Noesis

noesis~

  1. Cognition; perception.
    2. The exercise of reason.

Interesting that definition number two is dependent upon definition number one. Lately I have been thinking about the difference between consciousness and conscience; the latter seems to me to be specifically human, I guess, because isn’t conscience a sort of cultural or judgmental entity based upon rules? Yes, I am talking about morality, a term I tend not to use much when I consider cognition, consciousness, narrative, being.

I recently perused Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust and found myself intrigued about where and in what ways morality and consciousness or sentience mesh. Churchland is a moral philosopher, but this book relies largely on arguments premised on neurology, biology, evolution, and animal studies. Her critics pose interesting rebuttals, too. I found her book readable and often convincing–and it’s the kind of book that leads me to other writers and scientists; I love that in a book!

braintrust~

The phenomenology of consciousness–the carbon body brain-based “real world” idea of the word–involves intentionality, sentience, qualia, and first-person perspective. We can identify qualities based upon our first-person consciousness and respond to them. This process has led Western thinkers toward the concept of reason or rational thinking. The exercise of reason derives from perception.

This does not mean that phenomenology is the sole form of consciousness or even that it is necessarily human-only, but it seems to me to be the easiest one for human beings to wrap their minds around. Yet the earlier philosophers were not phenomenologists. Their speculations about what consciousness originated in and what morality inhered in were quite abstract.

For a good sum-up of how contemporary scholars define and discuss consciousness, go to Stanford’s site here.

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Being cognizant or conscious does not necessarily lead to moral behavior or reason…or does it? Here we have an idea that has been debated for centuries. In her book, Churchland often returns to Hume, who wrote about morality from what, eventually, became known as the utilitarian stance (though I would argue Hume is not really utilitarian). Stanford offers an overview of morality as defined by philosophers over the years; The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this of Hume:

In epistemology, he questioned common notions of personal identity, and argued that there is no permanent “self” that continues over time. He dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued that our conceptions of cause-effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the perception of causal forces in the external world itself. He defended the skeptical position that human reason is inherently contradictory, and it is only through naturally-instilled beliefs that we can navigate our way through common life.

These concepts should feel modern to most of us thanks to cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology, among other disciplines. Hume’s position conflicts with much religious dogma, but his ideas were not out of line with many of his fellow Enlightenment-Era thinkers. During the Enlightenment, intellectuals were enamored of the exercise of reason (noesis).

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So: consciousness and conscience. First we have the one–however it arises within us*–and the other develops (or evolves?) thanks to the need for social beings to navigate common life. And thanks, perhaps, to brain evolution adapting to social common life (see Churchland for more on this).

Much to mull over during my brief summer break.

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Jiminy Cricket copyright Walt Disney Co.

Jiminy Cricket copyright Walt Disney Co.

*See my numerous previous posts on consciousness!

⇐ “And always let your conscience be your guide!”

 

Change the mind

“The only job of the poet is to destabilize and expand language. This is how poetry changes the world—not by grand ambition or the lauding of critics. It takes the plodding, unending effort of many to alter line by line, phrase by phrase, word by word the way we describe ourselves and everything around us. This is how we change perception. This is how we change the mind.”  —Jaswinder Bolina (in Poetry Foundation: “The Writing Class”  )

Words to mull over. How do we change perception? Is the change of mind correlated with a change in mind–potential alterations of the brain’s structure or synaptic system? If we destabilize language, do we necessarily alter perception?

Although the book is not an easy read, Starr’s Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience offers interdisciplinary research into how the brain may be altered by powerful aesthetic experience, or at any rate, how the brain responds to these experiences in ways that lead some researchers to believe the brain can be changed by art. Not just by those who create art, but by those who encounter it.

I encountered Bolina’s essay (see link above) a week or so after I completed reading Starr’s book, and the consilience–to borrow a scientific term–seemed powerful. The ideas have not yet cohered in my own mind, but perhaps in time I will have more to say on this topic.

Meanwhile, I revel in the juicy possibilities of changing mind through art.

 

 

 

 

Still more difficult books

I am perpetually out to confound myself.

After reading Larson’s odd but lucid koan-like “biography” of John Cage’s creative interpenetrations with Buddhism, I have begun Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1961 text The Phenomenology of Perception. Already I have encountered some thoughts in Merleau-Ponty that relate to the indeterminate, a concept that excited Cage and that Larson demonstrates shares a great deal with Zen. But reading Merleau-Ponty is more challenging than reading Larson’s book, as I have less background in early 20th-century philosophy than I do in Zen studies. I enjoyed reading Bachelard’s imaginative, image-based take on phenomenology because I could relate to it on a poetry level even when I missed some of the philosophical antecedents (or contemporaries) he references. That possibility isn’t available to me with Merleau-Ponty.

I do appreciate that his writings were formulated before technologies that made neurological processes visible and while psychology was still bickering with the “hard sciences” about empirical measurements. (Actually, that bickering continues in some areas of study.) I do not think Merleau-Ponty would agree with, say, E. O. Wilson’s rather reductionist idea of consilience. Yet clearly, the philosopher was willing not to discount the sciences or empirical study–he just felt those areas were not of particular use to a philosopher, particularly a phenomenologist.

The body is what we have with which to experience the world, Merleau-Ponty tells us. But the human body is limited by its perceptual experiences. Structures–and that includes abstract structures such as thought–appear to have recognizable patterns, and the perceiver may posit cause and effect as a result. But another body may perceive differently, due to a different biological process or a different time or any number of physical or environmental variables. We perceive yellow with the cones and rods of our human eyes; the dog or the bee, the spider or the hippopotamus, may have eyes that do not see yellow as we do. Is yellow a quality or a perception? Merleau-Ponty seems to be saying (I am not very far into the book, so I  may be in error) that science cannot be objective, even though it is science that made us question our senses: “We believed we knew what feeling, seeing, and hearing were, and now these words raise problems.”

And how does this all relate to consciousness? Maybe I’ll figure that out as I go along.

ann e. michael poet

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Here’s a sentence I love because it speaks to me of poetry and the arts on the level of ambiguity: “[Science, with its categorization] requires that two perceived lines, like two real lines, be equal or unequal, that a perceived crystal should have a definite number of sides, without realizing that the perceived, by its nature, admits of the ambiguous, the shifting, and is shaped by its context.”

Or perhaps by observation? A little Uncertainty Principle going on there. I feel that good poems change when observed, and change in the context of the reader’s time, place, experience; that they possess ambiguity not in the sense of rhetorical wishy-washiness but in the rich sense of complex possibilities, indeterminacy, transformation.

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I’m especially pleased to have found Bernard Flynn’s article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the link to the entire article is above), which ends with the following reflections on Merleau-Ponty:

If we think how the thought of Merleau-Ponty might prolong itself into the 21st century, or as it portends a future, then we cannot not be struck by the fact that his philosophy does not entertain any conception whatsoever of an ‘apocalyptic end of philosophy’ followed by the emergence of some essentially different mode of thought. Unlike Heidegger, there is no anticipation of an ‘other beginning’, also there is nothing like Derrida’s ‘Theory’ which is waiting in the wings to displace philosophy, and unlike Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty’s thought does not await the disappearance of philosophy. In the academic year 1958–1959, Merleau-Ponty gave a course at the Collège de France entitled “Our State of Non-Philosophy.” He began by saying that ‘for the moment’ philosophy is in a crisis, but he continued, “My thesis: this decadence is inessential; it is that of a certain type of philosopher…. Philosophy will find help in poetry, art, etc., in a closer relationship with them, it will be reborn and will re-interprete its own past of metaphysics—which is not past” (Notes de cours, 1959–60, p. 39, my translation). After writing this he turns to literature, painting, music, and psychoanalysis for philosophical inspiration.

The theme of the indeterminate frequently recurs in the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Philosophy is enrooted in the soil of our culture and its possibilities are not infinite, but neither are they exhausted. In an essay entitled “Everywhere and Nowhere, ” Merleau-Ponty explicitly reflects on the future of philosophy, he writes that philosophy “will never regain the conviction of holding the keys to nature or history in its concepts, and it will not renounce its radicalism, that search for presuppositions and foundations which has produced the great philosophies” (Signs, 157). In his Inaugural Address to the Collège de France, he claimed that “philosophy limps” and further on that “this limping of philosophy is its virtue” (In Praise of Philosophy, 61).

What will philosophy do in the 21st century? It will limp along.

Apparently, I shall be limping along with it.