Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sinister Signs

This spring, I was walking up Morningside Drive on a particularly windy day. An unexpected sound caused me to look up, only to see a tabletop bounce off the side of a building and land in front of me. Death briefly lifted its veil and then retreated. Why did this happen? And in general, why do we err? Why do we suffer? I think in order to understand this, we need to think about the temporal aspect of cognition.

Let me first propose that all conscious thought can be described in terms of three operations: abduction, deduction, and induction. The three processes are themselves descriptions of three particular configurations of cases, results, and rules.

A deduction starts with a rule (fire burns). It then takes a case (fire) and applies the rule (fire burns) to arrive at a result (burn). Because the type “fire” burns, this particular token of “fire” must burn. Note there is nothing in either the case or the result that is not already included in the rule or premise. This illustrates the fact that deduction can provide no new information about the world, it can only extrapolate results from rules . If the premises are true, the deductive conclusions will always be true. Subjectively, a deduction feels like “duh”. Unless consciously articulated as in a scientific context, our deductions usually don’t even rise to the level of conscious thought.

Both induction and abduction work differently than this. Inductions take cases and results and from them infer rules (this is a fire, this burns, therefore fire burns) while abductions take rules and results to arrive at cases (fire burns, this burns, therefore this is fire). Note that with both induction and abduction it is possible to err. Socrates is a man and he was mortal, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all men are mortal. Likewise, all men may be mortal, and Socrates is mortal, but this doesn’t necessarily make him a man (Socrates could, for example, be my pet turtle).

What is the relationship between these thought processes and our consciousness? In our society it is common to associate the self with our conscious thought, but consciousness is only present for half of a cognitive process. Temporally, a cognition occurs when something happens (a result, ie a burning sensation). This experience compels us to explain what has happened by appealing to either a rule or a case. In this sense inductions and abductions are merely thoughts going in opposite directions. The Cartesians are mistaken to identify the mind and the self with this process. Where does the rule or case we draw upon to explain the result come from? They come from what we might call our unconscious, or our habitus. In a sense the sum total of all the cases and rules we have previously developed is all the unconscious is.

Wile E. Coyote about to make the tiger's leap

Because Cartesians only associate the self with what we might call the active or right-handed half of this process, the mind is seen as separate from the external world that it manipulates. The rule or case appealed to is treated as always already there. Just as a spectre comes first as a return, cognitions involve a form of temporal trickery that is forgotten and must be forgotten. But upon self-reflection we can see every time we dextrously reach out to the world, we sinisterly draw the world into us. We do not do things to the world but move through it.

Keeping this in mind, let us return to the initial question. Why did a table fall 30 floors and almost kill me, and what does this tell us about human and material agency? First, we can understand that our thought process is by necessity prone to errors and assumptions. Second, we can understand cases (or objects) as a second-order reality. With these two things in mind, we can understand misfortune as dissonance between a given actors understanding of an object and the real qualities of said object. The table had been understood by humans as “safe” and “secure”. Nothing about it drew our attention. Without even being conscious of it, we believed that its position would be unaffected by high winds. There is nothing rational or irrational about this belief. Error occurred because we misrecognized what the object was.

It is the hope that by recognizing our own thought process, we can realize the objects and cases we create are not objective representations of the world (though they are real), and through this recognition we can minimize the errors we make when we address ourselves, others, and the non-human world.

(and hopefully fall off fewer cliffs)

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