Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Epistemological Mind-Stretchings

Originally posted on September 5, 2012

Everything nowadays is being revealed as being far more complex than we thought it was. This trend has involved all fields, including subtle differences in psychology. For example, there is the problem of how do we know what we know? This is a philosophical problem known as epistemology.

For example, we start with what is “obvious.” This is my hand. See it? No? Well, what do you think is typing on the computer to make these words? Don’t quibble that it’s the “fingers”! So the point is that most people associate what we know with direct sensory experience. Or as a friend pointed out, perception—because to be an experience it needs to be merged with other mind elements that note relevance and meaning.

Reference: Watts, Duncan J. (2012). Everything is obvious (once you know the answer): How common sense fails us. (New York: Crown Publishing.) Another take on illusion, about which there have been lately a spate of books. I’m rather interested in this phenomenon. When I was young, there was some hope that reasoning clearly could solve human problems. In the postmodern era, that belief has been shown to be quite dubious, for which reason postmodern thinking is hated. but back to the problem of the many subtle types of knowledge.

Gregory Bateson pointed out that information is only a difference that makes a difference. It the difference is so subtle or meaningless (e.g., “Whatever, as long as it’s some kind of black!”) then shades of dark, dark gray that merge into black are not information. On the other hand, with some forms of interior decorating or in creating an outfit that blends nicely, fine shades of color do become informative.

What I’m noting here is that what we sense is far from what we “know.” It’s just the most simple and reductionistic beginning. The problem with reductionism is the subtle assumption that if you know the basic elements and dynamics you can derive all the more complex permutations of these elements from “first principles.” It’s wrong because at higher levels of complexity, that complexity itself, the interconnecting resonances, add something to the basic elements so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Example: Life is far more complex than the bag of chemicals put into a cell. It’s the way they’re organized and the as-yet-mysterious spark that keeps it going.


That word means that everyone can see or hear it and agree. Yes, that is what you say it is. But work on the senses—especially taste, smell, and touch, and especially with fine gradations, but also with hearing and seeing—show that people experience things differently. A great deal of the modern worldview hinges on “objective” knowledge, what everyone (almost) can agree on—there’s a consensus.

But this breaks down upon close examination. Many if not most people miss subtleties because they aren’t trained in what to look or listen for. The art of observation involves knowing what to watch for. Same for listening carefully for subtle variations in the heartbeat or how to listen to classical music. The senses can be trained, in other words. In learning music appreciation, people can learn to notice sounds that at first were overlooked, such as how trumpet music differs from the violins’ parts. Similarly, with sufficient practice, one can learn to touch and feel different patterns in “reading” Braille, and in that same way, other types of fine discrimination can be learned. ), and pick up other sensations so as to be more finely discriminating.

Then there’s the problem of the spectrum of sensitivity, or talent. Some people easily and naturally pick up all sorts of subtleties that others—even with a bit of training—just can’t pick up, or only with the greatest effort. Some folks are even hyper-sensitive, picking up subtleties that most even fairly well-trained, educated people can’t notice. They are abnormal but not sick. Other people are “tone deaf” in other sense modalities, not being able to “get” what others take for granted, whether it be smells, textures, or subtle sound or visual distinctions. Most people are a little more or less than a midline point—it’s a spectrum.

There are other qualities that need to be recognized here: Some people are great at recognizing and identifying faces, others with prosopgnosia are not. Some are alert to subtle social cues, others with dys-semia miss that—and these might end up being classified as mildly autistic. Some have a very good sense of direction, others get lost easily. Variations on other more complex sensitivities continue to be described, and I’m not sure if sub-types of what I’ve mentioned might not yet be identified.

For example, one variation is called “synesthesia” or “synaesthesia”—the tendency to experience one modality also through another modality. There are people who hear notes and see different colors for each note—or they see colors and “hear” the note or sound associated with that color, or with that pattern. Some can “smell” a color, or see colored patterns for various textures they feel. We can’t explain this well—our formulations about links among various parts of the brain are superficial and obvious.

I mean, what does it say about sensing and knowing what something “is” when certain words or symbols evoke deeply resonant feelings and others don’t? The field of semantics addresses that bridging of psychology and linguistics—the word “real man” evokes different feelings from various people, and many other words, like “God,” “Jesus,” “America,” “Capitalism,” and so forth similarly are embedded in thick networks of emotional resonance. Fine tune it enough and I think you’ll find that words such as “freedom” mean as many things to people as there are numbers of people!

The Hermeneutical Lens

Big words: hermeneutics is the art of interpretation, and this amplifies what I say above. We don’t just have gut-reactions to words, but also complex intellectual associations. What one word or phrase means to one person may not work for another.

More, this interposition of mind into bare perception gathers to the experience all sorts of associated experiences, intuitions, emotional reactions, biases, semantic associations, cultural conditioning—they occur often unconsciously and pick up on the energy of the other person, the family, the group, and the culture. This makes epistemology (in my opinion) irredeemably subjective. There’s no way of ensuring the knowledge that’s apprehended by one person is the same as what another person experiences in such qualities as mentioned, much less their intensities. The way they mix with other experiences or ideas, how they’re balanced, adds to the mixture, because elements considered in isolation may take on different meanings than those elements combined. Seeing one man is one thing; seeing eight of them standing side by side is more intimidating.

Other phenomena also are experienced through the “lenses” of the mind: The “hard data: tends to be associated with variations in alertness or fatigue, attention, sensitivity and relevance. Some people have a mental framework for what they perceive and think of looking at a “chair,” for instance, as a piece of usable furniture; others would only see fuel for a fire. Others have no frame of reference for what is perceived and can’t recognize its significance. That was me looking at anything computer-like for a while when it was still emerging as a new technology.

Having a mental grid can make a perception—even a subtle intuition—more meaningful, especially if it can be put into words. Having a larger vocabulary—and many people do not!—or knowing something about poetry—even having just heard a lot of it—also helps whatever is known to become more real, more identifiable.

Another variable is that of interpersonal validation. A great deal of what is perceived is hardly acknowledged to oneself! It is subliminal, because there is no way of understanding the perception. It is said that native Americans, seeing the white sails of the European explorers’ ships, thought they were some kind of bird. “Did you see what I saw?” is an important question. Some external validation is often needed to balance the mind’s knowledge that it creates secret fantasies and dreams in abundance and we’re not always sure that what we saw is what was “really” there!

Here’s a wild speculation: It might well be that 83% of the visionary prophets who channeled the divine muses in one way or another have lacked some of these elements and in that way went unrecognized, often even by themselves! I mean, how would one know? Problems of epistemology escalate rapidly if all is not in place. It’s a miracle that we can communicate half as effectively as we have been doing when the topic becomes "intangible."

The Ineffable

Here’s another word that combines that which cannot be expressed in language with perceptions that seem very significant, important, compelling! Many mystical experiences are characterized as ineffible. What’s sensed seems more real than ordinary reality. It must be talked about, witnessed to—but words cannot adequately begin to express it!

Let’s acknowledge that wider or deeper realities may be ineffable. It may be the lack of ordinary humans to express it, or for extraordinarily sensitive people, talented or inspired or graced as being the vehicles of true inspiration, can access these realities—somewhat.

And what if the real reality beyond that is yet far more complex than this? It may tbe that no human, no matter how talented, no matter how articulate, could ever, ever capture half of the beauty or insight, or fullness of that which is revealed in an epiphany. Ineffable experiences seem so very real, feels deeply significant! We would be extraordinary if we could say something more specific than “Whew! Orgasm squared!” Or we might say, “What I just experienced was, great, immense, big, fabulous, ultimate to the nth degree!”  Other person: What?! What?? Epiphanator: “Sorry, I can’t put it into words.”

Trans-Human Experience

Further speculations might apply to experiences that are not given to humans to experience, though other animals can, involving hyper-sonic, sub-sonic perceptions, differentiations. Thomas Nagel addressed this problem in an essay, What is it Like to be a Bat .  We do know that other animals can smell and sense in other modalities phenomena that humans cannot register in their consciousness. Some are out of its range, and some extend into other modalities, such as the ability to sense subtle electrical gradients (as can the duck-like “bill” of the Duck-Billed Platypus).

Since science fiction now is part of humanity, we can also wonder there being experiences and subtleties and sense organs not given to organisms on Earth. Going further, we can speculate on what might beings that have “higher” consciousness perceive—beings that to us would be like angels or gods? Can “they” really enjoy the swirl of a galaxy and at the same time experience the feeling of an ameba (one-celled animal) trying to catch and eat a bacterium? What can be even imagined to be experienced? Dare we consider categories that stretch to the edge of our imagination, or even try to go beyond our imagination? And might we also pause and noticing that such imagination-stretching is itself a kind of perception, though it’s very subjective?

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