Truth, the Lifeworld, and Knowledge

An old thought experiment asks, if a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? The traditional answer is no, there is no sound without a vibration on an ear drum. The answer is easily proven wrong. The experiment presupposes the existence of a tree and a forest. Since these energy patterns exist when no one is around to see them, then the sound of the tree falling exists too.

The universe is a big place. Truth is much bigger than the lifeworld of human experience. Humans are not routinely conscious of phenomena like radio waves, x-rays, and germs. We miss sights and sounds, and smells and tastes that our sense organs cannot detect. There is a threshold at which something becomes noticeable — the softest sound we can hear, or the slightest touch we can feel. Anything less goes unnoticed.

The lifeworld is what humans know. It includes energy and sensation even before the minds gets at it. Everyday phenomena, real, continuous, whole, not analyzed. Closely held or embodied, warmed in the hands of self and others, not distanced or chilled by an objective eye. Quality not quantity. Sights and smells and sounds, words too, plain description but not language games. Factual and true in feeling not thought.

Bigger than big data, truth and the lifeworld must be broken to be stored and known. Take a rock and put it in a box, part of a collection, it is pretty much the same, except for its world; it is out of place. The thing must be broken. Cut something away, make it smaller, now it can be put to bed. Make an analog, like the original, but not. A map. Much better to see and measure and carry. Human knowledge in the brain or in a book is a static binding of truth.

Zen Practitioners and Visual Artists have Better Visual Perception than Most

I attended a free “consciousness-raising” workshop. The speaker, a woman named Slavica, performed a test to gauge our “level of consciousness.” She asked who among the group, without turning their heads, remembered the colour of the wall behind us? She informed us that a person of “very high consciousness” would be able to remember every visual detail they witnessed. If there was such a person in the room, she would bow to them and step aside to allow him or her to speak instead. I did not remember the colour, nor did anyone else. She did not indicate whether she was capable of this visual memory feat.

In fact, all people have limited visual memory. The human visual system only supports a small area of high resolution processing. The fovea is for sharp central vision, and is important in activities where visual detail is important, such as reading and driving. When the eyes scan a scene they do not take in every detail. The eye jumps to highlights, depending on what the viewer considers important. Changes outside the focus of attention are not noticed. Our visual memory seems real but it is an analog at best.

We have limits on our visual memory for efficiency, not because of our “low level of consciousness,” whatever that means. The brain stores just a rough outline of a scene and then uses knowledge of the world to fill in the detail.* If I can remember the peaks and valleys of a landscape I can fill in the rest with the laws of physics or simple interpolation.

We can store more information if we consider it important. Zen practitioners and visual artists have better visual perception than most people, not because they are more enlightened; it is their job to attend to visual detail. You may have a rich and accurate image of your lover’s face. Not everything is important to remember in detail, including the colour of the back wall. Clever trick, Slavica.

*Update 2017-10-04. Two types of evidence: 1) Andy Clark, Natural Born Cyborgs, reviews card tricks and studies that show the limits of visual memory. 2) David Marr, Vision, explains how the primal sketch on the retina gets built by the mind into a 2.5D sketch and then a 3D model.

Update 2017-10-05. Cognitive Bias Codex. An index of all our cognitive biases.

The Initial Bindings of Vision and Perception

Vision begins with sensation. Light begins a process of transformation as it enters the eye. The cornea focuses the light. The pupil is controlled is by the muscles of the iris to optimize the light, enough for vision without overexposure or damage. The cornea and lens work together to adjust the focal length of the image being formed on the retina at the back of the eye. Photoreceptor cells called cones and rods give an image color and shadow. In the short time it take for an image to form on the retina it has been transformed.

From the retina the image is carried through the optic nerve to the brain for more processing. Perception is the brain’s interpretation of what we sense. For example, the brain attempts to organize sensory information into groups. If multiple dots are seen close together they are grouped into a single bundle for quick processing.

After visual and perceptual processes, the brain encodes information into memories. Short-term memories are translated into long-term memory in the hippocampus. Visual and auditory and other sensory information are combined into a single episodes of memory. The smell of the forest evokes a visual memory of a glade. The memory is personalized.

The eye operates like a camera. It is better in some ways. The lens in the human eye can focus quicker than a camera. But it still operates like a camera, producing a reduced image compared to the original. The retina is like film. Accuracy varies with lighting and resolution depends on the film format or number of pixels. The brain is more efficient than a camera at a price. The brain selectively stores data that it considers important, leaving the rest to be filled in by inference. Any image in the brain is a limited and static capture at a point in time. It is a binding, a copy with error. To a degree, every memory is wrong, an illusion, a lie. Truth is not in the brain — it is out there in the world.

“Monkey Mind” is the Wrong Metaphor for Mental Confusion

A five year old sees things as they are. A bird, a tree, filtered only with the first bindings of human sensation and perception and memory. Just five years of language is not enough history to contort the thing.

There was life in the world before people were there to see it. There were people in the world before there was speech to talk about it. The first speech was like an encounter today with someone who speaks a different language: pointing and grunting, pictures and acting. Primary speech is another physical experience in the lifeworld — utterances, vibrations of the tongue in the air.

Spoken words are for communication, correlates of things in the lifeworld. Some words resemble the sound they describe: buzz, murmur, splash; they are examples of onomatopoeia. Most spoken words are unlike their counterparts in the world. Words can be used to speak of things even when they are not present; it is a type of memory. Words can also be used to speak of things that do not exist in the lifeworld. They can used for persuasion. Centuries of human life have piled words upon words. Derivative speech shapes and twists our perceptions. The spoken word is a second binding, a copy of a copy, error upon error, separating people from their experience.

Shoshin is beginner’s mind in Zen Buddhism. Openness, fresh interest, and a lack of preconceptions. A beginner’s mind is not clouded with the noise of the “monkey mind,” a Buddhist metaphor for the clatter of our unceasing and wandering thoughts and language and attention.

How speech developed is unclear. Unlike writing, spoken language is ephemeral, leaving no evidence to study its development. Speech organs evolved first for basic bodily functions such as feeding and breathing. It evolved into language. Monkeys, apes and other animals have evolved sound patterns for social communication. What appears distinct with humans is the use of the tongue to modulate sound. In most mammals the tongue is long and flat and contained within the mouth. In humans, the tongue is short and round and extends down the throat, enabling the articulation of vowels. Given the complexities and error with human speech, “monkey mind” is the wrong metaphor for mental confusion.

A five year old and a Zen Buddhist see things as they are. Philosophers and psychologists understand this kind of observation. Phenomenology is the study of structures in consciousness. Phenomenologists talk about qualia, that is, individual conscious experience. For example, your experience of eating this orange now is subjective. Is it possible to sidestep complex language and share this raw experience? Phenomenologists talk about intersubjectivity, the practical ability to nod and know that we are speaking about the same thing. Within a context, called the homeworld, there is common frame of reference. Can we truly know that my orange and your orange have the same taste? It depends on whether we are really separate from our experience and each other. Are we locked in tin cans, always separate? Or is it only derivative language and its pileup in memory that separates us?

Further reading:

String of Letters. Language and the Bindings of Knowledge.

Andy and Gavin had hiked miles when they spotted a shadow of a bird. Andy was quick to shoot but he missed. “Grouse,” said Andy. A grouse is a ground dwelling bird, yet nimble in the tops of trees, especially in the winter looking for buds to eat. Grouse prefer to run from danger but this one was in a tree and flew. Gavin took a second longer to breathe and target. He shot and got it. Andy retrieved the bird, “Grouse. Good eating, no matter what they say.” Gavin looked concerned, “Sage grouse. I’ve read about them. Should be on an endangered list. I’ll be more careful.”

A living bird in the bush versus a dead one in the hand, that is the difference between a thing our knowledge of it. Knowledge is a series of bindings. A thing at its source is a physical energy pattern. Knowledge begins with sensation, the first binding. Light from the pattern is transformed as it creates a pattern on the retina. The pattern continues to be shaped by perception, the second binding. Mental schemas and cognitive biases are used to interpret the image and place it in memory. Speech is a third binding. Talking about a memory alters the pattern again, structuring the concept into a story. Written language is a fourth binding. Text encodes speech, structuring the spoken word into letters, words, sentences and paragraphs.

Each binding has two aspects, literal and symbolic. (The idea is comparable to one in semiotics, the study of signs. Saussure said that signs are made up of a matched pair, the signifier and the signified, physical and mental. I was planning to make a direct connection with signs, but I have been cautioned by smart people that “you’re doing epistemology, and Saussure’s theory is decidedly not epistemology. He has no theory of perception, only a theory of semiotic meaning.” I will carry on in my own way till I get better handle on semiotics. Also, I don’t know much about grouse hunting.)

The two aspects, literal and symbolic, are “closest together” in the first binding of sensation. The shadow of bird is a literal physical event sensed by the eye. The shadow is symbolic of a bird — almost definitely the shadow means the presence of a bird, but there is a possibility of error. Symbols represent a thing, and as such always have a degree of error. When it comes to the second binding of perception, “distance” is created from the original energy pattern. Sensation on the retina is now the literal physical event. Sensation was once removed from the thing itself, and perception is twice removed. A perception is more symbolic, and more likely to be in error. The error increases with the third binding of speech. Sensation and perception generally works as a transaction, i.e., they occur in a direct sequence. Speech can occur much later. The perception in memory may have changed, and the presentation of that memory by the speaker can be jaded with agenda.

The game changes with written language, the fourth binding. In the first three bindings, the literal aspect — shadow, sensation on the retina, spoken word — all symbolize the bird in the world, only with different degrees of error. Written language is different. Language is a literal physical thing: letters are written on a page or clicked on a keyboard, words are published in a book or on website. But written language does not refer directly to things in the world. Written letters do not symbolize literal letters standing up in the physical world.

Written words are correlates of spoken words. Learning letters starts with visual recognition of shapes, e.g., “T” and “L.” The brain learns to detect subtle differences in words, e.g., “eight” vs “sight” while ignoring big ones, e.g., “eight” vs “EIGHT”. We do not scan words letter by letter from left to right like a computer program, but instead encode units of meaning for easy look-up, e.g, the morpheme “button” in “un-button-ing”. Learning to read, the brain becomes encoded with the specific shapes and sounds of words. There is a tight coupling of brain structures for letters and words and their literal counterparts. (For more on this, see Reading in the Brain by Dehaene.)

The fourth binding of written language is a bigger leap, with more chance of error. The first three bindings pointed to the the thing in the world, the bird. Written language maps to speech utterances. Sometimes a spoken word will sound like the thing it describes. It is called onomatopoeia, e.g., cuckoo, hiccup, ping-pong. This coupling of sound and meaning reduces the likelihood of error in communication. The meaning is obvious even to a new speaker. In rare cases, a written word looks like the thing it describes. It is called iconicity, e.g., the word bed looks like a classic bed with vertical posts on each end. A pictorial language has more of these correlations, such as Chinese, and is less prone to error.

When written language is able to express our experience we consider it a special thing, a gift of words by a poet or novelist, perhaps the occasional non-fiction writer. Knowledge is a series of bindings. The word, binding, is used deliberately. It is a reference to traditional book binding, and also the pain of being tied up. Each binding is a copy of a copy, adding error, compounding an illusion. One wonders if people can know truth at all.

Each Binding is a Metaphor, Literal and Symbolic

Knowledge is a series of bindings. Each binding has two aspects, physical and mental. A sensation of a bird is a physical event but an incomplete picture that only gets only gets filled out by the mind. The perception of a bird starts from the physical sensation and then interpreted based on cognitive processes and memories. The spoken word is a physical sound about a perception or a memory of one. Written language can be seen by the eye but is an abstract reference to speech.

Each binding is a metaphor, with both literal and symbolic components. A metaphor uses a literal tangible thing in the world to symbolize an abstract intangible concept. The world is a stage. Most people can easily visualize a stage, a stand for actors performing a drama. Shakespeare used the metaphor of a stage to express Macbeth’s feelings about the insignificance of life.

There is a fifth and final binding, memory. Memory plays a role in each binding, e.g., the sensations to which we attend depend on priorities in memory. Memory can also be understood as a separate binding, transforming the experience of a thing in the world once again.

Cognitive psychologists observe how concreteness and abstraction feature in how the human brain stores memories. As an undergraduate student in the eighties, I studied the psychology of language. Allan Paivio was known for his dual coding theory, which proposed two different systems for processing visual and verbal information. Words associated with concrete imagery, e.g., dog, are encoded and accessible by both systems. Abstract words, e.g., justice, do not have concrete correlates, are only in the verbal system, and are slower to process. Dual coding explains a number of psychological phenomena in learning, problem solving and language.

The fifth binding is the association of concrete and abstract concepts in memory. We think better in concrete terms but there is resulting error. We know that the world is not literally a stage, yet we bind the two. We associate the use and meaning of the words, stage and world. This binding can limit our thinking. The world as a stage may be a sullen thought, but other metaphors, say, life is a highway, may be more cheerful.

20171016. Note. The difference between concrete and abstract is the difference between a diagram and a picture.

The Fifth Binding of Knowledge is Memory. Human and Computer.

The fifth and final binding of knowledge is memory. Human and computer memory are different types of binding, but still a binding, a transformation of original experience into a reduced form, a simpler and lesser representation, with error.

Human brains have short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memory works like a “scratch-pad” that allows for attention and processing at the same time. It is limited to about seven “chunks” of data. Long-term memory stores an unlimited amount of information almost indefinitely; forgetting is a problem of access.

In some ways, computer and human memory is similar. A computer has random access memory (RAM) that works like a scratch-pad. Similar to human short-term memory, RAM is a limited resource meant for temporary storage. A computer’s disk functions like long-term memory for indefinite storage. Binary encoding in computers is comparable to neural activation — a neuron either fires or it does not, depending on its activation and threshold.

The comparison is limited. Computer memory is mathematical and deterministic. The letter “A” is mapped to a number in an ASCII table, 65, and then encoded as binary, “01000001.” An image is converted to a pixel array and colours mapped to numbers. Audio is a signal that can be plotted on a graph. Language is a series of letters and video a series of images. Memories are precisely addressed and maintain state unless deliberately edited.

In contrast, human memory is non-deterministic. Memory is distributed throughout the cortex in a network of meaningful associations. Parallel processing is required for all mental functions. Replaying a memory changes it, adding the experience at the time of recall.

The fifth binding of memory has different types of error, depending on the system, human or computer. Humans forget things in seconds unless conscious effort is applied. Memories are constantly being rewritten. Remembering is really an act of creative remixing with new experience. Computer memory is deterministic, but at a price. The quality of the memories depend entirely on the hardware and software used to capture and encode the data. A program will deliver no more than it is explicitly instructed. Non-deterministic human memory can mean more error. A vital memory can be forgotten. But non-determinism is also a factor of sophisticated capability. For example, memories encoded in different parts of the brain allow retrieval through alternate pathways, very handy in the event of partial damage.

Read more:

Knowledge is Five Bindings of Truth. How Good is It?

Knowledge is a series of bindings of truth, from the initial sensation and perception, to spoken and written language, and its home in memory. Truth — it is such an absolute word, can we even use it? Truth is existence independent of an observer. We depend on error-prone observation to know it, but plainly the world exists without us. We apprehend truth better by understanding the errors of knowledge.

Binding is an act of fastening, securing and uniting. Books have binding. Books are a stack of papers bound on one edge, a spine. I bound books with glue in my father’s print shop. Sometimes books are stitched with thread. Websites are also bound, pages linked to a central domain name. A common thread runs through the content. Books are covered, stating the title and author. Websites are covered with a home page. A binding and cover give the impression of a unified identity, as if knowledge is ever tidy.

Binding is also associated with footwear. Mechanical bindings are use to attach feet to skis. Once bound, the skiier can move across snow at a rapid pace. It is good fun and exercise but skiis also compel the skiier in just one direction. A person is more agile on snowshoes or foot, able to cut across fields. Knowledge, too, limits agility, mental agility. Knowledge binds a mind, compelling it to look in a particular way, occluding other directions.

Knowledge is a series of five bindings of truth, summarized in the figure and table below.

Name Description Types of Error
Sensation Visual stimuli in the lifeworld are captured as images on the retina. (Other physical stimuli are processed by other sense organs.) Attention to stimuli depends on the importance of the viewer. Images on the retina are two dimensional, completed by the mind.
Perception An image on the retina is carried through the optic nerve to the brain for interpretation and consolidation into memory. Experience is interpreted, classified and blended to form single memories.
Speech Speech organs evolved first for basic bodily functions such as feeding and breathing. It evolved into language. Spoken language is localized. Words can be used to speak of things even when they are not present. Words can be used to speak of things that do not exist. They can used for persuasion
Written Learning to read, the brain becomes encoded with the specific shapes and sounds of words. Written words are correlates of spoken words. Written language has similar errors as spoken language. In addition, written language does not require the presence of a speaker. A dead person can speak.
Memory Human and computer memory has different systems for short-term and long-term memory. Input is encoded differently for concrete and abstract inputs. Memory is encoded into neural or digital format. Neural memory is non-deterministic while digital memory depends on explicit instructions.

The five bindings stretch the truth. Supposing each binding gives the same distortion, our final grasp of truth is only a fifth of the original, twenty percent. What good is knowledge? Is it a lie, a movie, a trip into the Matrix? Twenty percent is actually quite functional. Consider the Pareto Principle. The principle states that for many events, eighty percent of the effects come from twenty percent of the causes. For example, eighty percent of a company’s business comes from twenty percent of its customers. Think too of a driver in the rain. The driver’s visibility is greatly reduced, sometimes less than twenty percent. The painted white guidelines on the road are still enough to get a driver home. In many cases, your knowledge is still a good guide.

Books have Binding but Reading Slips Through

Books try to bind knowledge but reading has never been fixed. Books are an assembly of numbered pages, bound and covered. You can hold a book in your hand, a prop in a play. Slide it into a slot on a shelf to sleep. Fixity has its merits. I can cite facts by page numbers that won’t change with the font size. The white space of a print page helps me remember the text. The white space of a web page is a spinning arrow as it loads, a status bar of an an email scan or a download in progress. A book has weight but open a million and we all can read. Open a million copies of a website and it crashes.

Yet reading itself has no binding. We imagine that we share the minds of writers and other readers but every reading is different. Reading has a history, says Robert Darnton, that is, it is not fixed. A reading of Ovid by the wife of a Roman patrician two thousand years ago is a different thing than a reading today. Reading served different purposes at different times. In the age of Luther it provided access to absolute truths. In the eighteenth century religious reading declined and people wanted to read novels, travel books and natural history. Today we read tweets. Even for one reader, a second reading is new. Re-reading a book gives the vertigo of time and perspective. Books have binding, but reading slips through.

Only a Mobile Creature Needs a Brain

Only a mobile creature needs a brain, points out New York University neurophysiologist Rodolfo Llinias in his 2002 book, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self. To illustrate he uses the example of a tiny jellyfish-like animal called the sea squirt: Born with a simple spinal cord and a three hundred-neuron “brain,” the larva motors around in the shallows until it finds a nice patch of coral on which to put down its roots. It has about twelve hours to do so, or it will die. Once safely attached, however, the sea squirt simply eats its brain. For most of its life it looks more like a plant than an animal, and since it’s not moving, it has no use for its brain. Llinas’ interpretation: “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.”

— Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman

Suppose you already know the outcome of an otherwise difficult choice. Go left or go right. You already know that the left path leads astray into danger, and that the right path leads safely home. Would you bother thinking it over, analyzing the situation, debating your choice? Of course not. When there is no uncertainty, concrete action is preferable to talking and thinking. Thinking too much only causes anxiety; action clears it.

The absence of uncertainty is exceedingly rare. The universe is a story of things in motion. Once there was a high ordered singularity, then there was a big bang. Everything since is dissipation of energy, the expansion of the universe to entropy. Change is constant and the things that survive are the ones that can adapt to it. Brains are for managing change. Humans evolved brains with the ability to think, to analyze and evaluate, to rehearse and estimate, to predict and control. At the limit of our biological brains, we invented technologies to make us smarter yet. Pencils, pens, paper. Books, computers and artificial intelligence. Information technologies externalize and extend human brains.

Is it the universe that is endlessly complex or is it our minds? Was life simpler in the past? We think so, but each generation thinks its time the most complex. Twenty years you thought your life was complex. Complexity may be a constant. Perhaps it is only our minds that are in constant motion. Movement cannot fathom stillness. The only way for movement to be aware of stillness would be to stop, to turn upon itself with a small crunch, and, like the sea-squirt, eat its own brain.

“You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it” — Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.

“Thoreau, Emerson recalls, had made it a principle to give no more time to writing than he had to walking” — Frederic Gros

Some decide to devote the same amount of time to writing as to reading. Thoreau, Emerson recalls, had made it a principle to give no more time to writing than he had to walking. To avoid the pitfalls of culture and libraries; for otherwise, what one writes is filled with the writing of others. For all that those others in turn had written on the books of yet others … Writing ought to be this: testimony to a wordless, living experience. No the commentary on another book, not the exegesis of another text. The book as witness … but witness in the sense of the baton in a relay race. Thus does the book, born out of experience, refer to that experience.

— Frederic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking