the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
SELF AND OTHER
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All theories are grounded, whether explicitly or implicitly, in the comprehensive worldview of the theorist. They all involve a certain context which, if not stated, will leave the audience at a definite disadvantage; the only option is to assume a context, but that is as likely as not to be a faulty assumption. They all involve a good deal of definition, but all definitions are in respect to other terms, which should also be defined. We don’t have the capacity (or the time) to deal with linear infinity, but circular infinity, with terms defined, ultimately, in respect to themselves, is hardly more desirable. The alternative is defining terms in respect to terms which are not themselves defined. Sooner or later every person picks its postulates, beyond which it cannot go, which must simply be grasped by intuition. The least that can be done, it would seem, is to make clear what those postulates are; if the audience can, like the theorist, grasp those postulates by intuition, then the whole theory should make sense in its own terms. Because I wish to explain the following theory as fully as possible, and because I believe in the value of comprehensive theory for its own sake, I will attempt to work my way to interpretation and communication starting from the first principles, as I see them.
I must begin with a repudiation of materialism. Materialism is the theory that the fundamental reality of existence is vested in matter, a substance whose main property is gravity, the propensity for pieces of matter to drift towards each other (according to regular rates). Matter has long been conceived of as being in the form of a very large number of very small chunks, particles. The current state of materialism recognizes about twelve kinds of fundamental particles, half quarks and half leptons. Everything else in the universe is composed of these particles operating in systems, according to laws regarding the primary property of mass (level of susceptibility to gravity), secondary properties such as charge (level of susceptibility to electro-magnetism, an important second force) and spin (inherent angular momentum), and the non-intrinsic properties of position and speed (rate of change in position). Position refers to the fact that the particles are located in extended space, a three-dimensional continuum. (According to current doctrine, space is considered to be part of space-time, a four-dimensional continuum, substantial in its own right, in nature relative to the particles with which it interacts and for which, in fact, it serves as the medium of interaction.) The notion of extended space is a postulate for me; I believe it exists, infinite along each of three perpendicular linear dimensions. I do not believe it to be curved, or to be in any continuum with time (which is a separate, infinite linear dimension of a totally different nature, and also a postulate), nor do I accept the materialist description of how it is occupied.
Materialism derives from empiricism, which is the theory that perception is an infallible basis for knowledge of reality, and in fact the only possible basis. Materialist cosmologists use this line to establish to their own absolute satisfaction the absolute existence of matter, which is then taken to be fundamental, therefore the basis of all other existence. There are a number of problems with this.
First, perception is also taken to be derived; that is, if perception cannot be derived from the basis of particles of matter, then perception does not exist. But perception is the basis for the theory of empiricism, upon which the theory of materialism was founded. Perception then depends on matter, which depends on perception ― a circular epistemology. And at the beginning perception was accepted as real, at least real enough to provide the epistemological basis for a cosmology. But the theory of materialism has become so ingrained that it will brook no challenges, and if the evidence of perception seems to suggest imperfection in materialism, then there must be a fault with the notion of perception. So the materialists would say, but this is saying that if the facts don’t fit the theory, then to hell with the facts; this, of course, is a very unscientific attitude.
Second, the history of materialist cosmology is a story of endless analysis ― there is always a new and smaller particle to “discover”. Where once the universe was predicated on what we now call ‘molecules’, eventually that theory was found to be inadequate. A new fundamental particle was posited, rather hastily named ‘atom’, the uncuttable. But then atoms were divided into protons, electrons, and neutrons. Currently protons and neutrons are thought to be systemic themselves. The going theory bases everything on leptons and quarks (with electrons being one kind of lepton and protons and neutrons being composed of quarks in certain combinations of quark types). Where does it end? How long does the theory have to go unchallenged before it is safe to assume we’ve found the bottom? Quarks will probably last out the millennium, but not much longer. If in fifty years nothing better has been found, this argument may seem stale, but remember that Newton’s physics lasted two centuries before it was conventionally supplanted by the relativity of Einstein.
Third, finally, materialists can’t deal with the ‘ghost in the machine’ problem. Though that phrase was originally one of ridicule (used by Gilbert Ryle to shame dualists into abandoning ‘mind’), it describes to me exactly the sort of shortcoming which particle materialism has: how does the consciousness derive from this mechanistic system? If consciousness exists, even as an epiphenomenon, then how? If consciousness arises merely when a system of simple elements becomes sufficiently complex, then it is not only possible but probable that other systems, even more complex, like the earth, the galaxy, and the universe itself, are conscious, and that someday we will have the technology to build computers which will also be conscious. But those who believe that the mind is the brain, and the brain is a system of neurons, and neurons are systems of atoms, and atoms are systems of quarks and leptons, are not at all comfortable with this idea. I will agree that it is counterintuitive to suppose that a HAL-like computer really has something going on inside of it like what I have going on behind my eyes, but only because it is counterintuitive to suppose that I am myself nothing more than a very complex system, rather than a unit, a ‘monad’, to use a term of Leibniz.
Regardless of what is posited as fundamental, there is always the problem of origins. Creatio ex nihilo? Something from nothing? The question demands to be addressed. But rather than trying to explain what is immediate to us using something distant and foreign, it seems best to me to go with what we’ve got and see where it gets us. So what have we got?
Primarily, we have ourselves. Or rather, our selves. Skepticism is a good thing, but it can only go so far. No matter how skeptical you want to be, you cannot deny your own existence, because something that does not exist is in no position to deny anything. This is the “ie pense, donc ie ſuis” sentiment of Descartes. While doubting as many things as you can, you yourself are some thing, if only the thing that does the doubting. But I believe we can be more specific. I would here apply the common term ‘consciousness’ to describe the self. Consciousness is a postulate, and because it is the center of existence, it is probably the most important one. On the assumption that you are conscious, I can merely identify consciousness with your self, your mind, the entirety of what you are, in order to convey the intuitive meaning of the term.
Consciousness is a jumbled mess of properties and faculties. The objects of consciousness are experiences. An experience is just the sum of all the objects of the sub-processes within consciousness, the totality of goings-on. I am capable of distinguishing three sub-processes: memory, perception, and everything else, which I will term ‘thought’. The objects of the sub-processes, and thus the components of experiences, are, respectively, memories, percepts, and thoughts. Consciousness is both active and passive, but all agency is a part of thought. The other two faculties introduce otherness.
Every experience, in every aspect including any memories that form a part of that experience, goes in its entirety into memory. And every memory can be called up into consciousness in its entirety, and so becomes a part of the new experience, which then goes into memory, completing the cycle. Memory thus has a perfect one-to-one correspondence with consciousness; every thing that can be a part of an experience can be a part of a memory, and vice versa. This is crucial because memory provides the continuity which makes consciousness possible. It is, so to speak, the diachronic thread which holds the mind together. If there were no continuity, if all experiences were simple synchronic snapshots, we’d never get anywhere, because we would constantly be starting over. In order to build on one experience, it must be carried over into the next. At every point in time at which we are conscious, we are, among other things, remembering every experience for the period of time immediately preceding. All experiences, to be sure, are in fact of periods of time, rather than points; this is the connection of memory.
Like memory, perception is passive; it is wholly other, totally originating outside what is identified as the self. It is, of course, sensation, all of the traditionally identified senses, though the boundaries between them, especially between taste and smell, may not be as hard and fast as is usually suggested. Percepts are the objects of perception, but not in the sense of materialism. We don’t actually see a table; what we see is a combination of color and area, color encompassing both tone and tint, area comprising shape, size, and position. A pattern of color and area is a visual percept. Other percepts may be in terms of pitch and volume, texture, temperature, etc.
All of consciousness that is not memory or perception, the leftovers, is thought. Thought is the real hash, a mixture of emotion, belief, consideration, intuition, and confusion. It has not proven possible for me to analyze thought further; the lines between such conventionally-accepted faculties as reason and emotion, to my belief, cannot be readily demarcated. I can say that all thoughts, the objects of the thought process, are concepts. ‘Concept’ is a postulate, about which I can only elaborate by saying that a concept is the kind of thing that may be thought, but which exists independently. Therefore, though all thoughts are concepts, not all concepts are thoughts. Concepts, while existing independently themselves, determine a second category of existence: things that exist conceptually. Actually, all things exist conceptually; the range of the subjects of concepts is infinite and all-inclusive. But most of these things exist only as the subjects of concepts. They have no independent, or extra-conceptual, existence. Things which do exist independently, certainly rather than speculatively, would include the self, of course, and also percepts, memories, absolute space, absolute time, and every concept qva concept. Some concepts, such as mathematical concepts like numbers and logical concepts like the transitive property, have only conceptual existence, and are as real as possible. Some concepts, such as ‘the square root of -1’, are by definition non-sensical. Some, such as that of a fourth spatial dimension, are simply physically impossible.
The perceptual realm is the world described by percepts. It seems real enough, but that, naturally, is seeming. The truth is that the universe as an independent thing does not necessarily have to exist. It could merely be conceptual, so that we can blame ourselves for making the abstraction from the percepts. We see in two dimensions, which means that the depth of the perceptual realm could just be a figment of our imaginations.
The key model for this speculation (no less valid than the speculation that something does exist behind percepts) is a video game. When we look at a video game screen, do we suppose that there really are a plumber and an ape (from “Donkey Kong”) of miniature size inside of the machine? Certainly not. There doesn’t need to be; as long as it looks like there are, we can interact well enough with the imaginary world in which Mario and Donkey Kong exist. The video game has a computer, and in that computer is a program describing the imaginary world, occupied by things operating according to arbitrary rules. Among the things in the imaginary world is a variable, which will be defined by the decisions of the player. The computer has output, in the form of the video screen, and input, in the form of, for instance, joysticks and buttons. It represents the state of the imaginary world to the player using the screen. The player interprets the representation in order to determine the state of the imaginary world, decides on a course of action, and relays that decision to the computer through the controls. The computer uses the information received from the input to determine the current value of the variable, and thus has all the information needed to determine the new state of the world which results from the player’s action. It recalculates the state of the world, and then converts that by a set formula into new images which it displays on the screen. The player takes the new representation into account, interprets the new state of the imaginary world, chooses a course of action, and makes another move. The entire process is a continual interaction, the player responding to the output and the computer responding to the input, so that the player must constantly be making decisions and the computer must constantly be recalculating. As the player interacts with the computer, the variable interacts with the imaginary world. And yet the variable and the imaginary world are merely concepts.
This is a direct, almost literal analogy to perception. Our world, to use a recent high-tech term, is ‘virtual reality’. The perceptual realm, the “universe”, corresponds to the imaginary world of the program. The output corresponds to percepts, the player to the consciousness. We need only conceive of a computer which responds to mental commands, reading our intentions directly, which can produce percepts for our consumption, and which is sufficiently powerful to perform the necessary calculations. I call this ‘the apparatus’. With that, my model for consciousness is complete:
Communication is a subset of interpretation. Interpretation is what, in my opinion, semiotics is all about. ‘Signs’ is only a place holder, so that we may discuss the object, rather than the process. It amounts to the same thing, just taking a different tack. Interpretation begins with perceptual paradigms, which are abstractions from perceptual patterns (abstraction is the process of defining a concept based on an observation, mental or perceptual, hence all abstractions are concepts). A sign is an association of a perceptual paradigm with another concept (this would be done through memory: two concepts are associated when they are thought of in the same experience, so that thinking of one triggers the recall of the experience in which the other one is also present). Interpretation is the process of fitting observed percepts into recognized paradigms, thereby deriving “meaning”, which is nothing more than the association of concepts. Interpretation applies to all aspects of the perceptual realm. It is basically a means of constructing a personal version of the perceptual realm ― an attempt to reconstruct the actual course of events in the version of the perceptual realm which the apparatus is using to calculate what we see.
We establish sign relationships only by a gradual learning process. We experience things in conjunction and thus form associations in memory. We come to some sort of sense about how the perceptual realm works by trial and error, and we are in a constant process of revising our personal versions of the course of events in it. To a large part this is accomplished using the scientific method ― make a hypothesis and then gather data to check it against. If the data support the hypothesis, consider it provisionally correct; if they contradict it, it must be revised. This, not physicists’ telling us so, is the source of our acceptance that the sun will rise every day. (From the perspective of a consciousness plugged into the apparatus, it does not matter whether the sun orbits the earth or the earth the sun; all is relative, so that it is as correct to say that walking is the quite egocentric process of rolling the world under your feet.)
Communication is an attempt by one consciousness to induce a certain interpretation by another. This includes such things as disinformation, which is an attempt to induce a false interpretation of the course of events in the perceptual realm. But by far the most important form of communication is language, the use of symbols. A symbol is a sign whose association between perceptual paradigm and other concept is one of convention. (The first convention must be established by coincidence, where two interpreters form the same association based on some common experience. That first convention can then serve as the basis for further conventions.) A logic is a system for deriving new symbols from existing ones, by combining or altering them according to certain conventional rules. The set of all symbols and logics understood by an interpreter is that interpreter’s idiolect. The intersection of two or more idiolects is a dialect. It is the linguistic “joint product” of a group, and such a joint product exists for every possible combination of consciousnesses, with the dialect for some groups (a close family, say) being quite large, that for other groups presumably being an empty set. It would be possible to consider fixed dialect groups, linguistic communities, linking persons by chains of intersecting idiolects, but such could conceivably have no common dialect, if two extremes on the continuum have no dialect between themselves.
When we speak of the ‘Southern Dialect’, we are speaking of a dialect, but when we speak of the ‘English Language’, we are also speaking of a dialect. In this context it does not make sense to speak of ‘a language’, a langue. Such a creature has no fundamental difference from a dialect. There is a difference of degree. Languages, langues, so-called, are more inclusive in terms of interpreters because they have looser paradigms or narrower sets of symbols or logics. The idea of some Langue acting in a deterministic way makes no sense to me. Every dialect derives its existence directly and solely from the fact that there are interpreters whose idiolects have something in common. Language is under our control, vice non versa.
As such, we can do what we want with it. The point of language is to communicate, to understand and be understood. So long as we understand, or can effect understanding, we are free to do whatever we want. If we wish to eliminate gender-specific pronouns, we can. If we want to adopt a phonemic orthography, we should. Do the esperantoj speak an artificial dialect? No more artificial than the one I use right now to write this paper, and all the better if it should be more rational, I would say. It is unlikely that far-reaching language reforms would succeed, if only because people aren’t interested, but there are some things which we can do.
The process of division is grinding to a full stop, and the process of assimilation is picking up speed. Those dialects today which are still mutually intelligible will collapse, with paradigms tightening up and symbol- and logic-sets expanding. Eventually, probably before the end of the next century (should humanity prove careful enough to retain its technology), a limited common dialect will emerge covering most of the world. Of course, it will exist alongside vernacular dialects, but it will gradually become the only everyday dialect in use. This common dialect will draw much of its strength from the common culture developing now, much of which is expressed in what is called ‘English’. Technology, commercialism, “popular culture”, and even meaningless customs are already becoming global. (Of course, wearing neckties will not raise the standard of living in countries which have so far missed out on the plunder of past and future earths by a self-aggrandizing “Western” culture.) If we want to encourage understanding, and I submit that it is in our best interest, we should encourage and facilitate the development of this common dialect. That we can do by making as many people as possible feel included, by recognizing that their cultural heritage is worthy of our attention, by incorporating the most crucial aspect of it: names. In a sense, all symbols are names, labels we give to concepts for the purpose of reference, but specifically I mean symbols referring to consciousnesses (humans, for now) and to places. There is a lot of ridicule of broadcast news figures who try to pronounce names in the original but apparently apply that rule only to ‘Nicaragua’ and ‘Noriega’. They are not only inconsistent but also usually way off base. But at least they’re trying. They’re pushing us forward on the long road from a parochial viewpoint to a global one. If we want the people of the world to feel like the common dialect (which is forming around our dialect, after all) is as much theirs as ours, we must give up something also. We should give up our assumed right to be the namers of all things, as if we were ruling over Paradise as the mythical primordial couple. Personal names should be those used by the persons, local names those used by the locals. Either we can slavishly follow the dictates of some self-appointed geographical Sorbonne and patiently wait until it dictates that we will now switch from ‘Burma’ to ‘Myanmar’ (which is a sort of British approximation of what the locals have called it all this time), or we can just get it over with all at once. Language, more than religion, more than folkways, more than race, is the key to the us-them dichotomy. We are, if there is a “we”, a group of fundamentally-identical selves made different by experiencing the world from different perspectives. We should strive to minimize our superficial differences and maximize our inherent similarities.
What we have in common, most importantly, is this world. It has shaped our beliefs, our very sense of ourselves. And it is, ultimately, arbitrary. Who said things have to fall? Even percepts are symbolic; they represent the perceptual realm in a conventional way. The color spectrum, for instance, could be inverted, narrowed, even restricted to variations of tint, and the apparatus could still convey all the information about the perceptual realm which we currently have access to. The nature of this world apparently doesn’t matter. What’s the point, then?
The point, I would speculate, has something to do with us. We are connected by a medium. We can communicate. We can learn. Perhaps we are supposed to collaborate. On what? What’s the meaning of life, that is. I propose we start with the truth. That is, of course, what we’ve been doing.
© O.T. FORD
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