Tag Archives: philosophy of mind

Twenty. (An anniversary retrospective.)

Today, May 20th, marks the anniversary of my life’s work. Twenty years ago, I set myself to developing a philosophy that I called Promethean, or Prometheanism. Today, composing Promethean philosophy is still what I do.

But many things have changed. To explain some of that, I feel like I probably have to set the stage just a bit.

When I started in 1998, I was writing with the internet audience in mind, which was then select, relatively-educated, and worldwide. Back then, online publishing was a frontier that required web design. It was before blog software. It was before social media sorted everyone within their culs-de-sac. In fact, the usual types were hand-wringing about the “digital divide” of access, not-yet universal, seemingly unaware that mainstream crowds can ruin anything special. Back then, many people actively surfed the web looking for interesting, random, and challenging reading, as well as stupid humor. (That was always there.) Scattered individuals who were motivated to learn and interested in a better future were excited to have the means to connect and congregate. I was unapologetically talking to this forward-looking elite—of all ages, socioeconomic classes, and origins—who were looking for enlightenment, and eager to participate in a renaissance.

Promethea.org maelstrom

The “maelstrom” theme I designed for the Promethea.org web site in 2000.

I wrote and published multiple articles and essays on the web, and especially created novel, illuminated presentations for a website called Promethea, including The Promethean Trilogy, which began with The Promethean Manifesto, the genesis of all Promethean writing of mine. I worked on e-books/series on subjects like the economics of liberated society, critiques of naive faith in democracy, the importance of typical philosophical errors, and prospects for ending war. One goal was to try to build a cross-disciplinary Promethean movement.

You see, back then, with enough talent and very little money, you could create and publish, and people would come. Intelligent people would read it, and converse with you. You weren’t competing with billion-dollar corporations for mere seconds of attention from millions of eyeballs. It was a promising time, but it didn’t last very long.

As of 2004, when everything unique and thoughtful was getting lost in an interminable internet, I began to shift my emphasis to writing paper books, instead.

Photo on 2011-12-22 at 06.02

Checked-off proofreading edits in a printed draft of Pyramid of Babel, December, 2011.

I spent about seven years, on and off, on the great project of writing an unpublished novel, called Pyramid of Babel. I’m proud to say that Pyramid of Babel turned out both provocative to the conventional tastes and temperaments of those who follow along in society—as a novel of ideas ought to be—and unique, as I think a great novel ought to be. It did not fulfill my goal of breaking in as an author, however, so that I could get other books out there. If I had known the dire state of the industry, its rigidity of genres, its sanctimony, and its gatekeeping by agents, it’s possible I would never have adopted that plan—prioritized the novel, bet on success, and sacrificed so much as I have in order to create it. That would have been a shame, artistically.

Pyramid of 5 Aspects of Pyramid of Babel

I made a Pyramid of the complete draft.

Along the way, I also finished and self-published a collection of essays in 2008 called Rising in Words.

I also wrote a lot of material for 2 or 3 important but unfinished nonfiction books. The lion’s share consisted of 1) research to flesh out a cybernetic attractor model of personality and mind, while 2) working to articulate it with the wonder and clarity of the best popularized science writing, so as make it understandable to as many interested people as possible—the closest thing to a user’s manual of the human mind I would ever try to write. I don’t work on it consistently these days, but I have plans to do so again, when the course of writing The Constellation of Man leads me back to the part where I have to work out how to communicate these same mental attractors that we all demonstrate.

Another batch of work laid out my sociological theory of the anti-social origins of conflict, not in Paleolithic human nature, but in historical-era hierarchical institutions, which empowered psychopaths and narcissists. (A subject also intended for a vid-doc script on Myths About Human Nature and War.) Part of the argument would be an evolutionary one, accounting for the presence of these sub-types. And, a perhaps-separable book built on overlapping research would emphasize psychopathoid personalities in modern society over their origins.

At some point I began writing some entries on this blog, Wisdom Dancer. I don’t entirely remember why, except that I needed a place to talk about process, and journal, and vent, basically (as opposed to my “real” writing). I did all that of elsewhere, first, and then gradually migrated here. Happily, I left social media behind.

Currently, I write material primarily with The Constellation of Man (formerly Prometheus Redux) in mind. This evolved from early efforts in The Promethean Trilogy to invent new kinds of philosophical literature, better able to tell a story about reforming and rekindling humanistic values. (Actually, Nietzsche beat me to it.)

thinking-through-philosophy-tpm

February, 2013

I have many emotions as I look back on twenty years of personal history as a philosopher, a creative artist, and a dissident.

I have thought and written across boundaries—for instance, between social criticism, philosophy of science, humanistic psychology, cybernetics, anthropology, political science, history, education, epic literature, and mythology, with enthusiasm for fusion. I’ve held no more regard for artificial academic boundaries than the artificial boundaries of government, or moralism, or collective divisions, which I have repeatedly written against. As a result, I have often found that I fit nobody’s expectations, and fit in nowhere; and that I make impermissible, unpopular arguments. I do not regret it. Taking sincere advantage of freedom of thought is highly likely to have genuine social and economic costs, not only in facing off with institutions and conventions, but with herd-minded people, and those simply ill-equipped by their institutions to recognize (and value) a wider breadth of thought than their conventions. Again, I do not regret it.

The large majority of what I have written remains unpublished—some of importance, unfinished. The weight of potential hangs over my work, as I do it; I rarely have the satisfaction of completion and feedback, and have never had the feeling of success. It was not a journey I embarked on for attention or reward, although I intended to have more of an impact. It has certainly not been a journey I have continued because any project has, so far, really accomplished what I set out to do. These days, I often have to think that I write for the future and not the present. I continue because the work itself compels me, or needs me. It still fascinates. It still frustrates. I could say that I continue to write because I am a philosopher, and I cannot be someone else.

I can, all at the same time, appreciate that I have made much progress over the years as a writer of philosophical literature. Mastery does not come easily, and it is never finished. Abilities and efficiency go through ups and downs, not continual improvement. But once in a while, usually by sticking it out through many trials and errors—as well as through the marvelous leaps of imagination—the writing does play out as it feels like it was meant to, and fully satisfies even the perfectionist in me.

I will always have mixed feelings about testing the lines between epic accomplishments and impossibilities. I cannot be satisfied with less, in any case. I will always have that kind of ambition.

Regardless, I figure that twenty years of shouldering responsibility in a cause I am truly proud of, and have never compromised—and 20 years of labors, undergoing some immense challenges—well deserves a bottle of Lagavulin Scotch whisky. So that will be my toast tonight. No lamentations for what might have been.

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Notes on Vol II, on the occasion of writing “Apprehending the God”

In this post, instead of showing an excerpt from The Constellation of Man, I write about some of the ideas behind a whole volume of the project.

It is not so much that I am obsessed with human nature, although as a general subject this has been of recurring preoccupation and serious interest to me. I have been obsessed with humans’ lack of understanding of their natures, and their dismissive attitudes toward “human nature”—indeed, their very poor appreciation of the problem—and the reasons for this strange state of affairs, as well as its consequences.

(Why “strange”? To quote a line from my notes: “Perhaps it is strangest [and most indicative] of all that the mere fact of acting out human nature does not make human nature more understandable to a human being.”)

This leads to writing a great deal of material that goes in two directions:

1) Exploration of human nature, and attempts to characterize it more accurately.

2) Description of human ignorance surrounding human nature, and examination of the many errors that have mischaracterized the creature called Man.


A brief elaboration on the first aim:

  • Exploration of human nature, and attempts to characterize it more accurately.

For example: working on more useful philosophy of mind, suitable for living people who do not delight in rehashing artificial thought experiments. (I could almost say, a replacement for “philosophy of mind,” at this point.)

In the nitty-gritty end of applied scientific speculation, I’ve done considerable (unpublished) work over the years to devise psychological models to describe the human mind, which, among other avenues of improvement, address holistic deficiencies in cognitive, computational, or functionalist models of the brain, mind, and human evolution. My guidances in that kind of endeavor include the interrelationships (feedbacks), complex adaptive systems, attractors, etc. talked about in cybernetics, complexity, and systems theories. These are great sources of analogies and metaphors for leaping past folk intuitions, too, so they work as explanatory models on more than one level of precision.

Other guidance for reforming an impression of human nature comes from physical anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, ethology, personality theory, and the logic of evolutionary selection. Much more is known of human breadth than human origins, but a more accurate characterization must jibe with both. I take a syncretic approach, willing to find useful information or inspiration from virtually anywhere. I believe that the narrowness of most (academic-specialist) approaches has neglected to connect many dots between areas of evidence that have been described, and between new models for thought that have been available, in modern times.

The connective speculations of Darwin, of Gregory Bateson, and yes even of sometimes-reductive or mystical psychologists like Freud and Jung inspire me to think that a science—that is, “organized knowledge”—about mankind has not only room for synthesis, but great need for it; a holistic creature wants “big,” holistic, interconnective theory, like: the project of making new maps of Man (or more precisely, Man’s mental navigation) and for Man to make better sense of himself.

(At the risk of a great digression cut short: keep in mind that noteworthy attempts to draw maps of Man didn’t have to be “correct”—if we could even reasonably impose that expectation—in order to goad others to explore fertile directions. A map only had to describe new, or seldom-visited areas—or approaches to human nature—concretely, so that other map-makers could follow; construe unseen moralities, infer subjective preferences in economic activity, delimit types of personality, or graduations of consciousness, etc., etc.)

Such grand endeavors have passed out of fashion in a world of specialists, although I think it is telling that many academic specialists write books to claim an overarching significance for their version of what their own speciality has to say, without really doing the work to draw from other disciplines and points of view as though they deserve care and attention.

I close the subject of characterizing “human nature” with an appropriate caveat, taken straight from my notes:

Human nature expands too far into horizons for one perspective to take it in, or for one state of mind to hold it. Therefore human nature plays elephant for the blind man. Each observer claims that the beast is something else.


And with that, I move on to the second direction my writing has taken:

  • Description of human ignorance surrounding human nature, and examination of the many errors that have mischaracterized the creature called Man.

I cannot summarize an explanation here for the shallowness with which most have approached the problem, and regarded themselves or others as far more transparent than would be intellectually responsible. I will just say that a proper accounting ought to cover far more than traditional theologians’ negativity, or the historical influences of casuistries, that closed minds on the subject instead of opening them. And a systematic accounting—of these and many other reasons for ignorance—is arguably of secondary importance; when I choose to go into them in the book, it is primarily an assistance to illustrating the fact that people do habitually underrate matters of depth and complexity about “who they are.” In this I include “people” whose business it is to know better.

Pointing out that people fundamentally do not understand themselves (personally and generically) seems to me to be of the greatest importance. The pretense of knowledge, amidst ignorance, affects everything—personal attitudes about self, imagination of society, and the deep pessimism felt about the human condition and human potential.

Laying this out is the best kind of problem-solving I know to address so many soul-wrenching “I am lost,” or “we are lost” lamentations about self, or society. Many adverse conditions tend to be seen as inherent or essential problems, or natural to living, that—to the contrary—issue from dysfunctional approaches to having a human body and undergoing the experience of a mind, without a user’s manual.

I don’t intend to be able to offer that “user’s manual,” or minimize the difficulty of encapsulation. Few of us have adequate respect for the mysteries that we still represent, and that we are part of. Many of us have had the arrogant expectations of understanding or closure, and that is part of the message I am intent to get across.

Sometimes, frequently perhaps, it is possible to problem-solve dysfunctional approaches to living with a graduation of knowledge that realistically admits human nature. More-realistic characterization of human nature obviously enables spelling out more of this kind of prescriptive humanism. But, even when ameliorative knowledge is lacking—or I don’t have it, in order to write about it—there is still the mystery to admit.

And the restoration of wonder at a mystery in itself serves as an emotional, spiritual remedy, for those who had demoted human life on Earth. The absence of understanding that human beings have need of feeling profound, and participating in “divine” mystery, is another kind of “dysfunction,” another kind of ignorance about the human race.


Thus far, the second volume of The Constellation of Man looks like it’s shaping up to unite both of those two projects and fascinations about human nature. Special focuses will include:

  • the emotional reach of “nature,”
  • the mentalities of “mind” which are not limited to abstract intellectual systems,
  • the ambiguous power and mistrust of the unconscious,
  • and the legacy of an evolutionary past we still fail to appreciate.

The second volume has received most of my writing and editing time since 2016. As I write this, I’m currently working on several parts of it, in a sequence that I’ve been calling “Apprehending the God.” This sequence fits into a larger chain of metaphors that hasn’t sorted itself out as neatly as expected, but has turned out a battery of charged material. The last time I posted a preview, it was an excerpt spun out from another one of those metaphors. If I can, I’d like to find a way to pick out a piece from this sequence worth showing without its context, and the buildup of meaning which only several parts in tandem seem to be able to convey.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading a bit more about the philosophy I work hard to articulate, through the years and despite various obstacles that arise in the creative path. I’ve supplied my thoughts in text form this time, instead of recording another video journal. (In the recent heat wave, my voice would once again have had to compete with the hum of an air conditioner!) As always, I look forward to your comments.

Excerpt: hemispheres part I: patterns into place

I continue to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. All selections were written by me since 2010. Some are unrepresentative. All remain in development, subject to change. —CPB


Intention to change the world usually means changing it outside oneself. But the world does not begin outside ourselves—especially how we experience the world.

We experience inner-sourced, neurogenic senses of things. Senses of things reference the world. Importantly, this reference and the referent differ in type. Senses of things can never be identical to the world. Senses of things usually err even in lacking resemblance to the world—despite subjectively-convincing appearances.

hand_with_reflecting_sphere

Self-Portrait in Spherical Mirror, M. C. Escher, 1935

If we ever become aware that synonymity between senses and the world is not a fundamental truth but a convention and pretense, this is easily forgotten in the course of acting daily according to senses of things. Operationally, people behave as though senses of things are those things they reference. We imagine a visual image equals an object in the distance. Holding an object in our hand instead, the object becomes pressure, texture, and temperature to us. More abstractly, we think that a labeling idea we hold in mind (like “bathing” or “winning”) equals each instance or any given instance, out of a set of actually different and unique experiences. We also attribute our mood at the time, having “a miserable meal” at a fine restaurant, or seeing a “beautiful dress” on a lovely woman.

We habitually and instinctively trust neurogenic impressions, as a dog follows his nose.

Seamlessly sewn-together senses give particular confidence. Who would independently detect blind spots in their binocular vision, “right in front of their eyes,” if they had never learned that each eyeball has an anatomical blind spot where the optic nerve and blood vessels pass through the retina? Even vision fools the seer.

An insightful thinker cannot accept in this ingenuous way. As the rigorous thinker must learn to question what seems objective in his axioms, the skeptical thinker must also learn to doubt the compromised visceral witness under his skin and behind the eyes in the mirror, so to speak, who volunteers so much evidence.

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Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Parmigianino, 1524

Each mind encompasses ongoing relationships with inner-sourced, neurogenic senses of things, which reference parallels in the world outside, as well as relations of more obscure neurogenic psychological dynamics, which lack parallels on the outside.

It is said that we see the same thing, or we feel the same; this is never the case. We feel the emotions, sensations, compulsions, perceptions, and concepts born in our nervous system, of which others can only see expressions and effects. Even to ourselves, the inner influences upon perception, profoundly-layered context, remain casually indistinguishable from senses of things in the world outside the mind.

The world “outside” the mind means the matter and energy of our body and the immediate environment around it. That suggests there is an opposite place “inside” where our mind dwells. But the language is just conventional, so that we can say inner, internal, or inside about neurogenic experience. The mind has no location. The brain rests firmly inside our head.

We live amidst places. Our minds know patterns. The mind has no place, but perceives patterns, including place as one kind of pattern. The corner of the street, the left bank of the nearby river, the inside of your knee, the corpus callosum, these stand out as “places”; they are rather maps, models, impressions, or images—that is, patterns that reference the material world of place. Patterns turn generic, though they reference unique configurations of time and space, energy and matter.

Stranger still, a place we find “outside” (or “inside the body”) contains none of these patterns by itself—not even the patterns we perceive as:

  • edges
  • shapes
  • objects
  • colors
  • motion
  • timing
  • and other empirical measurements.

That requires a mind, with its senses of things. The characteristic mental separation of things, distinction of qualities, and things given qualities, necessary to making simple patterns of the world (“pattern recognition”), are not inherent in the world. For to recognize or discern a pattern is to draw it up and impose it, and momentarily ignore the continuous, contrary, complicated remainder. The inherent reductiveness and selection reflects our nervous system actively coping with information both limited and excessive, more than it reflects any comprehensive reality.

Nor does a place contain other patterns we impose:

  • symbols
  • moods
  • stories
  • histories
  • meanings
  • correspondences
  • significance

These we might grasp as mental patterns more readily, if we can remember they were ostensibly psychological or cultural in origin, and not inherent.

Even with the greatest explicit care, we have difficulty telling the difference between perceiving the world and imposing perceptions.

To contrast sense perceptions like edges with patterns like moods or stories draws a useful distinction; highly-subjective mental patterns certainly obstruct uncomplicated observation. But looking for bias only from obvious culprits would exaggerate an artificial distinction between patterns of perception and patterns that impose upon perception. Naïve perception is not free from distortion or interpretation. Sensing also interprets; sensing always interprets.

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Untitled, aka Distorted House, Man Ray, 1920

Imagine picking out a structure in the distance, and thinking “house.”

One can perhaps manage to tell the difference between the edges, colors, and objects that comprise a particular house, and the cultural icon of house one imposes to collect them all. One can also notice any attendant suggestions perhaps brought up by that icon, such as feelings of home, even though they arise subconsciously.

It would appear that senses are straightforward and definitive, whereas a conscious idea comes second, and perhaps an unconscious reaction third. The conscious idea would appear culturally acquired by everyone who has the idea of houses, while an unconscious reaction would be limited to personal disposition. So, with an effort, we can recognize that ideas and feelings make interpretations of the edges, colors, and objects seen in the distance.

But the sense perceptions that appeared self-evident and automatic would not be identical and consistent for other people. Careful examination and comparison reveals that they vary between one individual and another—as the body varies, and its instrumental neural physiology varies.

Qualities of what we each sense differ as drastically as one person’s color appearing like another color to someone else, or color not appearing at all. The idea “color” is itself an imposed pattern to categorize this nonverbal pattern, which is in turn interpreted from the electromagnetic spectrum by cone photoreceptors, retinal ganglion cells, and visual pathways in brains.

Color one sees is not out there, in the house. Of course, upon arguing over the color of the house, we could take empirical measurements of the wavelengths of the light reflected from the surface of the house. But this would take the problem of interpretation and translate it into a new realm, rather than resolving it. We could collect data on the wavelengths of light involved, but what that meant about “color” we would not establish mutually. Unable to share the very same neural instruments, we are always removed from each others’ perceptions.

Exercises in comparative neurology could be performed for the visual constructs of brightness, edges, facial recognition, etc. too. The phenomena of the senses—virtually always taken for granted as a known vocabulary—are in fact pieced together (albeit nearly-immediately), and variable. Sounds, smells, tastes, and touch are likewise dependent on each particular nervous system, as with all sensation. The distinctions made in senses of things (qualities, objects, etc.) are not exactly arbitrary—because they follow the tendentiousness of a particular nervous system in its current state—but what seems noticeable could always differ, from a different perspective.

We also find that our sense perceptions vary between one moment and another, with the flux of immediate conditions of one nervous system. Intensities of perceptions induced by the nervous system change. Different perceptions stand out now that did not before. Some convey strangeness. Some fulfill expectations. Some remain peripheral.

Attention names a little of this, but most of the subtle and transient shifts in pattern recognition lack adequate names. We cannot track the different permutations of neural activity in the brain able to induce distinct perceptions, and we lack categories for the great many kinds of perceptions or contexts that assemble, vivid and convincing, conditionally maintained, only to melt away when the state of activity changes.

Possessing a mostly unreflective mammalian nervous system, Man is an invested participant who typically behaves as though perception names some neutral process of discerning objective facts.

On the contrary, we do not discover what we have not, in some way, already brought with us. Underlying, fateful neural organization limns the contours of future sensations, before we mark them as what we feel. Reckoning with new things happens in correspondence with familiar patterns of the mind, from the reflexive, to those more changeable. Remember Christopher Columbus, the explorer who found the Orient he expected to find on his maps of the world, even though it was not there. (It did not even matter that the places on the other side of the world were not as he imagined, or fantasized about under extreme sleep deprivation.)

The principle that what appears readily to oneself at the present moment must appear that way to another—or, to oneself upon a different occasion, very much like a different person—has heaped a most dangerous fallacy upon the partiality of animal senses, given the many variants among mankind.

Each one person has great need to learn the counterintuitive practice of avoiding that error. As a matter for holistic education, one could be taught by broad exposure to alternate perspectives, in tandem with guided orientation in the psychological-philosophical facts of life. Yet the error is so instinctive, neural in its roots, that surpassing it can never become permanent knowledge. We always return to stumbling upon it. We always have need to remind ourselves that we impose all patterns we perceive.

hogarth-satire-on-false-pespective-1753

Satire on False Perspective, William Hogarth, 1754

We have great difficulty in learning to mistrust perceptions. We feel sure our perceptions could not be otherwise, though they always could be.

We never arrive at ultimate descriptions, though repeatedly convinced of it. Men who have harbored a desire for final, revealed, unclouded truth have rather coveted an emotional fulfillment, and mistaken such a pinnacle of experience for facts they could know. Humility before the powerful lures and deceits of the senses we possess better becomes the scientist—in the broad sense, the man who would learn anything reliable about the world and himself.

da_vinci_vitruve_luc_viatour

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci’s 1490 illustration of proportions and symmetry of the human body according to the Roman architect Vitruvius

Place remains wholly unappreciable to us without pattern. Yet places and our patterns both seem real. Sewn-together senses convince us they are the same.

We then mistake our implicit maps for the lay of the land. We forget what on Earth we are talking about. We forget that we are map-readers, who cannot look up from our maps to see the world directly. We see “the world” through images and imagery, and never without them. We cannot see the world outside of context—as though contexts serve as lenses for discerning things in an otherwise amorphous and vast blur.

Therefore, it is unusual to realize we have an abiding need of better maps. It is usual to neglect our need of fine cartographers to make them. Few realize that we ourselves can become better map-makers.

We already are drafting implicit maps, as well as picking up old ones. If we fail to make our own revisions, we fall back on old maps, and mere sketches of old maps. We need contexts, so we piece contexts together from some source. Putting pattern into place is a condition for perception, and orientation.