20 December 2006

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?

In my story Regarding Them the refrain, “and if everyone agrees, then it must be true” is repeated many times. Of course, you’re thinking “Just because everyone agrees doesn’t make it true. What about objective reality?” That refrain is not, as this response suggests, a negation of the possibility of an objective reality, but it is an assertion that we human beings are limited in our ability to verify the existence and actual nature of what we refer to as an “objective” reality.

We derive all our possible concepts from literal bodily experiences and a set of culturally determined linguistic formalities to connect them. We imaginatively use the logical structure of our literal experiences, with only the very minimum of reference to the original literal content, to understand other kinds experiences, i.e., How can a man be out of his mind? (reference: Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson)

What separates us from our primate cousins who have successfully learned to communicate via sign language is that fact that we can talk about minds and how to be out of them, whereas Koko the gorilla and other signing apes cannot get beyond the correspondence of symbols with literal experiences. The signing primates demonstrate the communicative abilities of about four year old humans and make no further progress because they cannot maintain the logical structure of a symbol independent of the content of the experiences that the symbol indicates.

When researchers teach apes to sign they do it in mostly the same way we teach children, through an immersion in an environment where language is a very useful and frequently used tool to achieve individual and social purposes. When we want to communicate with small children we are most successful when we are able to use concrete and literal language. A cup is a concrete object and the concept of a cup is understandable to both four year olds and signing primates. Another example of a concrete idea is a room. What cups and rooms have in common is that they share in the logical structure of bounded regions in space.

When we say that a man is “out of his mind” we have utilized several methods of abstraction. First, the abstract concept referred to by the word ‘mind.’ A mind is a cause of behavior. When you are in your right mind, you cause your behavior and are responsible for what results from those behaviors. When you are out of your mind then the behaviors that occur were not really caused by what we consider to be the real you, therefore you are not held fully responsible for the results of those behaviors. Thus, ‘mind’ consists of causal interpretations of different sets of behavioral patterns with normative implications.

Koko and a four year old can both understand that someone can be crazy. It means they are behaving abnormally. But they will fail to understand the phrase “out of his mind” unless it is explained to be the same as being crazy, or in the case of the four year old you can wait a year or two and it will make complete sense. The difference is in how the phrase refers to the logical structure of bounded regions in space to the abstract idea of mind as a bounded category of behaviors within which is normal behaviors and outside of which are abnormal behaviors. Thus the logical structure of bounded regions in space, such as rooms and cups, are applied to the categorization of behaviors into normal and abnormal with implications for the proper assignment of personal responsibility for the results. The apes do not appear to be capable of preserving the idea of bounded regions in space independent of the concrete experiences of cups and rooms, nor to be able to conceive of causal interpretations of different sets of behavioral patterns with normative implications. In other words, they will not understand the word ‘mind’ as a reference to anything real nor how a person can be inside or outside of one. (reference: The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon)

Because the only conceptions we can ever have about Truth are based on experiences of having the kinds of bodies we have, then the only truth that we can ever validate through shared experiences are, based on this fact, those that can be conveyed to others with similar bodily experiences. This does not negate the possibility of experiences that are ineffable, that is unique to an individual and incapable of being conceived of and/or expressed within language. However, if any aspect of “objective” reality occurs in a way that is beyond the scope of body-based conceptions, then we are incapable of sharing them with anyone else and therefore they cannot in any meaningful way be validated. The only kinds of experience that can ever possibly be validated by anyone else would have to be expressed through body-based concepts. Thus I feel obligated to qualify the very term ‘objective’ with quotation marks because it’s normal usage as a form of reality that is collectively validated is in important ways self-contradictory based on this understanding of our existence.

We are, therefore, equally limited in our ability to verify the existence and nature of anything that could qualify as a “spiritual” reality, as well. Thus science and religion are on equally shaky ground with regards to capital ‘T’ Truth. Thus I have drawn the conclusion that universal human agreement is the highest Truth we can ever hope to obtain, and it can, exclusively within the constraints of the logic and extent of bodily concepts, change.

Regarding Them Commentaries:

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About God?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Morality?


P@ said...

Do you actually have any evidence that other apes cannot comprehend the concept of 'mind', or is that just a whild assertion? I have not seen any evidence to support the claim in anything I have read on the subject.

Don Berg said...

I refer you to Terrence W. Deacon's book The Symbolic Species and his assessment on page 254 that "Even Kanzi [a chimpanzee who learned sign language naturally from his mother in the context her being a language aquisition study subject]-- who more than any other nonhuman has demonstrated the extent to which language comprehension abilities are possible...will probably not progress beyond the level of symbolic sophistication exhibited by a three-year-old human child (though he still has many years in which to prove me too pessimistic)."

P@ said...

To be fair, that is one specific species of the 'other apes' and from the wording, supposition. Also, I would tend to challenge the idea that 3 year olds don't (or can't) comprehend the concept of 'mind'. I don't have one to hand (3 yr old, that is, not mind!) but I am fairly sure that ones I have known have been quite capable of this abstraction...

Don Berg said...

In evaluating the capabilities of 3-year-olds it is important to be able to distinguish use of the term-as-referent, a relatively simple task, from actual understanding of the concept and ability to use it in reasoning about mental acts. I have experience working with children of all ages for over 15 years, have profesional certification as a nanny, and taught the 3- and 4-year old class in one of my jobs at a child care center. Based on these experiences and my own study of child development literature I am confident that it is a very rare 3-year-old that can exhibit actual understanding of the concept of mind through creative reasoning about mental acts.

Do not be surprised by a child using the word "mind" to accurately refer to that which thinks, percieves, believes, etc. The use of the term in this sense is just refering to the literal core meaning and does not reflect any further understanding. The question of understanding the concept is about being able to go beyond the literal core reference to reason about mental acts, such as understanding what is meant by "states of mind" and coming up with pertinent examples of the different "states" that a mind can be in.

P@ said...

Ah fair enough - but from my experience of university undergrads and the general populace, you will generally be hard pressed to find many of them who can demonstrate any reasonable form of understanding of concepts such as 'state of mind'

Don Berg said...

Actually, the kind of reasoning about minds that I am referring to is not an analytical exercize requiring educative experience, but really quite intuitive. Therefore, any average ten year old will get exactly what is meant by "states of mind" while a three year old will not.

The difference is not in how they deliberately and consciously pick apart the idea, it is how the person is unconsciously able to recognize the logic of metaphoric references implied by the particular language.

For instance, if I complain in the presence of a three-year-old, a ten-year-old, and a young adult, "I am so scattered." Then they will each have different capabilities for responding.

First the three-year-old: The three year old knows about objects being scattered. And the three year old knows that I was complaining. The most likely response by the three year old is to provide comfort, which might sound like he understood the idea of having a scattered mind when, in fact, he understands only the emotional content of the message. Beyond mere comforting, the three year old will not be able to then make a reasonable suggestion about what course of action I could take to remedy my concern. If pressed about the use of the term “scattered” this kid will be puzzled because literally I am all in one piece, not scattered. The three year old does not get the idea of abstract parts within one’s self which can be "scattered." The three year old will assume that I mean something sensible by my statement and is capable of imaginative speculation, which often has amusing results.

The ten-year-old: This kid has a clear understanding that I am feeling uncomfortable with the state of my mind because I have too many things going on. The ten year old will be able to, by understanding that I am concerned with having too many things on my mind, suggest reasonable remedies, not just comforting.

The young adult: Neither of the kids were able to think about how they thought about my statement, that is a skill that does not develop until young adulthood, if then. So if this is a young person who has been well taught, then the young adult can not only understand my complaint about the state of my mind and offer appropriate remedies, but also question me about whether or not that particular phrase accurately reflects my experience or might be better expressed by a different phrase.

You would be correct about the ability of most of the general populace having a hard time understanding our discussion about thinking, but the basic level of understanding of "states of mind" that we refer to in common everyday language like being "scattered" are concepts that we come to understand after a certain stage in normal human development. Particularly in the age range around four to six years old we make a major conceptual transition from what Piaget referred to as the concrete operational stage in which we are limited in our ability to preserve the logic of a concept independent of concrete experiential content. After this transition is made we need only a very minimal reference, most often without any conscious recognition of the referent, to invoke the logic of a particular type of experience for application to a completely different kind of experience. Like when we refer to our own internal experience as consisting of a set of distinct objects that can be "scattered" and by logical extension can be gathered together again and, perhaps, even be reassembled into a singular wholeness.

The transition at that stage of human development is an amazing phenomenon. When people who have a poetic bent describe that transition it is given an aura like a mystical power to transform the entire world. Imagining what the transformation must be like from the inside, the general consensus seems to be that it is like going from a magical world in which anything and everything is possible through a passage and then emerging into a world of cause and effect where it is possible to reason out limits and boundaries, not just discover them by trial and error. Of course, that is once again the creative use of metaphor and the reality is far more complex, and thus even more amazing for our limited ability to comprehend it.

Don Berg said...

In the November 2006 issue of Smithsonian Magazine the cover article is about bonobos and there is an inset article about Kanzi, the individual bonobo mentioned by Terrence Deacon in my quote from his book The Symbolic Species. According to the article Kanzi is now 26 years old, the patriarch of his bonobo tribe, has a vocabulary of 348 symbols and “knows the meaning of up to 3,000 spoken English words.” He lives with 7 other bonobos, who are all well trained in communicating via symbols, in the Great Ape Trusts complex in Des Moines, Iowa.

Here is a quote relevant to our discussion:
“…[M]any linguists argue that these bonobos are simply very skilled at getting what they want, and that their abilities do not constitute language. ‘I do not believe that there has ever been an example anywhere of a nonhuman expressing an opinion, or asking a question. Not ever,’ says Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. ‘It would be wonderful if animals could say things about the world, as opposed to just signaling a direct emotional state or need. But they just don’t.’”