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Recognizing Reality, by Stephen Talbot

October 9, 2014

Talbott is a remarkable writer, strongly influenced by British poet and barrister Owen Barfield.  This kind of understanding, along with that of McGilchrist and “the divided brain”, is – I believe – essential for understanding the pathology of materialist beliefs.

Recognizing Reality

Stephen L. Talbott

This article is part of a work in progress and is subject to continual revision. Date of last revision: June 5, 2013. The article was originally published in NetFuture #162 (April 5, 2005).Copyright 2005, 2013 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved.

What is a quality? I cannot tell you — at least not in any direct way. This makes it difficult for me when a reader, Maurice Englander, responds to “The Reduction Complex” (NF #158) by complaining that “Talbott never defines what he means by ‘quality'”. Former Wired editor, Kevin Kelly, voices a similar concern when he asks me for a definition of “the exact method of holism — how it runs as a science and not as poetry”.

I respect these requests. This essay is the beginning of a response. But I am afraid my response may not be quite what my correspondents were looking for. The crucial issue, we will find, is whether their insistence upon a definition and an exact method is an insistence upon conformity to the very science we need to reform. After all, we typically try to define a thing by holding it fast, freezing it, nailing it down. We want to say what it is, so that we can point at and delineate it in no uncertain terms. We want to grasp it securely and without ambiguity.

There is, in other words, an aggressive philosophical stance concealed in the seemingly innocent demand for a definition. But what if reality, like water, slips through our clutching fingers? How much good will it do us to pin something down if the reality we are trying to lay hold of is a power of movement and becoming — a living, animating power by which each thing is continually becoming something different? What if the entire business of qualities is to express the moving, pulsing, darting, gliding, ascending and descending, throbbing, living, self-transforming character of the world’s phenomena? Can we exactly define that which is continually transforming itself?

If, from the start, we insist that the poet could not possibly be exercising badly needed cognitive faculties neglected by today’s dominant science — well, then, we are not asking what sort of new science might arise. Rather, we are insisting that, whatever it is, it must embody the limitations of the science we already have.

In this introductory essay I wish only to bring a greater vividness to the problem of qualities. Along the way, a crucial first point should begin to emerge: although my correspondents would hang the question of qualities like an albatross around the neck of the would-be qualitative scientist, the truth is that it weighs first of all — and decisively — upon the reductionist scientist. In fact, as I have suggested before, it is a game-ending problem for reductionism. All science, right down to its most tough-minded, quantitative formulations, remains permeated by qualities wherever its equations and algorithms touch revealingly upon actual physical phenomena — that is, whenever the science gives us understanding of the world. But the reductionist, while relying upon these qualities for the sense of his explanations, refuses to speak about them in any meaningful way.

The willingness of a new science to identify itself with the difficult problem of qualities is not a sign of weakness but rather of a return to health. Even if the initial attempts at understanding prove terribly inadequate, they will be greatly preferable to willful disregard of the qualitative dimensions of conventional science.

Some day we will be dumbfounded at the long-sustained pathology whereby the scientist looked out upon a world consisting of nothing but qualities and then claimed to explain it while refusing to say anything substantial about the nature of those qualities.

Pathologies of Language

Aphasia is a disorder often resulting from lesions to the so-called “language centers” of the left brain. According to the usual definition, people with aphasia lose their ability to understand words as such. Oddly, however, friends and relatives of those afflicted sometimes hardly recognize that anything is amiss. How can this be? How can a person fail to understand words and yet get along reasonably well in many situations involving verbal communication?

Well, the aphasic patient does have a problem. But it may not declare itself clinically, according to neurologist Oliver Sacks, until the physician speaks to the patient in an impersonal, mechanical, and unnatural way, removing “all the extraverbal cues — tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture)….” In order to confirm a diagnosis, Sacks finds he might even need to employ a voice synthesizer or otherwise manage to produce “grossly artificial, mechanical speech — somewhat like that of computers in Star Trek“.

The reason for these special measures, of course, is that the meaning of our speech is conveyed through much more than the abstract, definable, strictly logical and propositional force of the words. Aphasic patients, while unable to receive speech in its more fixed grammatical, logical, and lexical signification, are nevertheless sensitive to a much deeper, more gestural realm of expression. Only when the patient is cut off from this fuller, richer sphere of communication does his deficit most clearly present itself.

Sacks goes on to note that, because aphasics may “preternaturally enhance” their sensitivity to the subtle, expressive aspects of speech, he sometimes has the feeling that

one cannot lie to an aphasic. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely theexpression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can …. They have an infallible ear for every vocal nuance, the tone, the rhythm, the cadences, the music, the subtlest modulations, inflections, intonations, which can give — or remove — verisimilitude to or from a man’s voice. (Sacks 1985, pp. 76-79)

Those with injuries to the opposite (right) side of the brain may suffer difficulties complementary to aphasia. While identifying words correctly in some narrow sense and following grammatical constructions exactly, they lose awareness of everything expressive about a voice. Because they perceive speech to be flat and emotionless, they become wooden and literal-minded in their understanding. Deeply meaningful, or passionate speech becomes confusing and contradictory to them.

Speaking of one such patient, Sacks describes how she paid “extreme attention to exactness of words and word use”, and demanded the same of others. Slang and loose or richly allusive speech were difficult, so that she “more and more required of her interlocutors that they speak prose — ‘proper words in proper places'”. One suspects she would have done very well as a programmer working with computer languages.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

There are pathologies of vision — also due to right-brain lesions — that closely parallel those of the literal-minded woman. Sacks tells how, when he first met “the man who mistook his wife for a hat”, the patient did not look at him in the normal way, but rather “made sudden strange fixations — on my nose, on my right ear, down to my chin, up to my right eye — as if noting (even studying) these individual features, but not seeing my whole face, its changing expressions, ‘me’ as a whole”.

You could hardly have a clearer image of the tendency of science to become a purely analytic discipline and a fragmented collection of facts. The patient (Dr P.) “had no sense whatever of a landscape or a scene”. As for people: “in the absence of obvious ‘markers’, he was utterly lost”. He approached faces — “even of those near and dear — as if they were abstract puzzles or tests. He did not relate to them, he did not behold. No face was familiar to him, seen as a ‘thou’, being just identified as a set of features, an ‘it'”. This is why, when intending to put on his hat, he reached out to grab the head of his wife.

In sum, Dr P. functioned like a machine, indifferent to visual images as such and construing the world “by means of key features and schematic relationships …. without the reality being grasped at all”. It reminds me of the opening pages of a book called The Marriage of Sense and Thought, where the authors speak of a warm smile between friends and then imagine how its reality would be reduced through a mechanistic investigation: “a smile is a widening of the oral aperture, caused by contractions of the cheek musculature”, and so on (Edelglass, Maier, et al. 1997, p. 1).

It is not that such descriptions lack usefulness. The question has to do with how much reality the scientist is content to ignore as if it were not there. We certainly need our powers of isolation and abstraction, but, as Sacks remarks of Dr P., “it was precisely this, his absurd abstractness of attitude — absurd because unleavened with anything else — which rendered him incapable of perceiving identity…” (Sacks 1985, pp. 7-21).

Such cases provide us with a good opportunity to ask, “What is the ‘something else’ that enables us to take in the world in a manner that coheres, holds together, gives it meaningful form?” Such coherence, after all, is the first prerequisite for any science.

Actually, the something else is not really something else. It is the only thing we have. The literal, fragmented, logically precise truth we cherish is never anything but a stripped-down and therefore easily falsified abstraction from a much fuller and more expressive reality.

Complementary Deficiencies

The clinical observations reported by Sacks form one part of a large body of research relating to the two hemispheres of the brain. Although the right brain/left brain distinction is often rendered popularly in coarse, simplistic terms, it is by now well-established that there are differing tendencies at work in the two parts of the brain, albeit in an extremely subtle interplay. A leading authority in the matter, Colwyn Trevarthen, summarizes certain findings this way:

It appeared that the right hemisphere was able to notice the shape of things more completely than the left. Taken with evidence that systematic calculation and forming logical propositions with words were better performed by the left hemisphere, these results favoured the idea that the right hemisphere is better at taking in the structure of things synthetically, without analysis, assimilating all components at once in an ensemble, figure, or Gestalt. (Trevarthen 1987; see also Gazzaniga and Hutsler 1999)

Where the left hemisphere does well with abstractions and with “disembedded or context-free propositions lacking in interpersonal force”, the right hemisphere copes best with language that “is fitted into the world of objects, interpersonal acts, and events, all of which sustain the meaning of what is said”. Similarly, as Gazzaniga and Hutsler report, “the right hemisphere is typically much better at representing the whole object while the left hemisphere shows a slight advantage for recognizing the parts of an object”.

The distinction between hemispheres becomes especially sharp when we recognize faces, a task for which the right hemisphere exhibits “an extraordinary superiority”. The superiority manifests itself most dramatically when there are no isolated, bold, distinguishing marks on a face, such as a scar or mustache. This is because, with the right brain, we take in the impression of the whole and do not focus on separate features analyzed out of the whole. By contrast, the person forced to rely on the left brain alone achieves recognition only through “a laborious check-list of distinctive semantic elements to be memorized and searched for” (Trevarthen 1987).

Two Ways of Looking

Every naturalist is familiar with laborious checklists of distinguishing elements. Such checklists are formalized into the various “keys” used for identifying and classifying plants and animals. An identification key typically presents you with a series of yes-or-no questions. For example, in trying to identify a particular tree, you might be led through the following dialogue, where each succeeding question follows a “yes” answer to the previous one:

Is this a broad-leaved plant with simple rather than compound leaves?
Are the leaves opposite one another on the branches?
Is this an erect tree or shrub?
Are the leaves toothed?
Are the leaves also lobed?
Are the twigs neither red nor hairy?
Are the buds red and blunt with several scales?
Is the trunk bark rough and not flaking?
Then this is a red maple.

The key, in other words, presents you with a neatly logical framework consisting of a set of crisp, yes-or-no forks in your path of inquiry. Such guides are essential for every field naturalist.

Nevertheless, experienced naturalists do not often use a guide of this sort. The recognition they normally rely on in the field is, as zoologist C. F. A. Pantin has pointed out, strikingly different from the tedious, step-by-step logical exercise demanded by the key. “Our recognition of species in the field is commonly instantaneous. We do not consciously traverse a series of dichotomous alternatives, excluding one possibility after another before we arrive at the answer. Indeed it is difficult to believe that we do anything of this sort even unconsciously”.

Pantin also notes that the errors committed in what he calls “aesthetic recognition” (and which I will here call “qualitative recognition”) differ from the wrong turns we take when traversing a logical key. The latter mistakes are “as disastrous as an arithmetical error in calculation”. It is not hard to see why. Taking the wrong fork of a path whose divergences are designed to be clear and unambiguous quite naturally lands you in territory that is clearly and unambiguously the wrong territory. Every fork you take after the first wrong turn only confirms your lostness.

An error in qualitative recognition, on the other hand (“For a moment I thought you were your brother”) is less clear-cut. In general, Pantin suggests, there is truth in such errors. We were not altogether wrong. The mistaken impression was more or less like the thing we were after. “You really do look a little like your brother. In taking you for him, I was truly recognizing in you certain aspects of him”. We do not have neat, yes-or-no judgments so long as we are reckoning with the qualities of things.

This relates to another feature of qualitative recognition, which is that it is not analytical. “It seems to depend on the whole available impression”, and this totality makes possible various associative connections. Pantin illustrates this with wonderful examples:

Even a statement such as “The spines of the sea-urchin I am looking for have something of Chippendale about them — whilst that one looks Hepplewhite” may be significant. And if, when we are collecting Rhynchodemus bilineatus together, I say, “Bring me any worms that sneer at you,” the probability of your collecting the right species becomes high.

In this case, not only is the probability of correct identification high, but the collection rate will be much faster than when the students are directed to look for the various separate anatomical features that might be analyzed out of the “sneer”. Moreover, because the whole impression is an impression of the whole, it does not arbitrarily discard the greater part of what we can recognize in the organism. By contrast, once we have run through our list of yes-or-no features, “a very great deal of the impression which the organism makes upon us still remains ‘unused’. This residue is undoubtedly important in our recognition of species even though it cannot be analyzed in just this [yes-or-no] way” (Pantin 1954).

We have, then, a contrast between propositional knowledge — the kind of knowledge that comes through analysis and results in sharply articulated, logically well-structured statements of atomic fact — and recognitional or qualitative knowledge. To use an example given by Ron Brady: you find yourself engaging in one sort of activity when trying to recognize an old friend in a crowd, and quite a different activity when struggling to identify a stranger in the same crowd by proceeding through a list of discrete features (Brady 2002).

You already have an overall impression of your friend — one perhaps sufficiently rich in its expressive potential to enable nearly instantaneous recognition of him even in postures or activities you have never witnessed before. As you scan the crowd, there are countless possible gestures of form or movement that might tip you off to the presence of the person you are looking for. Each one of them bears, not some literal and specific, easily definable feature, but rather the expressive signature of the friend. That is, they are all shone through by the same qualities, the same unifying whole — a fact demonstrated by your ability to recognize numerous outward, novel manifestations as expressing the character of one individual.

In the analytical approach, by contrast, you are reduced to identifying, one by one, a set of low-level features described in unexpressive and rather more literal terms. Given a set of successful recognitions, you say, “This must be the person” — but you still do not recognize him in the way you would a friend. Time and familiarity are required before you can experience the inner, expressive unity that raises the particulars into a coherent and multi-dimensioned whole.

The Dilemma of Definition

It appears there are two ways we know the world — or, rather, two different, nearly opposite, cognitive movements we make on our way to understanding. This observation is in no way dependent upon functional divisions within the brain. I mentioned the brain research only because it helpfully draws our attention to distinct aspects of our cognitive activity. But we should be able to notice these aspects directly. And, as Pantin’s discussion shows, we can in fact do so, without reference to physiology. Even if the brain hemispheres happened to be absolutely identical in their functioning, it would not affect the points I will be making.

The idea behind the identification key is straightforward and valuable: break the task down into discrete steps so that each one can routinely and reliably be executed. Break the object we are observing down into its parts. We arrive at a series of simple, yes-or-no choices by reducing them to the terms of more-or-less unproblematic givens. The aim is for automatic and sure-fire judgments: This flower has five petals, these leaves are compound … therefore, “this is that”.

The cognitive movement at issue here is one whereby we abstract and calculate, analyze and divide, isolate and decontextualize, define and classify. We strive to achieve an ever sharper focus in order to eliminate all ambiguity and attain the highest possible precision. Above all, we want nailed-down certainty. Through such pinpoint focus we tend to lose thecharacter of what we are looking at. This is because the object of our attention becomes disconnected from everything else, whereas character (and the unity it signifies) can be found only in the qualitative connection of things. That is, the unifying character lies between the analyzed elements or parts. It is not some material thing.

What, then, of the counterbalancing movement, whereby we do not isolate and decontextualize, but rather discover relatedness through the qualitative and expressive character of things? Let me ask the question this way: Can we isolate and define this relatedness with unambiguous, nailed-down precision?

The question itself declares our dilemma. We may, with Pantin, glimpse cognitive processes running in the opposite direction from our well-characterized powers of analysis. But in an analytically biased society, what can we acceptably say about these processes? When reputable scientific discourse is equated with precise, analytical definition, how do we speak about whatever is opposed to precise, analytical definition? Are we not being asked to define the movement of thought running counter to definition? How can we analyze an activity whose whole purpose is to recognize unities and wholes by overcoming analytic separation?

There Is No Escaping Qualities

Clearly, we’ve got a problem here. But however difficult our task in chasing down long-ignored aspects of cognition, it would hardly be seemly for the practitioners of today’s sophisticated and abstruse science to complain of burdensome difficulty. Nor can they honestly retreat from the problem by muttering epithets like “obscurantism” and “mysticism”. The processes of recognition Pantin describes may seem mysterious to our current understanding, but they are not other-worldly. They are as close to us as ourselves, observable in every routine act of perception. Likewise, the bizarre syndromes afflicting patients with right-hemisphere lesions — patients unable to perceive the expressive, unifying qualities of things — are not inaccessible and mystical. We have many clinical descriptions.

What we need is to find the right terms of understanding for abilities we casually demonstrate every day, and it should not surprise us if these terms are as unexpected in relation to familiar habits of thought as were the syndromes resulting from loss of these abilities.

Regarding these syndromes, Sacks tells us that neurologists long ignored lesions to the right side of the brain because their effects seemed much more difficult to get a grip on compared to the disruption of those left-brain functions we rely upon so heavily. He adds that, while the left hemisphere may in some respects be considered the later, more sophisticated, and more specialized one,

it is the right brain which controls the crucial powers of recognising reality which every living creature must have in order to survive. The left hemisphere, like a computer tacked onto the basic creatural brain, is designed for programs and schematics; and classical neurology was more concerned with schematics than with reality, so that when, at last, some of the right-hemisphere syndromes emerged, they were considered bizarre. (Sacks 1985, p. 2)

And so, too, many scientists will consider any reckoning with qualities bizarre — which you can take to mean, “Please! — I’m not comfortable with that. It doesn’t belong to conventional scientific practice”. And so it doesn’t. When will we begin to recognize the obvious, which is that this is a problem?

Just as neurologists have needed to face those aspects of reality that don’t readily submit to their neat logical schemata, so also within physics and every other discipline. If the charge of obscurantism is called for, its fitting target is a science that, fearing what seemed bizarre and threatening to its preferred one-sidedness, simply covered its eyes. How can you pursue an observation-based science while turning a blind eye to the routine and essential role of qualitative recognition in all observation?

After all, it is not as though we can speak of a method of pure analysis, independent of our recognition of expressive qualities. You cannot proceed through a list of discrete features in an analytical key without first being able to recognize each individual feature as expressing its own unifying qualities. A leaf on a tree has its own significant unity, as does a nose on a face. If you relied solely on analysis, you could recognize a nose only with the aid of another analytical key — and each part of a nose with yet another key — so that you would be stuck in an endless, iterative task. In the end, we have no choice but to recognize something on the strength of its unified qualitative and expressive presentation of itself.

The aim of the analytic approach is to make the necessary recognitions so simple and unproblematic that they are absolutely reliable, or nearly so. Then we hardly need to notice that we are recognizing anything or to ask what we are recognizing. Our attention can shift mindlessly to the “yes” or “no” we pronounce at each logical fork of our key. The process begins to seem automatic, and it is easy to ignore the fact that our science is wholly dependent upon acts of qualitative recognition.

We must, of course always strive toward reliability, and analytic methods are important to this striving. But any one-sided resort to these methods is highly problematic, for two reasons: first, it encourages reliance upon habit — upon recognitions so routine that we no longer struggle to question or deepen them in the true scientific spirit; and second, because it beguiles us into the false belief that real knowledge is of a simple, yes-or-no sort, and that we do not have to deal with the qualities of things.

The recognizable expressiveness of things is not something added to their “real” content. It is the fullness of the content itself. Without it, all content disappears. Abstract schemata in general and measurements in particular do not give us reality. Painfully obvious as this is, it remains widely ignored. But our measurements have to be measurements ofsomething, and we have no scientific understanding until we can speak intelligibly about what this something is. Nor can we do this in any terms except qualitative ones. Simply filling in our quantitative notions with unexamined, almost unnoticed qualitative mental pictures does not make our work worthy of science.

Living with Corn

As I have indicated, no scientist can turn entirely away from the world and its qualities. But occasionally one finds a prominent researcher who actually acknowledges and consciously works with the qualitative reality of her subject. One such scientist was the celebrated geneticist, Barbara McClintock, well-known — and considered rather eccentric — for cultivating what has been called a “feeling for the organism”. A life-long student of corn and its genetic organization, she would observe every plant she studied, starting when it was a tiny seedling. “I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along, so I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them” (Keller 1983, p. 198).

McClintock’s biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, tells of the geneticist’s meeting with a group of graduate and postdoctoral biology students at Harvard University. The students were responsive to her exhortation that they “take the time and look”, but they were also troubled. Where does one get the time to look and to think? “They argued that the new technology of molecular biology is self-propelling. It doesn’t leave time. There’s always the next experiment, the next sequencing to do. The pace of current research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance”.

McClintock went on to tell the students how fortunate she had been for having worked with a slow technology, a slow organism. Other researchers disliked corn because you could only grow two crops a year. But she found that even two crops a year were too many. If she was really to observe her plants adequately, one crop was all she could handle.

McClintock had little patience for her many colleagues who were “so intent on making everything numerical”, and who therefore missed much of what could be seen. Because of her commitment to the whole, qualitative organism,

her own method was to “see one kernel [of corn] that was different, and make that understandable.” She felt that her colleagues, in their enthusiasm for “counting,” too often overlooked that single, aberrant kernel (Keller 1983, pp. 198-207).

Through such oversight, those colleagues sacrificed the potential richness of science. “Things”, McClintock remarked, “are much more marvelous than the scientific method allows us to conceive”. In the end, her own work contributed a good deal toward the enlargement of this method. Her “slow” attention to the qualitative nuances of individual corn plants led eventually to discoveries for which, tardily, she was awarded the Nobel Prize.Analytical Collapse

We can contrast McClintock’s work with the body of research that became known as classical Mendelian genetics. When, in his famous experiments laying the foundation for modern genetics, Gregor Mendel counted violet-flowered and white-flowered peas, he did not puzzle over this or that particular flower with its own peculiar shape and shade of violet. Or, if he did, the fact is not reflected in his final tabulation of results.

When Barbara McClintock strove to “see one kernel [of corn] that was different, and make that understandable”, she was led to the principle of genetic transposition (Keller 1983). This in turn helped to loosen the logical structure of genetics, which had become rigid and brittle. If Mendel had been similarly entranced by the nuances of his violet and white flowers — if he had not been content to “digitize” them in his mind, reducing all the qualitative variations so as to achieve a two-valued, schema — if he had not fixated upon neat, arithmetic ratios — we would likely have a far richer and more balanced discipline of genetics today (Holdrege 1996).

As McClintock knew so well, a quality of any part always reveals something about the character of the whole to which it belongs. The analytical key collapses this revelatory potential down to a single yes-or-no value, or a group of such values. Such a narrowing of focus and restriction of insight serves many practical purposes. But if this analytical collapse of the world remains the sole or primary cognitive movement of the scientist, then the world begins to disappear and science verges upon a kind of formal emptiness disguised as formidable technique.

This is rather like what happened to Dr P. While his ability to visualize faces and integral scenes was drastically impaired, Sacks reports that “the visualization of schemata was preserved, perhaps enhanced. Thus when I engaged him in a game of mental chess, he had no difficulty visualizing the chessboard or the moves — indeed, no difficulty in beating me soundly” (Sacks 1985, p. 15). The loss of a meaningful and coherent world apparently may coincide with considerable skill at merely syntactic and technical operations.

Noting that the mental processes constituting our being and life “are not just abstract and mechanical” but involve feeling and aesthetic judgment, Sacks goes on to say,

Our cognitive sciences are themselves suffering from an agnosia essentially similar to Dr P.’s. Dr P. may therefore serve as a warning and parable — of what happens to a science which eschews the judgmental, the particular, the personal, and becomes entirely abstract and computational (Sacks 1985, p. 19).

The Problem Before Us

I have not been trying to identify some strange or paranormal or unapproachable reality called a “quality”. We in fact have nothing but qualities. The question should be turned around and thrown at the scientist who does his best to ignore qualities: “Give us a scientific characterization of the physical world that is not qualitative. And remember that mathematical statements by themselves, as pure mathematics, are not statements about the physical world”. If you want obscurantism, just listen to the strange answers you will receive to this request.

What I have been suggesting is that, in our attempts to apprehend the world, we have two polar opposite movements of consciousness. With one gesture we try to take hold of the world’s truth, narrowing it down to a sharp focus for ease of comprehension. With the other we yield ourselves up to the truth by allowing its expressive fullness to resonate within us and thereby to shape the entire range of our cognitive faculties — to shape us — in its likeness.

Both are essential. When the former tries to dominate, as it does in reductionist science, it becomes a grasping in order to possess and control. It becomes a demand for certainty and a refusal of ambiguity. When the two movements are in balance — the taking hold and the offering of ourselves — we have exchange, conversation, participation in reality.

To the extent we lose our balance and become fixated upon grasping and pinning down, our language (and therefore our understanding) contracts toward the formalisms of grammar, logic, and mathematics. With these we become ever more precise and less ambiguous, but at the cost of losing the world’s content. We sacrifice reality for the sake of certainty. With pure logic (recall the p’s and q’s in textbooks of formal logic) our terms have been so emptied of content that we can speak with great precision, but cannot say anything in particular about the world. If we worship this precision, it is not because we have gained some dependable reality more solid and sure than qualities, but rather because we have abandoned reality. We have abandoned the qualities that are the only reality we have (Talbott 1995).

There are two kinds of clarity and exactness corresponding to the two cognitive movements. We can analyze, and reduce a phenomenon as far as possible to single parts, isolated from all their relations. We thereby gain exactness through simplification and loss of character. Alternatively, we can aim for greater clarity by illuminating and embracing a thing from ever new angles, bringing all its relatedness and diverse qualities fully into the light. One method approaches certainty through reduction, so that we become ever more certain about less and less. The other approaches certainty through ever greater completeness, through the recovery of context, and through richness of insight. The former tends toward automatism; the latter requires extraordinarily hard work and the continual expansion of our inner capacities, including (as we will eventually see) moral ones.


So what are qualities? For now, I offer the same reply Owen Barfield gave to the question, “what is meaning?” (Meaning and qualities are intimately related. We speak more of meaning when we are referring to the human being, and more of qualities when we are referring to the world. But just as qualities are both in us and in the world, so also is meaning.) Barfield wrote that while meaning “is not expressible in definitions and the like (the prosaic), [it] is indirectly expressible in metaphor and simile (the poetic)”:

That is to say, it is suggestible; for meaning itself can never be conveyed from one person to another; words are not bottles; every individual must intuit meaning for himself, and the function of the poetic is to mediate such intuition by suitable suggestion. (Barfield 1973, p. 133)

The suitable suggestion can come from many sides. “All” you need to do, for example, is to enter as deeply as you can into Pantin’s distinction between a logical key and aesthetic recognition (what is it you are recognizing when you recognize a friend in a crowd?), and you will have begun to understand what qualities are. “All” you need to do is to appreciate what is missing in certain right-brain-damaged individuals and you will have learned to appreciate qualities. Or, more generally, all you need to do is develop your artistic sensitivities.

We in fact live within a sea of qualities; there is no problem finding them or learning to work with them. It simply requires an interest in doing so and a willingness to proceed in a rigorous manner.

All, or nearly all, of us have no difficulty reading the smiles of our spouses, children, and friends as much more than “widenings of the oral aperture, caused by contractions of the cheek musculature”. Some among us develop great skill at understanding the entire range of human expression, learning to commune deeply and sympathetically with the self doing the expressing. This sort of understanding — as every one of us (scientist or otherwise) assumes in daily life — is real and objective, even if it is very unlike our schematic knowledge of machines. It leads to possibilities of conversation and exchange that are as deep as our understanding.

There is, then, one inescapable fork in the road to understanding, and it requires something like a yes-or-no commitment from us. We can, on the one hand, deny our full cognitive potentials, splitting the world’s truth down the middle and refusing to accredit half of it as scientific truth. We will then be tempted to equate science with technology and with our ability to manipulate things. But, on the other hand, we can open ourselves to the possibility that the face of the larger world — a face every bit as qualitative and expressive in its own way as the human face — might be read meaningfully and with objective understanding. Then we will find ourselves in a scientific relation to the world that truly enlarges our souls even as we move toward the widening horizons of an ever more ensouled world.

References

Barfield, Owen (1973). Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Brady, R. H. (2002). “Perception: Connections Between Art and Science”. Available at http://natureinstitute.org/txt/rb/art/perception.htm.

Edelglass, Stephen, Georg Maier, Hans Gebert, and John Davy (1997). The Marriage of Sense and Thought: Imaginative Participation in Science. Hudson NY: Lindisfarne Books.

Keller, Evelyn Fox (1983). A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. and Jeffrey J. Hutsler (1999). “Hemispheric Specialization”, in The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, edited by Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 369-72.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1995). Scientific Studies (vol. 12 of Goethe: The Collected Works), edited and translated by Douglas Miller. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Talbott, Stephen L. (1995). “Can We Transcend Computation”, chapter 23 in The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. Sebastopol CA: O’Reilly and Associates. Available at http://netfuture.org/fdnc/ch23.html.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1987). “Split-Brain and the Mind”, in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard L. Gregory with the assistance of O. L. Zangwill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 740-47.

Steve Talbott :: Recognizing Reality

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