Tag Archives: philosophy of mind

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.