Cognition & Reality

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Grocery Store

I have finally got round to reading The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand. It’s about William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and the development of pragmatism as an American philosophy. Of course, it’s interesting, but the most fascinating thing about it is that I’m learning that I, and others, have been reinventing pragmatism as a sort of adjunct to radical constructivism. The central point of pragmatism is that our thoughts are only thoughts, and any theory about the world is only a story made up of selections from individual experience. So much for ideas. So much for theory. For example, as one passage in the book explains, legal arguments about liability identify causal chains of events, although such chains are actually fabrications based on a given point of view.

In this connection, consider my experience of going to the grocery store and its relationship with what “actually happens” at the grocery store. There are typically dozens of people in the store, most or all of whom I do not know and do not know me. There are the clerks, to whom I am perhaps familiar in a shadowy sort of way if I frequent that supermarket. Other than that, it is rare for me to see anyone I know. The other shoppers and I are, in effect, independent observers of the events occurring before us. We all literally have our own points of view because we’re all standing in different places. Furthermore, we have come into the market carried along by our own stories about ourselves and our intentions in being there.

Let’s say I report to you about what it was like at the store. All I can tell you is a story entitled “My Visit to the Supermarket.” I can tell you the route I took around the store, what I bought, the number of people who were there, etc. If I were to give a detailed account, it might contain my impressions of my fellow shoppers, some of them at least, the number of checkstands that were open, the produce prices, the level of illumination, and the temperature in various parts of the store. What is the relationship of my report, however detailed, with what happened while I was in the store?

To begin with, there is  the question of events that happened while I was there, but that I did not or could not witness, such as the actions of shoppers in aisles I was not in when those actions occurred. Furthermore, my personal account must be silent regarding the experience of everyone else in the store, even supposing that one or two people spoke with me while I was there to comment on events as they happened. The chance are, moreover, that I would not appear as even a minor character in the report of any other shopper about her or his “visit to the supermarket.” As an expert in eyewitness testimony could tell you, if a crime had occurred while I was in the store, and I saw it happening, my report about it would vary in many details from the reports of other eyewitnesses. Even supposing that a crime did occur, and statements were taken, those statements, taken together, would still not constitute an account of what was happening, in total, within the store at the time I was there. Many more things than the crime were happening at any instant.

So where does this leave us? There was no place to stand in the store, no point of view, that would permit the creation of an individual report accounting for everything that happened during my visit. Standing in any place precludes standing in any other place. If we were to discuss what “everything that happened” means, we would find the same problem at another level, because your ideas about what constitutes a “fact” or “event” will almost certainly be at some variance from mine. For example, everyone in the store was breathing: Does each  inhalation and exhalation count as an event? Does every step that every shopper took? What about changes that were occurring at the molecular or atomic level? When asked what happened in the store, we might say, “God only knows,” and in some systems of philosophy the meaning of “God” is the point of view that sums or integrates all possible points of view. Were such a God to exist, however, neither you nor I would have direct access to her “experience.”

Let’s chew on that for a bit.


Sunday, 26 December 2010

Advaita Teacher

Filed under: Advaita,Perennial Philosophy — drtone @ 11:33 am

I can’t quite remember what my Googling was about, but I stumbled on a video of a guy in Vancouver named Burt Harding. He’s somewhat eccentric, but what do you expect of a guy who attributes his inspiration to a vision of Ramana Maharishi that came out of nowhere. Harding’s big ego provides an instructive contrast to his teachings about the ego, reinforcing rather than negating his words.

I also like his formulation “Human Being.” I am a human (who is) being. At once, it emphasizes the illusory nature of the individual and the existence of a real experiencer, giving another perspective on Ramana Maharshi’s injunction to ask, “Who am I?” The “human” part cannot do anything but struggle. Our only choice, as Burt Harding says over and over, is to recognize that we cannot choose either to struggle or not to struggle, because we are Being Here Now. Apprehending our own existence is all we can do.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Can Do Better?

One formulation of  behavior is that we are all “doing the best we can” at all times. There is some good there, recognizing that everyone, all the time, is adapting to circumstances. Nevertheless, “the best I can” presupposes a range of effort (or some other quality) that could be occurring now, although NOW does not accommodate a range of anything, but only only what is happening. Thus, I am doing the best that I AM doing, because I am doing what I am doing and nothing else. I AM THAT I AM, as the god of the desert says.


Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Love Of The Self

Filed under: Advaita,Non-Dualism,Perennial Philosophy — drtone @ 6:29 am

“Replace self-love with love of the Self and the picture changes.”–Nisargadatta

Does this mean than self-nurturing is misdirected?

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Dualism Versus Dualism

Filed under: Advaita,Non-Dualism — drtone @ 10:46 am

I’ve been contemplating the difference between Advaita, the non-dualism of Vedanta, and critiques of Cartesian dualism. I wonder whether questions about the distinction between the individual and Whole connect with the continuity of mind and body, as it applies to mental and physical health. Alternative medicines of various types and some approaches to psychology take for granted that a distinction between mind and body obscures the basis for dis-ease.That distinction does not seem to be the same or similar to the distinction between Atman and Brahman. I realize I may have conflated these concepts, and I wonder whether it matters.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Dualism And The Closed System

Filed under: Advaita,Non-Dualism — drtone @ 6:48 am

Some time ago, I was searching for workshops on hypnosis. To my surprise and satisfaction a link from “Milton Erickson,” the name of the most famous of clinical hypnotists, took me to a site called “Radical Constructivism.” Mainly, the site discussed the implications of the idea that experience is a construction emanating from a closed system.

As I read, I found myself thinking, “this applies to Piaget.” Practically in the next instant, as I shifted to another section, I read something like, “These constructs obviously connect with Piaget’s work…” More to the point, I ended up on a page dedicated to the Chilean who won a Nobel for his breakthrough work on frog’s eyes (yes, the study of frog’s eyes can get you a Nobel Prize…if you’re a fucking genius neurophysiologist.)

A 1978 book chapter by Maturana had as much influence on my own ideas as anything I have read. When I began to read it again, I realized that I had forgotten how ridiculously hard he is to read. Although he writes fluently in English, it’s not his native language; the idiom sometimes escapes him. The real problem is that his sentences leave no stone unturned in an attempt to address a legion of potential criticisms. Anyway, he long ago began extending his scientific work into the area of human interaction, but without abandoning any of the principles guiding his science.

As Piaget understood, a dualistic ontology does not withstand scientific scrutiny and collapses when it comes to explaining consciousness. Maturana offers a non-dualistic explication of these problems and he offers a solution…in horribly complicated but ultimately lucid sentences.

According to Maturana, experience is a function of a biological organism existing as a closed system interlocked (but not interlaced) with a “medium” (defining world). The mind is in a self-organizing entity comprising all of its possibilities, including those that appear to be “outside” the organism. An organism out of balance with its medium adapts in characteristic ways, but is in increasing danger from excessive accommodation to environmental perturbations.

There are strong connections, as well, between this “package”of ideas and the Advaita school of Vedanta (HInduism). Both reject the notion of a discontinuity between the physical and the mental.  It has become a commonplace that the mind-body distinction is empirically unsupportable. Ordinarily, this recognition is applied to medical issues in the sense that mental states affect physiology. The question here is, however, much deeper, because Maturana, Piaget, and the Advaita masters, such as Ramana Maharshi and Nisigardatta, make claims about the whole of experience.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Silence

Filed under: Advaita — drtone @ 10:03 pm

This evening I’ve been reading about Nisargardatta and Ramana Maharshi, in both of whom I was interested for a while in the early 90s. One thing that comes across is that being in the presence of one of these masters ls the essence of the teaching. Although the silence of “I am” radiates everywhere, those in the vicinity of one who lives entirely within the silence might be distinctly aware of it.

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