Cognition & Reality

Friday, 28 August 2009

Wu Li Masters

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 9:25 am

Three decades after it came out, I am finally reading The Dancing Wu Li Masters. The reason I started reading is that I discovered that the name came from discussions the author, Gary Zukav, had with Al Huang, a “tai chi master.” Wrongly, I supposed that the book would be largely about movement when it is actually a history of particle physics. Therefore, I am getting something completely different from reading it than I supposed. (Isn’t that always the case, within limits?)

Anyway, Zukav’s discussion of the explanatory concepts of physics takes me back to my daze in grad school, when I was dismayed at the non-mechanistic–consequently unscientific–approach that had permeated cognitive psychology. Instead of explaining cognition in terms that do not include cognition, cognitive theorists had been seduced by the idea that thought could be explained by “symbols.” Eventually, I gave up trying to persuade folks that a “symbol,” if it is anything at all, is a thought, and therefore not valid explanatory construct in any description of cognition (i.e., thought).

The story Zukav tells is about what physicists were forced to do once they tried to explain how matter exists by addressing the structure of the atom. If the atomic level is the level at which matter is to be explained, a mechanistic description of the subatomic particles that make up the atom cannot include the construct “matter.” At its most basic, an explanatory description of the material world must depend on constructs referencing the non-material. Not only are there the grosser problems of epistemology, clearing the confusion between perception and reality, but there is a problem even more fundamental: If the description can’t include matter, must it not depend on a construct such as “thought” or something quite like thought? What’s left?

What is left? This is, I suppose, the Ultimate Question and the origin of Wittgenstein’s proposition, “That which cannot be explained in words must be passed over in silence.” Somewhere in the mess created when we ask what is matter, the cognitive and material world do not exactly merge, but they intertwine in confusion, mingling indiscriminately.


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