TWENTY EIGHTEEN: IN REVIEW


 

Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being.  (Heidegger)

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him?  (Zhuangzi)

 

Preface

To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality.  It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture.  Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe.  It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years.  This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality.  This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are.  It is not a case of what we think, but how.  This is such a simple statement to make, but a  much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.

I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place.  Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year.  McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.”  And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today.  Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson.  I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s.  It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.

The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh.  Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall.  The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life.  Eisenstein says:

 

Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control.  Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite.  This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.

 

What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books.  A few disclaimers:  I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible.  It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation.  Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked.  Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly.  My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion.  I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.

 

Adam John Miller
20th December 2018


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Brains tend to optimize on the basis of what they already have, to add only what is necessary. Over the course of evolution, newer parts of the brain have built on, taken input from, and used older parts of the brain. Is it really plausible that, if the sensorimotor system can be put to work in the service of reason, the brain would build a whole new system to duplicate what it could do already?

From a biological perspective, it is eminently plausible that reason has grown out of the sensory and motor systems and that it still uses those systems or structures developed from them. This explains why we have the kinds of concepts we have and why our concepts have the properties they have. It explains why our spatial-relations concepts should be topological and orientational. And it explains why our system for structuring and reasoning about events of all kinds should have the structure of a motor-control system.

It is only from a conservative philosophical position that one would want to believe in the old faculty psychology-in the idea that the human mind has nothing about it that animals share, that reason has nothing about it that smells of the body.

Philosophically, the embodiment of reason via the sensorimotor system is of great importance. It is a crucial part of the explanation of why it is possible for our concepts to fit so well with the way we function in the world. They fit so well because they have evolved from our sensorimotor systems, which have in turn evolved to allow us to function well in our physical environment. The embodiment of mind thus leads us to a philosophy of embodied realism. Our concepts cannot be a direct reflection of external, objective, mind-free reality because our sensorimotor system plays a crucial role in shaping them. On the other hand, it is the involvement of the sensorimotor system in the conceptual system that keeps the conceptual system very much in touch with the world.

Our subjective mental life is enormous in scope and richness. We make subjective judgments about such abstract things as importance, similarity, difficulty, and morality, and we have subjective experiences of desire, affection, intimacy, and achievement. Yet, as rich as these experiences are, much of the way we conceptualize them, reason about them, and visualize them comes from other domains of experience. These other domains are mostly sensorimotor domains, as when we conceptualize understanding an idea (subjective experience) in terms of grasping an object (sensorimotor experience) and failing to understand an idea as having it go right by us or over our heads. The cognitive mechanism for such conceptualizations is conceptual metaphor, which allows us to use the physical logic of grasping to reason about understanding.

Metaphor allows conventional mental imagery from sensorimotor domains to be used for domains of subjective experience. For example, we may form an image of something going by us or over our heads (sensorimotor experience) when we fail to understand (subjective experience). A gesture tracing the path of something going past us or over our heads can indicate vividly a failure to understand.

Conceptual metaphor is pervasive in both thought and language. It is hard to think of a common subjective experience that is not conventionally conceptualized in terms of metaphor. But why does such a huge range of conventional conceptual metaphor exist? How is it learned and what are the precise details? What is the mechanism by which we reason metaphorically? And which metaphors are universal (or at least widespread) and why?

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.