I had lunch today with an old friend who has been mucking around in the trenches of constructivism as long as I have. It is rare that I can have an unencumbered conversation about the two distinct worlds that come forth when we distinguish the material, objective world of mechanistic objects from the subjective world of meaningful objects. They co-exist, but we humans make a moment-by-moment choice of which one we want to guide our life. If you do not understand this difference, go back to the blog of April 29th and dwell on the two quotes from Maturana and Rorty, about the middle of the post.
I do not know how the brain distinguishes between these two distinct worlds, but the conscious individual does. Consciousness is more than a general awareness that we are immersed in a world that provides phenomenal inputs to our sensory organs. Consciousness is always an awareness of something out there in the material world. Our brain operates on these inputs, converting or, at least, attempting to convert them to some distinctive meaningful thought. The exact biological mechanism by which this translation process takes place is as yet poorly known, but the philosophy of Martin Heidegger can provide insight into this dichotomy.
Heidegger argues that humans differ from other animals because we are conscious of the world around us and have the linguistic capability to give meaning to it. The meaning of worldly objects arises by interactions with them. As we acquire such meanings, the objects become ready-to-hand, Heidegger’s phrase for objects in the material world that have acquired contextual meaning. He also called these objects: equipment. We understand what a hammer is once we have used it to hammer. Our brains have some sort of memory of the object, associated with the context in which it has become meaningful. If we should encounter the same object out of the context of being used as it has been, it might carry the same label, but would have some other meaning that depended on that particular context, say, as the centerpiece of a modern abstract artistic construction.
We also acquire decontextualized knowledge about objects through didactic and auto-didactic education. Objects that we can identify in terms of generalized or abstract descriptions have an existence distinct from those we understand through use. Heidegger calls such objects: present-at-hand. Both exist as material objects in the world out there, but in two different modes for us. The meaningful ready-at-hand object carries with it a particular kind of truth that is absent from its abstract present-at-hand twin. That truth is a sense of alignment with the real world, the world out there, but not the world of abstractions handed to us by scientific inquiry. The hammer works, that is, it accomplishes the task I wanted or intended to do. When something ready-to-hand is not available to me, (I lost my hammer last week.) the transparency (momentary disappearance of consciousness) of hammering is lost, but I can continue by allowing the immediate world become present and create a hammer by applying my abstract knowledge to objects that become present-at-hand. Knowing that I need a massive, hard object to bang in a nail, I could pick up a rock and keep the action going.
Truth in the meaningful world of ready-to-hand is a different kind of truth from that in the world of present-at-hand. The first kind represents some understanding of the exact way the world works as an organic, contextual reality. I have learned the truth about hammering after I have used a hammer. I cannot explain what that truth is in abstract terms without losing something that was part of the explicit context of my experience. For example, if I picked up a massive piece of glass and tried to hammer with it, I might end up with a pile of shards. The fact that glass is brittle was absent from my prior experience. Heidegger called such truths, inherent in ready-to-hand objects, aletheia (a Greek word for not-being-hidden), or unconcealment. I will also use a more familiar word, pragmatic, to refer to such truths that have become evident while acting in a coherent way in a real world context.
So with this example, let’s shift to the much larger world of everyday reality. All living organisms act biologically to maintain viability. I have used Maturana’s term, autopoiesis, to describe this process in other places. Antonio Damasio describes the human brain as generating a core self (a metaphor) for the processes that maintain homeostasis: bodily conditions within a range that permits the body to remain alive. This self operates without meaning.
For those interested in neuroscience, Damasio posits a second metaphorical self, the proto-self. This self is represented by the reactionary emotions that we have acquired through evolution and is seated in the oldest part (reptilian) of the brain. Emotions like thirst, hunger, or fright are a kind of ready-to-hand understanding of what to do with one’s body in certain contexts. In the emotional context, the body is equivalent to other ready-to-hand objects, like the hammer example. Emotions reveal truths about the world that have become embodied through evolution. The basic emotions are responses to worldly situations that have been effective in maintaining the body, that is, surviving.
Emotional actions lack the meaningfulness of conscious, intentional actions, that is, actions I can reasons about if asked. Such actions are associated with a third kind of self that, according to Damasio, operates in a meaningful manner. He called this one, the autobiographical self; it arises from the stored memories of worldly experience, mediated through language. This self is the biological equivalent of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world.
The protoself and the core self operate without language. Their functioning can be said to be truthful in the sense that they maintain coherence with the world. The truth Heidegger writes about is more about coherence than correctness in any formal sense. [Pragmatic] truth relates to the ability of the human being to maintain coherence with the objective world. Truth has such a pragmatic sense in its relation to successful coping with the world. Further, this kind of truth arises dialectically from actions taken in some meaningful context. The brain senses when whatever was done in response to phenomenal inputs worked and keeps a “record” of that for future reference. The record associated with the core- and proto-self has been written by the evolutionary history of the species, and has phylogenic origins. When similar situations are encountered, the “truthful” actions are recalled and, if still successful, are more deeply rooted in the brain.
Each human creates another record, an ontogenic one, corresponding to its own, unique experiential history: the autobiographical self of Damasio. Unlike the other two selves, this one is mediated through language. Language arose through effective human coping with the world. Language enables humans to relate to each other; to coordinate action as befits a social species. The distinctions that are created in language are stored in the brain in some corresponding form that is yet to be clearly elucidated by neuroscience. Language would have arisen first in human efforts to coordinate actions related to natural phenomena, but, as settlements and their cultures developed, would have expanded as new situations demanded new kinds of coping activities.
Until late in human development, language was largely must have expressed pragmatic truths, experiences that worked well enough to be memorialized in words. The formal, abstract way of expressing truths emerged only in recent times. Sticking with Heidegger for a moment, he blamed the Greeks, especially Plato, for the inversion of truth from its pragmatic to its abstract sense. Modernity, in particular, is characterized by a hegemonic domination of abstract over pragmatic truths. In the process, humans have become separated from the real world and the coherence with it that comes from acting pragmatically. The result is that our actions, both individually and collectively, fail to produce the intended results and may also produce unintended consequences.
Why all this philosophizing? It is very important to the concept of flourishing. Flourishing becomes present when humans are living coherently (effectively) in relation to their biology and the cultural world in which they exist. The core-and proto-selves handle the biology; the autobiographical self copes with the culture as long as sufficient ready-to-hand resources (pragmatic truths) are available. The ills of modernity I write about could be said to arise from the lack of such resources. Another way to say this is to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s comment about capitalism, “We know a lot about everything, but understand little about the world.” (He wrote, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”)
The above discussion is not so different from my usual rant about the failure to view the world as complex, with the result that the actions we take fall short of producing what we intend them to do. Complexity, without its technical definition, is equivalent to the contextual real world of the preceding paragraphs. The world that Heidegger referred to in his compound phrase, being-in-the-world, is the same complex world we define as non-linear, chaotic, etc. The philosophy of pragmatism and its formal methodologies are merely attempts to unconceal truths about that world. They are extensions to collective situations of the way individual humans generate truths that enable them to successfully navigate life, and ultimately to flourish.
Let me add a few words about care. Care is what humans do when they act out of pragmatic truths, employing ready-to-hand resources. Action, under these circumstances, coheres with the contextual worldly situation, by using ready-to-hand resources that fit. Care is inherently meaningful. One of the key resources of care is empathy, understanding of the other’s situation as part of the context of action. Another key resource is the ability to reflect. Context is created during interruptions in the flow of action. Some call the process by which this happens, presencing, as opposed to the recession of the conscious world during caring actions as ready-to-hand resources produce transparency. Context becomes consciousness during the intervals between such transparencies, and can be captured at that point.
I recognize that I have thrown a lot of ideas around in this post, but I believe that are all parts of a holistic picture of how humans exist in the real world. There are even more pieces I haven’t included. I hope this begins to establish a link between the emerging understanding of the brain and its processes with our sense of reality and how humans behave with respect to it. And, although I did not say much about the failings of the dominant objective world view, this discussion should make a little clearer my arguments about replacing it with a frame that incorporates the very important missing piece: meaning. This discussion also continues to ground flourishing as much more than just an appealing, nice sounding metaphor.