As has already been argued, perception is a function of the sensorimotor systems, and the different modalities in which that sensorimotor system operates, the different physical senses of touch, taste, sight etc, gives structure to that perception. If Mark Johnson is correct in claiming that perception is one of the capacities from which meaning and thought emerge then the structure of meaning and thought, the organised and coherent relationships between ideas, must in turn emerge in part from structures within perception. In other words, our ability to think in organised and meaningful ways is reflective of our ability to perceive the world in organised ways.
The organisation of perception comes from the regular and consistent ways in which the physical senses operate. To take the visual sense as an example, different wavelengths of light appear to the visual system as different colours, but these differences are not random or disorganised. The colours of the spectrum always follow one another in regular and predictable ways and this regularity (as well as the range) provides an organising template for meaning and thought to base themselves upon. Similarly, there is a consistant relationship in the apparent visual size of an object and its distance from us; objects that are further away seem smaller than those close up. This also is a feature of visual experience which has structure and regularity that can be adopted by conceptual cognitive functions. Other sensory modalities, hearing, touch, taste, olfaction, proprioception, have their own set of organised variables which enlarge the number of possible structures that might be utilised as frameworks for meaning and thought, and the relationships between the modalities provides additional complexity. Some sense perceptions echo one another closely; the shape of an object tends to be similarly perceived both by the hands and the eyes; whereas other senses complement one another through their difference; the colour and the sound of a musical instrument overlap one another only at the margins.
In ‘The senses considered as perceptual systems’ J.J Gibson writes that “the senses can obtain information about objects in the world without the intervention of an intellectual process” (1966:1). It may be more accurate to say that it is not that the senses work without the intervention of intellectual processes, but rather that their operation is constructive of intellectual processes. Furthermore, the structured differences that the senses detect in the world and which we experience as perceptions give structure to the meaning and thought that make up these intellectual processes.
Gibson, J. J. (1966). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
In ‘How to Know God’, Deepak Chopra claims that “(t)he same brain responses that enable you to see a tree as a tree, instead of as a ghostly swarm of buzzing atoms, also enable you to experience God” (Chopra 2000:17).
As I have suggested in previous postings, there are undoubtedly mechanisms within the neural labyrinths of the mind which take the raw data of the world and transform it into our imagination of that world. This data, filtered through the sensorimotor and central nervous systems, is cast together into the unified experience of conscious awareness. Not only is the ‘buzzing cloud of atoms’ transfigured into matter through this process but also the disparate elements that make up the physical tree are also brought into union. In neuroscience this is referred to as ‘binding’, but was known in medieval times as the ’sensus communis’; the common sense of singular being in which seeing this branch, this leaf, this twig, is transformed into the communion of ‘tree’.
Chopra is right to suggest that these binding and consilient sense-making processes are not limited to the construction of those parts of the imagined world which appears as physical reality. It is this ability to build coherent and singular patterns out of fragmentary data which also allows us to conceive of conceptual ‘objects’ which are experienced purely cognitively, and which appear to have the same imagined wholeness as trees and rocks. These are the mechanisms which lie behind our apprehension not only of God, but also of theories and archetypes, of quarks and leptons, black holes and big bangs, love, justice, time, and anger. Such phenomena are inherently abstract, leaving no direct impression on the senses in the way that buzzing clouds of atoms seem to. And yet the sensus communis which makes the sense of a tree out of the imagination of atoms also makes sense of these ephemeral, disembodied, and evansescent entities. All of these, trees, gods, and atoms, are recognisable patterns in one’s imagination of the world.
This does not mean however, that because all these entities are similarly produced within the individual imagination that all are necessarily equal, that all are equally ‘real’. What Chopra does not go on to say is that one’s individual imagination of a tree as represented in the dancing photons impacting one’s retina is also simultaneously available to the other senses. The imagination of the material tree is not only a visual image; evanescent entity of visual light, but is also an object with hardness that dramatizes its existence in the impact it would make on the body, should I be foolish enough to try to walk through it. In fact we have a name for entities which are purely visual; we call them ‘mirages’. The evidence of one’s eyes is not always sufficient to ensure epistemological certitude, but such certitude can be approached as objects engage multiple senses and begin to enter the sensus communis.
What Chopra also neglects to mention is that the tree that he indicates; this ‘ghostly swarm of buzzing atoms’, exists not only in the individual imagination but also within the imagination of anyone with eyes standing near where you are standing and looking where you are looking. The ghostly swarm of buzzing atoms (which is neither ghost nor swarm, and most certainly does not buzz), appears in the interpersonal imagination of the objectively described world.
This is similarly the case with at least some of the abstractions noted above; a good theory is one which appears robust not only in the imagination of a single individual but in the minds of many, and which maintains its robustness in the face of attack and competition, whether this be in the form of organised scientific attempts at falsification, or the more vernacular processes of scepticism and doubt. It is through these processes that such theories as natural selection, heliocentrism, and relativity come to exist not as follies, ideosyncratically located within the private garden of an individual mind, but as monumental metaphorical objects in the common ground of the shared imagination.
The U.S. constitution forbids the construction of religious icons on government land, and similarly there is no statue of God in the public park of interpersonal reality. Whilst it is likely that the God concept is a result of the same processes of binding and imagination that produce the image of the tree, there is little agreement regarding the nature, appearance, provenance, role, or substantive nature of this God. To the extent that he, she, or it appears within the interpersonal imagination at all it is often only as the ill-defined subject of sectarian discord and is only maintained through institutional dogmatism, wishful thinking, and theological hand-waving.
Chopra, D. (2000). How to know God: the soul’s journey into the mystery of mysteries. London, Rider.
In the last entry I began to unpack what kinds of variables mark out the category of those entities we think of as ‘objects’, including such aspects as size, shape, substance, weight, etc. What I want to move onto here is a discussion of the overall category of ‘objects’ as a whole.
Until recently it was widely assumed to be the case that our ability to understand our perceptions, concepts, and experiences in terms of distinctions between types was modeled on what are sometimes called ‘classical’ categories. That is, experiences could be grouped together according to whatever necessary and sufficient conditions served to define that category. So, for example an even number is a category of integer in which the necessary condition is that it be wholly divisible by two. This is not a sufficient condition however as we must also require that this division leaves no remainder or involves no fraction. We can say therefore, that any number that we generate, providing these conditions are met, is a member of the category of even numbers. Any number which does not meet these conditions cannot be placed in this category. These conditions define the terms of what it means to say that any number is even.
It should be evident from this that classical categorization, in setting up clear definitions based on necessary and sufficient conditions, establishes a form in which any entity, a number in this case, is either a member or not a member of such a category. There are no liminal cases, no fuzzy boundaries, and no irregularities. This clarity is, indeed, the strength of such a method, and classical categorization underpins much taxonomy and typing, as well as Aristotelian logic and the Law of the Excluded Middle, and is the default method of categorization employed within most (disembodied) systems of organization from the separate branches on Diderot and D’Alembert’s tree of knowledge to the Dewey Decimal system in our libraries. As a means of structuring information such that it is impersonal and apparently rational it is stunningly effective; the only drawback is that, when it comes to understanding how categories are constructed within human cognition and human epistemology, it is woefully inadequate.
The major studies into human systems of categorization were initially carried out by Eleanor Rosch (1973, 1983), although this work has been significantly advanced by George Lakoff (1990). Rosch’s work consisted of a series of survey-type experiments in which subjects were offered lists of items in a particular category, say birds, and were invited to put a number next to each item indicating to what extent it was felt to belong to the category. On the face of it this experiment should be nonsensical. If we do use systems of categorization based on definitions formed out of necessary and sufficient conditions then we should simply compare each item on the list to our definition and either say it meets the conditions and is, in this case, a bird, or say that the conditions are not met and it isn’t. The idea of placing different birds along a numerical scale of how ‘birdlike’ they are should be meaningless. This is not what Rosch found however. Subjects given this task found it intuitively obvious that some birds were indeed better representatives of the category than others and were able to allocate a number to quantify this level of membership. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those examples which were given the highest ‘mark’ for birdness were blackbirds, robins, and sparrows, whilst the low scorers were penguins, ostriches, and emus. This finding has been interpreted to suggest that whilst in certain specific practices we do indeed use classical categories; in scientific avian taxonomy for example, in practice we do not classify according to definition but according to prototype. In cognitive terms, and therefore in terms of our intuitive epistemology, we form categories around central prototypical examples, with other members of that category radiating outward and becoming less and less typical the further out they go.
It might be tempting to suspect that, in choosing birds as a category, Rosch singled out a particularly difficult set to define and distinguish, and that more self-evidently logical categories would not show these effects of prototypicality. However, this experiment has been repeated with other sets including furniture (Rosch, 1983) and numbers. Sharon Lee Armstrong and colleagues (1983) found that the category EVEN NUMBERS exhibits typicality effects: participants in their experiments consistently rated certain member of the category including ‘2’, ‘4’, ‘6’, and ‘8’, as ‘better’ examples of the category than, say, ‘98’ or ’10,002’. We can say from this therefore, that the categories we use to organise our cognition significantly centre on such prototypes and have a radial structure with a fuzzy boundary.
To return to the concept of ‘object’ which began this section of writing, and to begin to apply this revised concept of what a category is, we might say that, whilst a prototypical material object might exhibit the features outlined by Stockwell above, our understanding of the general category of objects is likely to extend outward from this point to include less typical examples. It is also inevitable that there will be no clear line dividing those experiences or perceptions which we think of as ‘objects’ from those which we do not.
A glance around the room or out of the window will confirm the truth of that inevitability. I am looking at the chair across from where I am typing these words, and it seems to fulfill most of the criteria that Stockwell draws up. It can be regarded as a self-contained object in its own right, and that right is asserted by the affordances that it offers as a device for sitting on. It has well-defined edges separating it from the rest of the environment, at least from where I am sitting. For the period of time that I am looking at it, and that it occupies the centre of my attention, it is better focused and possibly brighter than the rest of the room (although I would not say it was attractive, and now that I am no longer looking in that direction but am instead watching these words march across the screen it has merged into the background.) Despite these intrusions of subjectivity into my individual identification of that chair I would still regard it as prototypical and undoubtedly deserving of its secure status as a card-carrying member of the category of objects, and you would probably share that regard.
Looking around I can also take in the vase of flowers on the mantelpiece, and have to admit to an uncertainty as to the status of this object, or rather, to the sense of a slight delay in my willingness to acknowledge this collection, this arrangement, this floral contrivance as a single object. For the briefest of moments I waver between seeing each flower in its own inalienable objective right and seeing the whole kit and caboodle. What’s more, if I allow myself I can even feel a sense of vertiginous escalation as each flower explodes into petals, sepals, stems, stamens, pistels, ovule, filaments, and anthers before a memory of holding the bunch as a totality in my hand and placing them in that vase returns their wholeness. The hand-shaped affordance asserts itself as confirmation of the-bunch-of-flowers as a prototypical member of this basic level category ‘a bunch of flowers’, and now I am gripping them, conceptually, as an object again. I am forced to admit, however, that as an object its self-containedness is less solid than the chair, the edges separating one part from another when there should not even be any parts at all blur and grow transparent. Parts break away, emerge to become new figures, then re-enter the gestalt. The brightness shimmers unsteadily, growing and shrinking in space and the time of memory. Outside my window there are clouds in the sky, and under the clouds is the rain that falls on my garden, and on the grass, and last weeks grass is in the compost heap, and next week’s is under the ground. Each word is separate from every other word and the white space between the words is glowing from the LCD screen on my laptop.
The category of objects, then, and indeed the ontology of objects, is not (only) one of clearly delineated, unitary, stationary, permanent, and unchanging solids. The space of objects is graduated from such prototypical solidity at its heart through increasingly fragmentary, filamentary, and fungible forms, and there is no delineated latitude at which the objective ends and that-which-is-not-the-object begins.
If this is an approximation of the cognitive ontology of objects, then I will want to argue that it is also the structure of our understanding of the metaphor in which we conceive of KNOWLEDGE AS OBJECTS. Objects of thought may be rationally identified as involving clearly defined stable facts easily distinguishable from the ground of their context and from the space of our own looking, but the phenomenally-derived experience of it may be more complex and variable than that. What I hope to show is that objectivity blurs imperceptibly into subjectivity and the solid nuggets of data melt and volatilise into the airy light of wisdom and spirit. The functioning of our cognition requires that, just as there is no category of entities called ‘objects’ that can be unequivocally identified and separated from non-objects, so there is no category of knowledge which is simply ‘objective’, and which is wholly removed from contact and consanquinity with the body of the subjective.
Armstrong, S. L., L. Gleitman, et al. (1983). “What some concepts might not be.” Cognition 13: 263-308.
Lakoff, G. (1990). Women, fire, and dangerous things : what categories reveal about the mind. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Rosch, E. H. (1973). “Natural categories.” Cognitive Psychology 4: 328-350.
Rosch, E. H. (1983). “Prototype Classification and Logical Classification: The Two Systems”. New Trends in Conceptual Representation: Challenges to Piaget’s Theory? E. K. Scholnick. Hillsdale, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates:73-86.