Author: David Christopher Lane Publisher: MSAC Philosophy Group Publication date: 1996
E-mail David Christopher Lane directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
I want to go back to the home base now.
Patricia Churchland Meets Ramana Maharshi At Faqir Chand's Ashram For A Round of Cokes With Ken Wilber When Nicholas of Cusa and Richard Feynman Show Up Unexpectedly "as imagined" by David Lane [With kudos to Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Da Free John (scary isn't that i would cite this Big Boy? But regardless of his cultic tirades he does say some very insightful things), Aaron Talsky, and Paul O'Brien] PART ONE of a five part series --------------------------------------------------------------------- It seems to me that we often get caught up in a tripartite dilemma, one which is echoed in the following intellectual triangle: pretext, text, and context or prehension, apprehension, comprehension or deflation, relation, inflation or reductionism, phenomenology, complexity ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Illustration Number One: Take a book, actually any book, but in this example we will simply limit it to that wonderful little text published by Cambridge University Press, WHAT IS LIFE? by Erwin Schrodinger. Not very long (my edition is only 96 pages), but sufficient to get the point across. Now if i wanted to know the "meaning" of the book, if i wanted to "apprehend" its contents, I would read the entire tome. So far, so good. But let's say that I wanted to discover what "ultimately" constituted the book. That is, i wanted to know what the common underlying symbol system was that actually comprised the text. In this type of quest (the pun is intentional), I would reduce the book down to its chapter divisions, chapter divisions down to pages, pages down to paragraphs, paragraphs down to sentences, sentences down to words, and, finally, words down to letters. Letters, individual (but only 26 variations in our alphabet) symbols would be the fundamental unit by which information is encoded. But let us imagine that I only read WHAT IS LIFE? in terms of its letters, not the words they form, or the sentences they create, or the paragraphs they construct, or the pages they comprise..... what then? Would I "understand" the meaning of the book if i simply limited my reading to the symbol units themselves? The answer is fairly obvious: no. Why? Because the letters "a" or "b" or "z" do not, indeed cannot, convey the meaning as isolated units. They begin to form meaning when they conjoin and develop a larger complex, a larger construction. Okay, so now we understand something called "Pretext." That unit which is rudimentary to the book, but which is not yet readable as a text. Important sidebar: as the latest studies in reading have shown, "hooked on phonics" (Michael Landon's greatest legacy?) or the understanding of the sounds that constitute words is very very helpful to students for later reading and comprehension. Indeed, as good as "wholistic" reading may be, phonics is even more helpful at a fundamental level. The reason why is pretty obvious: the more one grounds her self in "pre-text" the more secure the formation will be when one moves "up" to "textual understanding." Why? Because there will be less con-fusion of word or sentence formation. PRE-TEXT IS FUNDAMENTAL But now let us imagine that we have understood pretext (symbols, or the alphabet in our example) and text (the larger complex which words and sentences and paragraphs develop). Is that all that is necessary to "comprehend" (I am consciously using a different word than "apprehend" at this stage) Schrodinger's book, WHAT IS LIFE? Well, yes and no. Yes, because clearly i can get a fairly decent sense of what our quantum theorist is trying to convey. No, because there are certain things "around" or "beyond" the text which the book cannot convey, but which strangely enough is demanded for better comprehension. That missing something is not pretext, or text, but Context. Context can range from the very simple: the paper quality, the binding, the typography, the smell of the book (anyone who has read books published in India will immediately know what i am talking about) to the very complex: What year was the book published? What prior knowledge of math, of physics, of astronomy, of biology is necessary to better engage the text? Moreover, what is my mood? What country am I in? What religious/scientific beliefs do I bring to the text? Is it nighttime? Is the T.V. on? Silly questions? Not really, since this larger infusing environment--ranging from the rudimentary to the baneful to the sophisticated--plays an important factor in any reading of any book at any time. Context is the larger arena by which any text, formed by any pretext, is understood. Pretext: rudimentary/fundamental Text: instrumental/informative Context: bounding/eliciting/forming And, as such, a pretext can "evolve" itself into a text which in turn "evolves" itself into a context.... So that a context in a different situation can become the pretext to a new text which itself is housed by a new context.... And so on and so on. Or, as Ken Wilber would have it, "holons, holons, and more holons." Each holon, as Wilber would suggest, comprised of holonic parts, but which itself acts a holonic part (I know it sounds oxymoronic... but that's the point) of some larger holon. Atoms have parts (electrons and protons, for instance), but an atom is "part" of something larger (molecules). Molecules have parts (atoms of varying weights).j, but a molecule is "part" of something larger (cells). Cells have parts (molecular bonding), but a cell is "part" of something larger (a simple organism). Etc. Which leads to brains have parts (neurons, axions, synapses....), but a brain is "part" of something larger (the human body). The human body has parts (the brain, the heart, the liver....), but the human body is "part" of something larger (family/environment)... And so on. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Okay, so who cares? Well, it seems as if we are always struggling with this dilemma: reduce or inflate? pretext or context? What Wilber suggests, though I don't think he is aware of how thoroughly materialistic his system can be, is that science tends towards reductionism, towards Occam's razor, towards Churchland's intertheoretic explanations, and that is its great strength... It tends to explain things more simply.... and by more simply we mean more "fundamentally." For this reason it usually kicks butt on any or all "inflated" theories (context which seems divorced from pretext?). But reductionism can in fact "go too far." And what i mean by "too far" is that it can actually become anti-informational when such reductionism to echo the words of Dennett becomes "cheap." What is cheap reductionism? Let's go back to our book, WHAT IS LIFE? Remember that we can reduce the text to a series of letters, and such reductionism would be very very helpful at first. Indeed, it would give us a tremendous grasp of what we could or perhaps could not do with such a symbol system. But let's imagine that i wanted to "reduce" even further. I find that the letters are made of little lines, so that a "W" looks like two "V's (VV) conjoined. We can even go farther and see that all letters in print are made of tiny atoms which are themselves made up of atoms, and the atoms are (eventually) made of quarks.... and quarks? Well, super-strings in nth-dimension are vibrating at a frequency below Planck's constant, which is not /l at any perceptive level..... See, we have gone too far. It is nice to say that words are nothing more than the congealed results of trapped electrons but it adds very little in terms of instrumental or pivotal information. To be sure, it helps to understand other things about our universe, but given the complexity of letters it does not add to our present domain-related discussion. We have made a classic boundary skip, category collapse, and we have indulged in "cheap" (not very worthwhile) reductionism. Yet, this does not mean that reductionism is bad, it just means that reductionism is quite useful in the right domain.... Reduce too much and we lose. Don't reduce and we inflate too much. Having said all this, it is obvious that the direction of science must always be, fundamentally, in the path of "reducing" as far as it can go while remaining useful and informational. Let us see how this works across disciplines: physics (looks to math, perhaps our most precise and accurate "human" language) chemistry (looks to physics, especially quantum mechanics--just see the work of Linus Pauling) biology, especially molecular biology (looks to chemistry; just think of Watson and Crick and the double helix model of DNA) psychology (looks, or perhaps they should!) to neuroscience, the study of the brain (Why? Because the greatest progress in psychology has not come from Freud or Jung.... It has come from those pioneers who have grounded their studies in evolutionary brain science.... Just think to yourself when you get a headache: should i call 1-900-shaman or should i take an excedrin extra strength? I would have mentioned Prozac, but i was thinking about cross-posting this to alt.religion.scientology!) sociology (looks bad, but if it is to have a future, it should tend towards biology/psychology/evolution). I know nobody likes Sociobiology (its "new" name is evolutionary psychology--cool, now we can do what E.O. Wilson has been talking about for some twenty years). A sociology grounded in evolutionary theory may actually come up with some revolutionary and cross-cultural predictions. Get rid of Marx, but not his reductionistic spirit, and hitch it to evolution and sociology may go some where. (I know from which I speak on this subject, having earned my Ph.D. in the sociology of knowledge... so i know too well its weaknesses) Now each of these disciplines "succeeds" when they discover their basic alphabet, their basic pretext. That has to be done and is the key to any further scientific progress. Below is a very simplistic look at various pretext/alphabets: physics: at the subatomic level it is clearly quantum mechanics, and its sophisticated reworking Q.E.D., which is so fudging precise that no theory rivals it in terms of accuracy. molecular biology: DNA as everyone knows is the blueprint for all life. evolutionary biology: natural selection. Darwin's contribution, as Dennett so rightly points out, is probably the single greatest thought given to man. But let's go back to WHAT IS LIFE? Can i get a Q.E.D. reading of it? Can i get a DNA reading of it? Can i get a natural selection reading of it? Yea, but it is not going to be as useful or as informative as understanding the English language at its own level. So let's jump domains and cut to the chase: Metaphors coming (literalists beware!) 1. The brain is a text 2. Neurons are its subtext 3. The human body (thanks to DESCARTES' ERROR for informing us here) is the context. Now I want to understand "me"! Best to start with the brain's alphabet... (neuroscience 101) Then look at the brain's architecture and how the neural symphony comes together And then look at the larger human anatomy and see how all the various "beyond" brain parts work together. Is that enough? No, because just as neurons have constituent parts, so does the human body have a much larger context or field of interplay. That larger context or infusing environment always arises when the pretext and text have reached their terminus, their limit.... Thus if we want to avoid "cheap" reductionism, we also want to avoid "expensive" inflationism (think of "fake" or "monopoly" money). How this simple understanding relates to consciousness and the like will be explored in PART TWO.-------------------------------------------------------