KARL JASPERS FORUM
Response 19 (to C44 by William A. Adams)
UNDERSTANDING, FAMILIARITY, AND EVIDENCE
by Herbert FJ Müller
5 September 2009, posted 19 September 2009
In answer to William Adams’ note on non-dual knowing I want to elaborate a bit on the notion of design in the unstructured matrix as the common basis for all mental structures (so-called ‘knowledge’ as well as conjectures).
For that I don’t believe we have to affirm essentialism or objectivity, etc. <3> because the these and others are our working-structures in the unstructured. ‘Introspection’ <5> is an aspect of phenomenology and as such does not mean dualism, which itself is a secondary development : it means that an ontological difference between self and world is posited as fundamental. The statement that ‘observation’ does not make sense without dualism <6> reflects the prevailing opinion that reality is mind-independent, but that problem disappears in a thorough phenomenological view.
But allow me to address a part of these questions, especially concerning what is called ‘evidence’, by going into a discussion of some aspects of structuring in the unstructured. The unstructured matrix (what Jaspers called the encompassing experience) can serve two interrelated purposes, as epistemological start and fallback point, and secondly as non-theistic religion. It has had quite a few names like apeiron, the irrational, nirvana, tao, etc. All mental structures of self, others, world, and everything (both deliberate ones and more spontaneous ones like those produced biologically, without deliberation) are created within this matrix, which otherwise remains unstructured.
A guiding principle here is that one can only ‘understand reality’ in terms of structures that are already familiar. It is complicated by the fact is that usually the structures are extrapolated and believed to be mind-independent onta, thereby excluding the subject from reality.
(A) Familiarity and understanding of extended subjective experience
The most familiar is one’s own experience, and that in relation to people close by. Thus an initial procedure for designing ‘reality’ is to extrapolate from one’s experience to ontic existence outside the self, by structuring an imaginary family of anthropoids with super-powers, or later only a single one (which provides greater unity of experience). This God is made to be all-powerful, and then creates everything and is in charge of everything. The aim, after transfer to ‘outside’ of the subject, is to be on good terms with him or her, while the responsibility is God’s. Subjective experience is preserved and in fact much magnified, but also simultaneously much dampened by the externalization of power and agency. The externalization is to some extent offset by beliefs like that your own soul is a part of God, on loan so to speak.
Mystics have long known that the ‘outside’ location of God is dubious, and that theism is a two-way street. As the ‘Angelus Silesius’ (1657) wrote, if you want God to create you, you have to create him first. (‘8. GOtt lebt nicht ohne mich. Jch weiß daß ohne mich GOtt nicht ein Nun kan leben / Werd' ich zu nicht Er muß von Noth den Geist auffgeben.’) God is in that case an extension of your soul, and not vice versa, nor is he mind-independent.
To understand oneself as created by God preserves a cuddly ‘family-feeling’ (Nest-Wärme), which is lost if one sees oneself objectively as the result of chance mutation of genes plus natural selection. Only 40% of US Americans accept biological evolution (Singer 2009), probably in part for such reasons. And such wishes are the reason, if not ‘evidence’, for belief in God’s existence; we may posit rather than find. He is a tool, a convenience, like a bicycle or an airplane, for purposes like family-warmth, shift of responsibility, external source of stability, communality of thinking and action, and so forth.
(B) Familiarity and understanding of objects
After the change from ontological theism to ontological naturalism, the familiarity is the one of ‘objects’. The familiarity of subjectivity, and subjects altogether, tend to disappear because the objects are assumed to be self-fabricated, things-in-themselves, independent of what subjects do, who are if anything only passive recipients of a ready-made reality. But one has to realize that the belief in objects is of the same kind as the belief in God. Objects are not ‘given’ as such; they are conceptual tools for imagined external stability, though without the nest-warmth of theism.
That objects are perceived as such, in other words the presumed ‘evidence’, is a misinterpretation. On the contrary, objects require a two-step activity by subjects : firstly gestalt-structuring, which for humans is predominantly visual in type; and the second step is object-completion, which Merleau-Ponty (1945 p.381) suggested ‘contradicts’ the unachievable completeness of gestalt-object-perception. In my opinion this interpretation is somewhat misleading. The object-completion is a separate step in the subjects’ activity in object-thinking, and thus it is an addition rather than contradiction.
For instance when looking at a Necker cube, the first step, the visual gestalt-structure, remains the same, but the object-completion alternates between two possibilities. An ontological question like ‘which one of the two is it really ?’ is clearly irrelevant here. And the second step can also be activated by random shapes like cloud formations, or in the Rorschach test, and furthermore also entirely without visual-gestalt input : centrally, for instance in fantasy, dreams, hallucinations. Even then we posit rather than find.
Besides subjectivity, other aspects of experience are also no longer available in an exclusively objective view, such as qualia including feelings, social and cultural concerns. Does a poem (yours or someone else’s) ‘exist’ ? if so, where and when ? in your body? in your material environment ? before, or after, it has been written down ? electronically recorded ? printed in a book ? in a book which is objective by occupying enough space to put it under the leg of the kitchen table in your space-time environment to prevent it from wobbling ? or maybe the poem is real by having the ‘disposition’ of making you produce objective laughing or crying behaviour ? (Some of the neo-metaphysicians think that dispositions are more fundamental than objects; see TA 110 and its discussion.)
The wish for ontological subject-exclusive object-reality can produce problems even in natural science, namely in those areas where objects are not valid, such as in the wave versus corpuscle question, or the collapse of the wave-function. For instance, E Schrödinger thought that the possibility to visualize in object-form (Anschaulichkeit) was an essential requirement of any acceptable physical theory; the ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ thought experiment is a result. He was reported to have remarked after many years of work that he was sorry to ever have had anything to do with quantum theory. His disappointment was likely a consequence of his insistence on object-based visualizable reality, when such an object-based ontological reality view is inappropriate in that field.
Schrödinger’s view differed from that of Bohr and Heisenberg, who thought of quanta as mathematical entities.
(C) Absence of subjects, objects, familiarity, and understanding, in mathematics procedures
With mathematics, on the other hand, the familiarity disappears, together with ontological understanding. Mathematics only needs ‘entities’ to work with, and they do not imply familiarity. A well-known example is that particle physics is said to be very accurate and reliable but incomprehensible. Particle physicists are sometimes told to ‘shut up and calculate’, when they try to ‘understand’ in familiar terms, which is futile.
And to illustrate further : A few years ago, before my retirement, the staff of our department, three women and me, went out for lunch one day. One of them was a tall and well-proportioned lady who on that day wore a very short skirt. At one point she got up to go to the bathroom. The other two started to giggle about her clothing. At that moment I said something like ‘one would evidently postulate that there is a mathematical relationship between the length of the skirt and the size of the visible surface of the legs’. And one of the others commented ‘well, that makes it scientific.’ Who knows, maybe it does, but one may of course wonder whether mathematics is the most appropriate method for the assessment of the effects of short skirts.
How then about the relation between these three methods of structuring in the unstructured (theism, objectivity-naturalism, and mathematics) ? I quote from P Feyerabend’s posthumous work (1999 p.32-33). ‘... if discourse is defined as a sequence of clear and distinct propositions (actions, plans, etc.) which are constructed according to precise and merciless rules, then discourse has a very short breath indeed. Such a discourse would be often interrupted by “irrational” events and soon be replaced by a new discourse for which its predecessor is nonsense pure and simple. If the history of thought depended on a discourse of this kind, then it would consist of an ocean of irrationality interrupted, briefly, by mutually incommensurable islands of sense. If, on the other hand, the elements of an argument, a worldview, a culture, a theoretical frame work are allowed some leeway, so that they either keep their identity through very drastic changes – in which case one might say that they have potential meanings that are actualized in different ways – or change their content without violating the worldview to which they belong, then we have no reason to assume that our ways of conveying meaning have any limits. ... ’
Theism has a built-in claim to holistic ontological validity, due to the omnipotence ascribed to God. Naturalistic objectivity is sometimes also said to be able to produce ‘theories of everything’. And there have as well been claims of mathematical holistic exclusiveness (for instance by Badiou, Messailloux, Tegmark).
But instead of absolute meanings and claims, all structures are created pragmatically, not ontically, in the unstructured (or ‘irrational’). Pragmatic structures have un-sharp boundaries; absolutely sharp definitions are only implied in thinking like in Zeno’s paradoxes, and the monads of Leibniz. For instance a monadic definition of the duration of a ‘day’ would be that it is precisely 24 hours long, and not a femtosecond shorter or longer. I mention this because in many discussions this kind of mind-independent definition of reality-in-itself is implied though not explicit.
But a ‘day’ has originated as, and it still is, a pragmatic structured unit based on the rotation of the earth, which can undergo slight changes due to events like strong earthquakes and tsunamis. Similarly the distinction between self and other is pragmatic : when you have a haircut, a part of you becomes environment, and when you breathe, the air coming out of you is no longer you. If the structures are pragmatic guidelines rather than absolute monads, the difficulties disappear.
‘Allowing some leeway’ (in Feyerabend’s expression) could for instance mean a non-literal interpretation of the biblical genesis story, and this may in part be what the recent Vatican declaration had in mind which insisted that there is no conflict of its teachings with evolutionary science. That is in contrast to the literal bible interpretation by fundamentalist sects. And seeing that belief in a mind-independent God and in mind-independent objects are of the same kind also goes in that direction.
But there are limits to the ‘leeway’ allowable in theistic dogmas. For instance if you define God as needed for cuddliness you are not likely to be endorsed by any church, and it is impossible to explain away the murderous religious conflicts. On the science side this is even more difficult. The notion of an anthropoid creator is not easily reconciled with Darwinism, nor with present opinions about the age of the universe.
But an unstructured origin of reality design, with the awareness that all structures are pragmatically created within the unstructured matrix, can be fitted to all needs. We structure mental instruments in the unstructured, and then posit and use them, for differing purposes. Their mutual compatibility after structuring is limited, but the unstructured can always be used as common source and fallback position. ‘Evidence’ becomes viability of posited structures during use, as per feedback.
Angelus Silesius (Johannes Scheffler) (1657/1674), Der Cherubinische Wandersmann. Projekt Gutenberg. http://www.projekt.gutenberg.de/?id=5&xid=50&kapitel=4&cHash=a52ee37cb9cheru101#gb_found
Feyerabend P (1999) Conquest of abundance. A tale of abstraction versus the richness of being. Univ of Chicago Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945) Phénoménologie de la perception. Gallimard: Paris.
Singer M, (2009) Great Teachers for STEM. Editorial, Science 325, 28 August 2009, p.1047.
Herbert FJ Müller
e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>