NEUROGNOSIS AND EXPERIENCE
The unitary lifeworld arising and passing each moment we are conscious is a construction of remarkable complexity. The "already there-ness" that we experience as babies and as adults is commonly dominated by events in the sensorium -- the sensorium being the sum total of sensory processes that manifest for us those abstract patterns of coherent energies in the operational environment.
The lifeworld of people, and presumably of non-human animals with brains as well, is realized in the intentionality of consciousness within a field of granular particles we call dots . The lifeworld manifests as a sphere of multisensory "space" in which objects, motions, relations and perspectives cohere, are distinguished and experienced as more or less distinct, depending upon our intentions. D.E. Harding has written a humorous, but sophisticated philosophical essay about the sphere of experience. The book is entitled On Having No Head: Zen and the Re-Discovery of the Obvious and describes the implications of the awareness of the sphere of experience in much the way that is presumed in the present work.
The sphere of experience arises and passes away each moment, and is renewed with a fresh field of dots with each pulse or flicker of concerted sensorial activity. The dot itself is the basic unit of sensory activity for every sense modality, and is the building block upon which all phenomena are constructed.
Few people are aware of the corpuscular texture of their sensorium, but the dots are still there whether awareness of them is present or not. Just as the dots produced by a dot matrix printer may not be apprehended while reading a printed letter, people are usually unaware of the role of the sensorial dots in their lifeworld, because they have been conditioned to attend to the macro-level of phenomena -- the objects and relations built up from the dots. But the dots are there to be apprehended should a person turn their attention to them. Apprehension of dots normally requires extraordinary phenomenological skill.
Experience is produced by an intentional dialogue between associative structures and the sensorium. Experience consists of a blend of meanings (cognitive associations) and forms (dot-filled phenomena) integrated into a unitary frame. Experience is simply "that which arises before the subject" in consciousness as Dilthey once put it. The sphere of experience (or lifeworld) incorporates sensation (both exteroception and interoception), perception, thought, imagination, intuition, and affect. Both the sensory field of dots and the cognitive-perceptual associations integrated within experience are the active (never static!) products of conscious network, and are exquisitely ordered in the service of abstract pattern recognition in aid of adaptation of the organism to its operational environment. The brain at every moment of consciousness imposes its relatively conservative order upon the experience it constructs. Part of that order is an interpretation of the relations among objects and events -- the essence of meaning. Meaning is generated by a prolipheration or "cascade" of associations of models, primarily among networks of cells in the cerebrum that become activated in an array and intentionally associated with the model(s) mediating the object(s) of consciousness.
The Symbolic Function of Cognition
If we understand that much of the activity of the higher cortical processes of the brain are employed in projecting meaning upon sensorial events, we may then understand that the development and activity of the cognized environment is thoroughly symbolic in nature. This is especially so when we further understand that even the sensorium itself, being as it is the production of a vast field of living cells, becomes variously and meaningfully shaped over the course of development under the influence of personal history and culture.
As the modern anthropology of the senses has shown, the balance or "ratio" of predominance among the senses may vary to some extent across cultures. As David Howes remarks, using a metaphor from Marshall McLuhan, the sensorium is like a kaleidoscope of combinations of the various senses, some combinations of which are characteristic of particular individuals and particular cultures. Some cultures would seem to accentuate auditory information more than westerners do, while others clearly accentuate olfaction or the tactile senses more than westerners. However the ratio, a particular constellation of sensory patterns combines during the parallel processing of sensations to constitute the distinct sensory object of awareness.
The evidence from developmental neuropsychology suggests that the different sensory modes develop at different times and at different rates during early pre- and perinatal life. Thus, there is considerable variation in the precise sensory pattern that constitutes the object of awareness, even without the addition of higher cognitive processing. The best picture, so far as I can tell at this point, is that intentionality involves a continuum of increasing abstraction from the sense receptors through to the network of cognitive associations constellated upon the sensory object.
The symbolic function refers to the relationship between the object as constituted within the multimodal sensorial sphere of dots and the cognitive, neuroendocrine and other somatic processes that become intentionally associated with the object. The symbolic function refers to the property of the nervous system of linking partial information about the operational environment derived from the senses with a far greater field of cognitive associations. In common parlance, this it the part-whole, symbol-meaning relationship which biologically has allowed the integration of knowledge gleened from past experiences with sensorial patterns being detected at the moment -- as Gerald Edelman puts it nicely in his book of that title, "the remembered present."
As I have said, every moment of consciousness is intentional -- is an organization of structures focused upon an object, the object being also an organization of sensorial structures. The object of consciousness, whether anticipated, imagined or actual, is mediated by a network of cells that provides a partial meaning (the topographical or other order of the object, its constituent features, its "ratio" of multimodal sense data, and its sensory context). The object is commonly called a "symbol." The cognitive material associated with the object -- that is, the conceptual, imaginal, affective, metabolic and motor systems that are linked to the network formed between the prefrontal "subject" and the sensorial "object" -- function to extend and elaborate the meaning of the object for the subject.
The Cognized Environment in Action
There is yet another pole to the symbolic function, and that has to do with acts of communication, particularly by way of language. But in order to understand the function of language relative to the veridicality of developing models, we must first examine the role of behavior relative to perception within the cognized environment. William T. Powers in his book, Behavior: The Control of Perception , has gone a long way in doing just this. His thesis is as simple as it is profound, for it is it is the failure to understanding the internal "cybernetic" function of behavior that has helped to thwart the production of a unified, non-dualistic theory of truth.
According to Powers, behavior is never an end in itself, nor is it ever merely linear in intent. Rather, behavior is always a phase in a more general neurocognitive feedback loop by means of which an object of interest is brought before the perceiving subject and kept there as long as desired, despite disturbances produced by other competing objects. Behavior thus produces negative feedback which operates to perpetuate the object of perception and to control responses to disturbances that might otherwise detract from that object. Behavior then is the behavioral phase of intentionality. Behavior is an exercise of motor control over the state of consciousness. And because behavior is integral to maintaining a state of consciousness, it participates in the production of meaning, and is thus often referred to as "action;" that is, "meaningful behavior." For example, driving a car from point A to point B requires a series of moments of consciousness during which behavior continues to produce the perception of "staying on the road" -- moreover, "staying on the right road."
And of course, it is by means of behavior that models of the operational environment are tested. This is because the intentional nature of the cognized environment is anticipatory in its function. Our world of experience, as it were, feeds foreword into the world, each moment expecting the world to be as we expect it to be. If activity in the world produces the experience desired, then such behavior contributes negative feedback as to the veridicality of the model. But if activity in the world fails to produce the experience desired, then the behavior contributes to a disconfirmation of the anticipatory model. And if motor effort continues in the world, behavior may play a considerable role in the modification of the models in favor of veridicality. The part of the brain known as the basal ganglia has been implicated in regulating the interaction between cortical cognitive and motor processes.
Language and Sharing Experience
Human beings are a social animal, and more than any other big brained social animal, human beings depend upon communication in the formation of their cognized environments. Language evolved over the course of hominization in order that members of social groups could share experience vicariously. Much of the activity of the brain in producing experience is given to the integration of memory into current sensory activity. And for human beings, much of the material stored in memory was not experienced directly, but was derived vicariously from others in the group.
Why is the sharing of experience so important for humans? Other species of primates with big brains, like our closest relatives the chimpanzees, do not seem to need to communicate in anything like a manner sufficiently complex to share vicarious experience. Yet we do it so effortlessly we take it for granted. My friend can go off on a vaction to the Bahammas and describe his experiences in such vivid detail that I almost feel I have been there. And his description becomes part of my internal map of the world.
And herein lies the clue to why language evolved among humans as a system of neurognostic structures serving communication; namely, because the hominid brain evolved the capacity to model a world far more vast than can be experienced in the moment. Picture if you will a species like ours capable of modelling a vast world of experience, but with no means of communicating experiences to each other. Society would simply not be possible. A primary component of experience is interpretation, and without a body of socially standardized interpretation the cognized environments of group members would rapidly diverge to the extent that no one would share a common cognized world, or be able to communicate common experiences. Social coordination of internal brain operations and external social action would be impossible. Thus language evolved in concert with the remarkable expanse of the cognized environment as a mechanism for coordinating shared features of individual cognized environments.
As long as a social species shares pretty much the same operational environment, and a capacity to model a cognized environment not much greater than the field of direct perception, then the need for communication remains simply one of signalling information obtained by one member of the group and of interest to the whole group -- information such as where the food source is, the presence of a preditor, an inclination to move, etc. But once the capacity of the brain to create a cognized environment increased in its complexity to model temporal and spatial relations far greater than the immediate sensory surround, then the potential arose for a maladaptive divergence of cognized environments. A more complex form of communication had to develop in order to maintain the advantages of a social adaptation.
And obviously, with an increase in the reliance upon vicarious experience in making adaptationally important judgements, the issue of the veridicality of vicarious experience emerged as an important factor. The biological root of the sense of veridicality, as I say, is in the direct testing of ideas in the crucible of direct experience. But what about vicarious experience? If my friend describes the beach he played on in the Bahammas, how am I to evaluate the veridicality of his report? How can I tell how accurate his depiction of the Bahammas is, or how truthful are his claims. He may be lying and may never have been in the Bahammas in his life.
And this, of course, is the crux of the problem of truth and language. Verity in communication is also rooted in the biology of the evolving brain. Languages exhibit a universal property for querying the truth-value of utterances. Indeed, some researchers have suggested that the ability to deceive others and dissemble during communication is a sign of advanced intelligence in a species. Indeed, some have even argued that self-deception may have evolutionary and adaptive value. Be that as it may, as reliance upon vicarious experience increased in the formation of cognized environments, the issue of adaptive veridicality of vicarious experience became more crutial. With modern humans, recognition of truth and falsehood in communication is a cultural universal. The possibility that people can and do lie is also a universal. There is no such thing as a human society that does not acknowledge the value of truth over falsehood. Moreover, no matter how the concepts are culturally symbolized and elaborated, all the world's languages have words that easily gloss "true" and "false," "truth" and "lie."
We have come to the end of Day Two. You may wish to return to the index and note where you will begin next time. In Day Three we will begin with an exploration of methodology in biogenetic structuralism.