way of relating to certain affordances in the world. The relation with the affordances themselves are the process of coping. 

Let’s say my world presented me with the need to build a house, assuming that it renders me a carpenter. That means that the tools of carpentry, and the materials with which a carpenter builds a house offer me the affordances necessary to cope with the demands of the world on me by building that house.

In doing so, this reinforces my being a carpenter, inasmuch as I have built the house in action, and now also inasmuch as the world contains in it a house which has the aspect of having been built by me. 

Both my being and the whole world shift in reaction to the coping actions I take in relation to the affordances which the world has offered me. This is yet another area in which the being of the world and the being of Dasein are inseperable.

Dasein is not what it is without the world, and the world is not what it is without Dasein to relate to it.

Okay, so affordances determine coping which determine being. Here’s an example: my vocabulary happens to be quite limited in Spanish, but I can speak a little bit, which means that I can only offer certain types of responses. If we model personality as the range of responses that a person would give– and accepting that would is constrained by could; it can’t be true if I would do something if I couldn’t– then we might say that personality is actually constrained by the range of affordance my world gives me, which means the interplay of the problems I face in the world of Spanish speakers and the equipment afforded me by my knowledge of Spanish.

Coping is what happens when the equipment given to me by my knowledge of Spanish is sufficient to deal with the problems I’m facing.

But in this case, if the affordance of my Spanish knowledge determines the coping strategies I can employ, and in this case the range of coping strategies I can employ determines my personality, then it seems like the world is determining my personality. My available methods of coping determine my being.

Next we’re about to depart pretty substantially from Dreyfus and Heidegger and see if I we can find space for Psychology. If we take something like Skinner’s Behaviourism as a starting point, we can start to say all sorts of interesting things, mechanically speaking, about how the world and the coping relation I can bear towards it determines my being.

IV. Coping and Determining Styles of Being.

Imagine that my world offers me only the opportunity to suffer and the opportunity to avoid that suffering without changing a thing about it.

That’s right, I’m tying Heidegger back into my work in mental health! It seems that my attempt to cope would afford me only certain opportunities. It also seems that coping is the naturally preferential place to be– but we’ll talk more about why that is in my post that involves lecture four.

Take the example of addiction: an addict is in such a world that coping is addiction, especially given the relationship that most addicts have to the helping functions in society or lack there-of. 

The world affords them addiction. It may afford them other equipment, but in the cases of addicts I’ve met, their ejection from society and loss of the cultural machinery that underlies the affordance of more generally adaptive coping strategies means other equipment just isn’t available.

Often, the only world that appears to them is the world of addiction and addicts. Therefore the only equipment they can avail themselves of is the equipment of addiction. So the only kind of existence they can live is an addiction.

From a behaviouristic standpoint, an addiction is a problem because it’s self-reinforcing. It begets itself biologically, but it also begets itself because it removes the addict from any world that might afford them another opportunity. We might say the same of an extreme avoidance reaction.

Consider the theory that trauma is a key player in the aetiology of schizophrenia. I have a few gut hypotheses to the effect that schizophrenia may be related to the divorce of the meaning-making faculty from reality.

Vervaeke would call this ‘the lost of contact epistemology.’

If the trauma hypothesis correct, then schizophrenia involves– in at least some cases– the loss of the ability to adapt models of the world due to the loss of contact in an extreme avoidance reaction, leading to a runaway, rapidly mutating internal model of reality. I feel the need to note that this model of schizophrenia as the formation of an encapsulated meaning-making faculty, divorced from reality initially came to me from the work of Ian McGilchrist.

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the exact same thing over and over, and expecting different results. We might understand this as an inability to update your model. There’s a reason that psychotherapy involves helping the client reflect on themselves– why a very notable mechanism of change in therapy is the insight and perspective the client gains into their own situation.

Here is the bottom line, or the most valuable insight: beware the world that offers you only the option of leaving it, and beware the world that does not offer you the option to leave it. In either case, your optionality is out the window, and with it, so goes your adaptivity.

If you’re stuck in one world, you can’t leave when it stop being an adaptive place to live, so to speak. If we acknowledge that our affordances determine our coping, and our coping determines our being, we should be careful inasmuch as is possible to choose which worlds we inhabit. As I’ve discussed before, we should beware who’s feeding us. Otherwise, we just might end up like Pavlov’s Dogs!

Dreyfus on Heidegger No.1; also, Thoughts on Ecological Perception and Self-Image.

The False Mirror,’ Magritte.

In my sort of quest to understand Heidegger, I’ve been looking for a suitable lecture series. The reason he’s such a live figure to me is that he figures substantially in Peterson’s lectures on personality, specifically in the borrowed notion that Human Being is an essentially purposive being: human being is oriented being for a given purpose, and that it’s better to pick a purpose than have none.

He is also a key resource for John Vervaeke regarding his thought on the Meaning Crisis both directly and indirectly through his student Nishitani. 

These guys get me excited, as longer-term readers will probably know. In order to get properly to grips with them, and also just to check something off my philosophical bucket list, Heidegger now must be pursued and shaken down for all he’s worth. So far, he’s turning out to be more than enough fun to justify the effort.

Continue reading Dreyfus on Heidegger No.1; also, Thoughts on Ecological Perception and Self-Image.

Why Heidegger Needs to Be Impossible to Understand, and Why it Might be Worth Calling Things The Wrong Name.

I.

I’ve been spending the last few weeks working through Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s fascinating, but also super difficult to understand.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to understand is that Heidegger insists on inventing specialist terminology. I really understand the motivation behind it, which is that language can often obfuscate the truth of Being if Being is seen only through the lens that language allows, but I also think it might be worth trying to get some of his ideas out in plain-er English.

Instead of talking about some of his ideas, it’s probably worth puzzling over the idea that language can obfuscate Being. But first, let’s see what he means by ‘Being’ as opposed to ‘being/s.’

For Heidegger, Being-with-a-big-B is something like ‘what it is to be.’ It’s something more and also something less than just ‘the sum of all the beings.’ He sees it as the main thing worth investigating, because it seems to be the thing that is always relevant to any investigation, but which has been mostly ignored since Plato’s Sophist and Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

Now, on to justifying all his weird mystical terminology.

II.

From the perspective of cognitive theory, more specifically map theory, we get an idea of the relationship between a representation and the represented. The phrase the map is not the territory is an expression of the idea that we might potentially confuse the representation of something with the thing itself. Kant figured that we could never understand the thing in itself because the way it presented itself to us always alienated it from us. The noumenon is always separated from us by the phenomena.

For Heidegger, there’s a real worry that language will separate us from the phenomena. The language at fault is the language of an outdated Philosophy. Heidegger would claim that the ontologies of the past– the metaphysical attempts made by previous philosophers like Descartes– ran us down a track of thinking which was a sort of dead end.

It’s no secret that Philosophical terms like ‘essence’; ‘category’; etc., end up working their way into every-day language. For example, the English ‘idea’ finds its origin in the Greek ‘eidos’, which originally expressed something like ‘the view of x’ where x is whatever the eidos is of.

If that’s true, and if a particular language implies a particular mode of looking at the world, then we ought to be very careful with the language we use when we’re asking questions about really fundamental topics. The more fundamental a topic is, the less we can allow external preconceptions to influence us. Speaking metaphorically, I suppose we need more sensitive instruments to examine more fundamental topics: in the same way we need an electron microscope to examine very small objects, we need a very clean language to examine topics like Being.

But it’s not at all obvious why language needs to be especially clear in order to talk about Being. I’ll have to admit this is where my understanding starts to break down, but I’ll try and make my best argument to see what I can come up with.

As far as I can see, Heidegger emphasises language free of preconception because he’s trying to avoid invoking any particular ontological perspective. If Metaphysics asks questions like ‘how many kinds of substance are there?’, then Heidegger is asking questions that are really quite prior to that. Let’s say that there is some set of specialist vocabulary A, and some set of specialist vocabulary B, and that using either of those sets of specialist vocabulary seems to prompt you to view the world from the perspective of the group of people who originated either set.

An example of this sort of arrangement might be Marxist and Capitalist ways of viewing the world. It seems to be the case that really committing yourself to understanding Marxist concepts prompts you to view the world in a Marxist way. If we accept the Marxist definition between use-value and Capital value, for example, then we’ll start to experience the world in those terms. If we start to look at the world in terms of marginal gains, expenditures and over-heads, then we’ll start to see the world in Capitalist terms.

These is somewhat like Heidegger’s idea of handiness. For Heidegger, an object is handy if I relate to it with a particular purpose or essence involved. It’s handiness is the function it presents itself to me as having. Heidegger probably invented the ecological theory of visual perception.

Chairs are handy, and so are any people that I bear determinate relationships to. This isn’t to say I objectify people, just that I relate to them in such a way that their value to me cannot be divorced from how I experience them. Chairs are handy in that I set in them. People are handy in that they tell me good jokes and might want to share dinner with me. The potential actionality of something can’t be ignored when I relate to it, or when I relate it to someone else.

A bar of chocolate on a table is edible. That it’s edible is unavoidably part of the way it presents itself to me. If the same bar of chocolate was in an unbreakable box of transparent material, it would become some sort of odd art installation, and it would cease to present itself to me as food. But if that same box also had a hungry child in it, the same chocolate bar would present itself to me again as food, but simply for someone else. In the third case, it presented itself as food to me again because it presented itself as food to someone else. The actionality of the child affected the handiness of the food.

The language available to me affects what I can pay attention to. If you have ever studied anatomy, then you’ll know about the strange and pleasing sensations of realizing that your body is far more detailed and intricate than you ever realized. It’s quite possible that this changed your perception of yourself. Perhaps it made you more aware of the relationship between your emotions and your body, or perhaps it made you more calm in general.

If this happened, then it’s because the your body presented itself in a different way to you. If that was so, then the way the world presented itself to you differed. There is a connection, then, between the maps of reality that are entailed by our vocabularies and the way the world itself emerges.

The problem with Being is that it neither is any being, nor is directly apparent. That means to get an idea of it, we have to look at all the beings very closely and carefully. If our linguistic tools aren’t up to snuff, we’re going to miss detail in the phenomena; we’re going to have wrong ideas; or we may accidentally conflate categories that are distinct.

III.

Now, this was my best attempt at justifying Heidegger’s odd use of language, and it strikes me as somewhat odd that I’ve done so by being simultaneously very sloppy with my language. If I’ve been able to do that, it’s probably because Heidegger’s thinking was so clear in his invented terms. It’s also worth noting that I’m stealing perspectives and arguments from Logical Positivism and Wittgenstein, who I see as taking a very similar approach towards a sort of conceptual sensitivity in language.

One interesting question for Science would be to ask whether the ways we label things actually affect the implicit predictions we make about those objects. For example, in a priming paradigm: if I convinced you that there was such a language wherein children were called ‘dogs’, would you be less amused by the child barking due to some judgement on an implicit level? Would the presence of the child in a glass box with a Frisbee change the handiness of the Frisbee?

Or another fun possible experiment, slightly less ethically dubious, and also possible less related. I’m including it because I think it would probably be interesting: we could spend a whole day teaching participants to use the wrong words for things, and then put them in time-limited situations where they had to be able to quickly reach for a particular object. For instance, we might put a knife, a lighter, a fan and a bottle of water in front of them, and then teach them to habitually use the term ‘water-bottle’ when they mean ‘lighter’ and vice versa.

I’m not sure what my hypothesis here would be. One question to examine would be whether or not it made any of the participants anxious on some level to put a water-bottle next to a big puddle of conspicuously flammable material.

If this experiment were to shine any light on Heidegger, it would probably be because I had completely misunderstood him. I’m just going to put that out there now.

But in any case, these are not questions for Philosophy; these are questions for Psychology– or perhaps, if you want to be fancy, Cognitive Science. That means trying to do hypotheticals on them is a waste of time. As it stands, nobody will give me volunteers to lie to or children to lock in glass boxes. Instead, I’ll just have to hope that someday, someone else is more able to persuade an ethics committee to let them have those things than I am.

IV.

One final note: it wouldn’t be one of my essays if I didn’t recommend an experiment at the end.

I was recently reading Impro by Keith Johnstone, which is full of interesting exercises designed to prompt you to drop the sort of overly restrictive cultural-cognitive-affective bondage that he figures school imposes on you.

The one I found most valuable was to go around for about ten seconds shouting out the wrong names for things in a room. It’s really simple. Just go around for ten seconds and call things whatever they aren’t. I called a lamp a Fishman, and a punnet of cherry tomatoes were simply ‘Sperm.’ The point isn’t to make sense. In fact, the point is probably to try and suspend sense in order to see what you can learn about it.

You will probably realize something about just how tenuously words are related to ‘reality.’ Or maybe you’ll just call a punnet of cherry tomatoes ‘Sperm’ and feel like a real wanker afterwards. Who knows?

What’s most interesting is that he claims that you’ll get a little giddy and that the colors in the world will seem somewhat brighter and more saturated at the end. In my experience, and in my partner’s experience, this was absolutely the case. I would encourage you to try it, just once or twice. He claims that he can produce this experience in his students, but then that might just be suggestion.

This sort of discussion does make you wonder whether those Zen types like Dogen were on to something when they advised us to ‘think not thinking.’

Live Optionality, and The Wealth that Matters.

Previously, I’ve written about what happens when you don’t have anything to believe in, and how poverty can deteriorate into something much deeper and more torturous than just a a lack of money. But I think there’s also something to prompt the deterioration more than just not having enough money as such. I think purpose factors into it. I also think it’s difficult to sustain a purpose if you aren’t regularly making live choices.

I’ll talk about what I mean by live choices in a second. If you are in any way familliar with William James’ notion of live optionality, then suspend your previous understanding of the term because I mean it slightly different.

Did you know that in the UK, if you have saved up more than ten-thousand pounds, depending on a number of factors, your benefits will get cut off? That means your social care will be cut off, because nobody will be paying for it. It is also substantially more expensive than you will be able to afford. Your housing might be in jeopardy depending on how you came to occupy it. That means sometimes, people have to spend their money on things they don’t want or need so they can keep living. From my perspective, that’s somewhat surreal. If you’re on benefits for whatever reason, and your cost of living is such that you build up a surplus, you must always consume a little bit more so that you don’t run up too much of a surplus.

I’m not telling you this to highlight how bad some societal problems are. I’m telling you this so I can segue into a discussion on the relationship between meaning and wealth.

Continue reading Live Optionality, and The Wealth that Matters.

Beware the Optimization-Effiency Constraint! Also: A Hope for Freedom.

I.

Here are some ideas to play with: that culture affects thought through language; that culture can be impressed and enforced in relation to some incentives; that culture is incentivized to impress certain modes of thinking, speaking and being in order to reinforce its own position. These are all sort of standard moves if we’re talking about ideology.

An example of how culture might impress itself on your thought is as follows. You might work in an organizational environment in an entry-level role. In plain English, there are some consequences of that. You’re expected to shut up on things you aren’t qualified to discuss, and you’re expected to learn a sort of organizational argot. There are enough pieces on “Business English” to nauseate a world, so I won’t bother writing this piece to add to those.

I also don’t want to argue whether or not “Business English” as a plain example actually affects anyone body and soul. I think the claim that language affects how you behave and thing is actually uncontroversial. For those who doubt me, here is a way you can test this: learn another language, and then see how your personality changes in that language. I learned Spanish, and I found that I was arguably a distinct person when speaking in Spanish. The relationships I built in Spanish and what sort of nonsense I got up to ended up forming a distinct personhood.

So we’ve heard an example of a distinct culture, and we’ve heard about how a distinct language might affect a mode of being, but how might a distinct culture impress a mode of being by a language? That’s a somewhat slipperier contention.

Let’s see how a mode of being can be opened up by learning a new language, as impressed by a culture. When you learn about anatomy, you are shown a language for describing the parts of your body. As such, you get the opportunity to become more aware of your body. If you take advantage of this opportunity, then you end up with the desired outcome. I don’t see how this could be anything other than positive, other than that it might end up distracting you from other things.

One way a culture could alter your mode of being then, is by incentivising you to acquire a knowledge of anatomy, which would lead you to developing a familiarity with your own anatomy. I suspect medical students have this experience, but I can personally confirm that students of partner dance or athletic pursuits like martial arts or rock climbing are also incentivised to acquire this sort of knowledge. The way that the culture around these activities incentivises certain knowledge is simply that they incentivise excellence in the pursuit. If the pursuit is such that familiarity with your own knowledge makes you better at it, then you’ll acquire the knowledge. That will lead you to acceptance and a sense of accomplishment and so on.

A discrete example: all of the above pursuits require you to get acquainted with the fine muscles in your abdomen and legs that allow you to balance. They also require you to get acquainted with your startle response and your anxiety response, both of which will throw those fine muscles and the awareness you need of them to havoc.

Those are all very positive ways that a culture might affect your mode of being. You could say the reason we trust culture at all is that culture is actually a fantastic transmitter and motivator when it comes to acquiring useful modes of being– or skills, I guess you could say. If you’ve ever tried to teach yourself something and then realized how much easier it is to learn something when embedded in a community dedicated to learning that thing, then you might have an inkling of what I mean. It is simply much easier to muster the dedication required for skill acquisition if there is some external motivational support. I won’t say reward as such, because I don’t know if anyone pursues the activities we’ve been talking about so far for just social acceptance. If anything, social gains seem like supplemental gains.

But what about those skills you pursue solely for social gains? I’m somewhat reluctant to call them skills at all. But take the “Business English” example. If we model language acquisition as a skill, then learning how to speak “Business English” is a skill. It’s socially incentivised, that’s for sure. If you don’t have experience of this, just consider any organizational culture you’ve had to learn to fit into.

The question I want to ask is: is there any danger to acquiring these skills? Is it possible to reduce your mode of being by acquiring easy or comfortable ways of thinking implicit in these skills? As I write it, it sounds a bit alarmist. Instead, perhaps it’s more worthwhile to consider how to sidestep possible pitfalls, and what those pitfalls might be.

Let’s consider a general principle of economy: if you can do something more easily, then you will do. Is this true of your emotional or being oriented habits? Let’s consider emotional avoidance as an economic tactic. If you model yourself as having a finite amount of emotional resource, you might tend towards becoming emotionally avoidant as a way to protect yourself and maintain your integrity.

This is where the danger comes in my mind. Let’s think evolutionarily about the cultures and linguistic patterns that emerge in

A quick example of “Business English” in an odd context: I once heard a colleage talking about ‘actioning’ a problem in a procedure. This was noteworthy, because it seemed to abstract away what was actually happening. To be precise, we were talking about ways to make sure we were adequately safeguarding our clients, many of whom have mental health problems or learning disabilities. While I don’t think the effect I’m talking about was present here– namely that emotional reality of the situation seemed present to my colleague– it does make me wonder whether there are cases where we might tend towards thinking in abstract ways as a technique of unconscious avoidance.

II.

When I talk with my friends about eating the rich, I am always cautious. I don’t want to blame money-hoarding Capital holders. The reason for this is that I am certain I would feel an unbearable temptation to do exactly what they’re doing in those situations where they’re doing it.

Let’s always bear in mind a principle from Evolutionary Psychology: the human organism did not evolve in a socio-cultural context like the one we currently live in. If we look at the meaning of the term Anthropocene, the academic facon de parler that dubs our current geological era, we can start to understand just what an odd pickle we’ve got ourselves into, speaking in terms of resource.

For the longest time, mankind was made for the flow of resource. The flow of resource was not made for mankind. This is now, to an extent, no longer the case. The relevance here of these ideas is to illustrate that the people on the top of our social structure may have unconscious mental maps of resource in terms of uncertainty and uncontrollability. This means that they may be far more likely to hoard than is warranted by their wealth. This may go doubly if we considered which types of people are most likely to become Capital holders in the first place, who I would suggest have a tendency toward conservative behaviours.

It would be odd to have acquired and stockpiled a large amount of money if you didn’t want to do those things, and given that you exist in a world that has people who do want to do those things, it’s likely difficult to acquire a large amount of money unless you do things that specifically optimize for acquiring large sums of money at the expense of other things. Casualties of this process might be social or emotional well-being, or time to pursue creativity, or other human goods.

I think the central Marxist thesis, or at least the one which appeals to me the most, is that the problem with Capitalism is that it ends up producing a system in the end that actually does incentivise against human goods, and instead results in an all-or-nothing, where you have to either commit entirely to money or not at all.

Basically, I’m trying to say that I feel sorry for the people who compulsively hoard money. I’m also trying to say that they likely suffer from an extreme over-specialization into modes of thinking and being that optimize for money generation and not much else. In the past, when I’ve spoken to successful middle managers, I’ve often been shocked by how little they knew or did that wasn’t related to the promotion of their own image.

It didn’t seem to be something I could justifiably be sicked by, because it seemed like it was a survival-critical strategy for them that they couldn’t shut off. It also seemed like they didn’t have much of anything else to offer.

From a Cognitive-Behavioural standpoint, a personality disorder can be understood as a pattern of adaptation that was at one point useful– likely during the course of an incredibly traumatic early life. If we took the same sort of perspective towards people who happened to have a particularly acquisitive or conservative nature, who had then been railroaded by the way Capital abstracts possession-value from use-value and trapped in a particularly empty mode of being by the process, then it gets a lot easier to feel less scorn for those who have much.

We might want to say that people like these have been trapped in a cycle by the optimization-efficiency constraint. This constraint might turn up in any system where scarcity is a problem, or where it is a perceived problem.

I’m not saying all people who have large amounts of money are like this, only that some seem to be. I could see myself falling prey to this sort of cycle if I wasn’t careful.

III.


What if there were more conservative ways of thinking or being with our emotional resources, assuming that we view ourselves with the ego-depletion model? Well, one way I could think of would be to avoid developing modes of being that we were weak in, and where the expected rate of return was low. That would lead to the sort of overspecialization of self that I was talking about in the earlier part with middle-managers.

The problem with expected values in considering personal development is that what you value changes with the sort of personal experiences and transformations that you undergo. For instance, I value a stable relationship and community substantially more than I used to. You could account for that in terms of my ageing and becoming more mature, but I would be reluctant to accept that explanation– you can see plenty of exceptions to it. Plenty of people never end up with that sort of view, despite all the age and maturation they acquire.

Let’s round up again: so far we’ve spoken about how language and cultures can affect modes of being; we’ve spoken about how the impressions of culture on modes of being can be really beneficial; we’ve played with some examples of how modes of being might be bad adaptations; we’ve seen examples of how economically conservative behaviour might trap us in bad modes of being; and we’ve seen that transformation in modes of being across time might change what we value, and therefore what we aim at.

So here’s the kicker: if we’re incentivized to develop poor modes of being, for example in an organizational context; and if we lose the opportunity to develop compensatory modes of being as a consequence of economically conservative modes of behaviour such as emotional avoidance, then we may put ourselves in a hamstrung position, where all we can safely optimize for is more avoidance.

Which sounds hellish.

IV.

So what are our routes of escape? As far as I can see, there are at least two useful personal virtues that help us avoid these problems. The first is self-awareness, and the second is focus. The importance of self-awareness is that you can’t correct what you don’t know is a problem. Things that don’t hurt don’t get changed. The importance of focus is that it is often very painful to acknowledge personal failures. It is much easier to ignore problems than to acknowledge them. But remember that this means overcoming the detrimental effect of Capital and the optimization-efficiency constraint. That’s motivational enough for me.

As far as I can see, contemplative practice is the best option for developing both of these traits. However, there are many, many problems that I can see with contemplative practice as it’s currently presented via marketing and understood in the West– the culture which is patient zero of the optimization-efficiency constraint.

I don’t want to criticise traditional forms of meditation as practised in Eastern cultures, or the mythological-cultural structures that animate them. I don’t think that from my current historical state of consciousness I could ever understand what the texts mean. In fact, that’s related to the problem. Those ideas emerged in at a specific point in history, and are completely divorced from the history of thought that I was raised on, and that is implicit in both of our modes of being, given that you’re reading me in English.

Instead I want to offer a very simple set of instructions I’ve been playing with. They work a treat for me. The idea of these is to interrogate them and to experiment. But bear in mind that they will likely be uncomfortable at first. The main aim of the instructions is to practice resisting the optimization-efficiency constraint, and to get proficient at it in a habitual way. In doing so, you’ll have to develop both self-awareness and focus. You’ll develop self-awareness by being forced to examine yourself implicitly by the activity itself, and you’ll develop focus by doing something difficult that you’ll have to continuously recommit yourself to doing.

Maybe these ideas won’t make sense at first. If so, go try this and then come back and read them again. Remember, the ultimate goal of this practice is to weaken the need to serve the sense of scarcity within you. If you try this, you ought to do it in the spirit of freedom.

I do also want to note that I am suspicious of “Mindfulness” as a cultural movement. This isn’t because there’s anything wrong with Mindfulness as a personal quality. Saying that would be silly. I try and cultivate it myself, and I find it deeply rewarding to do so. My problem is just that “Mindfulness” has become an excellent buzzword. It has been appropriated by a profit machine disguising itself as good organizational practice in some cases, and by a profit machine disguising itself as a healthcare system in others. That’s all I want to say on the matter, as plenty of interest has been written on it lately.

V.

Back to the instructions. You might find these familliar.

1. Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit. Grab some cushions if you want. I use a meditation cushion called a zafu. But make no mistake, I am not sitting Za-zen.

2. Assume a sustainable posture. That means a soft and ‘S’ shaped back. There are plenty of guides on good sitting posture in the world. If you don’t know what good posture is, go research it. The posture needs to be sustainable, because you are going to be sitting in it without movement.

3. Set a timer for twenty minutes, and put it nearby. Don’t look at it, no matter how much you want to. that would count as moving.

4. Set an intention with yourself. Say to yourself ‘no matter what happens, I will not move.’ Be ready to be gentle with yourself– you’re probably going to move.

5. Focus on your breath, and do not move. You’re going to really want to move, but don’t. Get used to choosing not to. Keep doing this until the timer goes off. If your attention goes somewhere else, bring it back to your breath. If you can’t bring it back, let it go where it goes.

6. Be grateful. I like to bow until my head touches the ground. I’ll explain why later.

You might have suffered the entire time, thinking about all the tasks you have to complete, or the fear you have about your career, or the lack of money in your bank account, or how little you’ve done in your life to meet your parent’s expectations. But for at least those twenty minutes, you resisted the urge to react.

You might be full of thoughts, or you might not be. Either is fine. Eventually, you’ll probably experience what it’s like to not have any thoughts. That isn’t the point. Don’t think that’s the point. That being said, it’s nice while it lasts– and you might say that it’s one the few ways you have to break from ideology.

These instructions might sound familiar, and that’s because they probably are. Don’t think about them too much. The main idea is to get used to feeling your own body, and all of its urges and fears. There is absolutely no substitute for doing this if you want to understand how to free yourself from the awful structures of optimization we live in.

Don’t think of this practice as meditation– it isn’t. And don’t think of it as ‘mindfulness’ either. Both of those conceptualizations trap you in an ideological structure. I have plenty to say about mindfulness and the way it’s been appropriated by Capital, but I’ll save that for another day. Whether it’s Buddhism, or Taoism, or Zen, or Capitalism, or whatever. I don’t want my body and soul to be a slave to a structure of ideas, nor their optimization constraints. So let’s not adopt too many ideas around this practice if we can help it.

I would suggest doing it every day. I do it twice a day. I really don’t like the feeling of being a slave to scarcity. But I do really like the feeling of freedom from slavery, even if it’s just internal. Additionally, remember the hellish picture we painted in section II, about the money-oriented slave to the optimization-efficiency constraint? Well, you can take my word for it that practising this will make you less likely to become that guy, at least so long as you do it right.

Bear in mind that I am not a meditation teacher, and would not be accepted as anyone of any value by any existing spritual tradition, probably.

If you do this for long enough you’ll probably have periods where it feels really good. If you do it long enough, you might also have lots of really weird emotional disturbances. Hopefully those lead to some productive self-inquiry. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also have humongous periods of ego-inflation that make you think all sorts of weird things– that’s why I bow every time I’m done, to counteract those tendnecies. But remember: I don’t know, I’m not a doctor.