Thursday, March 27, 2008

Crisis on the Planet of the Hairless Apes (Part I): Brainworld and Real World

We hairless apes* (technically known as Homo sapiens sapiens) of planet Earth are in a state of mounting crisis. When one thinks of crisis, one naturally thinks of global warming, or the energy crisis, or terrorism, or maybe nuclear war, the shrinking middle class, the military-industrial complex, or movement of geological plates with resulting vulcanism and tsunamis. These are all real threats to our ways of life – no doubt about it – but what I mean by crisis is something more fundamental to the human condition – something that lies behind and (partially at least) causes these more dramatic and dangerous conditions. What I am referring to is a crisis in consciousness -- namely, that humans collectively are too stupid to comprehend the unintended consequences of their conscious acts. And I mean stupidity literally here: "A poor ability to understand and to profit from experience," as well as technically: we are collectively (as societies and as a species) not smart enough to model our contemporary environment, ecology, and global society as dynamic and vulnerable systems at risk, and take appropriate effective and adaptive action to rectify our destructive actions.

Now, if you tuned in to get a quick sound byte punch-line on the human condition on your way to checking out You Tube’s latest rendition of "Chocolate Rain," well, you got it. Carry on and we'll see you later. But if you want an expanded and more reasoned rendition of The Crisis (let’s put it in caps so we always know what crisis we’re talking about), don’t touch that dial. Stick around. We will be back after this message from our sponsor.

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What I want to do in this blog is to extend our BS understanding of the human condition so that The Crisis begins to seem obvious, understandable and even inevitable. In the last blog I argued that consciousness and all its acts are mediated by the brain. Among other things, an act of consciousness cannot be any more complex, any more intelligent, any more creative or insightful than the organ mediating it. We cannot understand more than our brain can model. We cannot experience anything that our brain cannot comprehend. We cannot process information that our brain is not prepared or structured to process. Indeed, every moment of our stream of consciousness and experience is being mediated by the cells in our brain that are structured "socially" in such a way that the experience or act can be produced. We experience between our ears. Our world of experience is constituted by and occurs entirely within our brain. Hence, our world of experience might well be called our brainworld. The extra-mental world – the world apart from our experience of it – we may call the real world.**

The brainworld consists of neural models of the real world that mediate experiences that are projected out upon the real world by way of our actions. Interaction with the real world results in a feedback loop – actually a feed forward loop when the temporal dimension of adaptation is included – which our brain uses to correct its models (see drawing below).

By models, I am not talking about foxy women in outlandish outfits, or toy trains. Models are made up of neural cells by the tens of thousands that organize themselves in such a way that they manifest as an image or thought or feeling or set of these attributes to the "mind’s eye," or repetitive actions like brushing teeth. The brain is both the producer and audience of the mind-movie that is our ongoing stream of consciousness -- producer and audience of our brainworld.

Why did I not just simply call the brainworld the "internal world" and the real world (or reality) the "external world?" Delighted you asked! Simply that our brain and our body (apart from our modelling of them, are part of the real world. We are both beings in the real world and conscious beings that model and experience both our inner selves, and happenings in the external world. We are a special object in the real world in that we may experience ourselves both from the outside in (I see my fingers moving over this keyboard) and from the inside out (I feel the pressure inside my fingers as they press against the keys). Only conscious beings can do that. Moreover I can only do it for myself. I do not have access to you from the inside out. The closest I can get to this is the experience of empathy -- about which we will have more to say in another blog.

Moreover, when we think about things, reach conclusions, have insights, feel things – the experiences and their mediating neural structures exist only within our bodies. The repercussions of these experiences occur in the real world, but are limited in their effects to that part of reality that is our self. If I fantasize having a gourmet meal with Sharon Stone, the effects of this internal process remain internal to my body. But if I act upon it – say, I pick up the phone and make reservations for me and Sharon at Le Bec Fin, and then whip off an invitation by email to Sharon at, then the effects of my brainworld activity transcend my body and have implications in external reality. Perhaps a while later several beefy men in white coats show up to escort me to a nice, quiet sanitarium. This was not my intended outcome, obviously. I had imagined that Sharon would leap at the chance to have a super meal with someone who’s intelligence, and humbleness for that matter, are equal to her own. Alas, the real world is a terribly fickle place.

Obduracy and Affordancy

More than that, reality is forever resisting my will and conditioning my acts. In the first place, the real world is characterized by its obduracy relative to my intentions. Obduracy is given a very moralistic definition in the dictionary, but in philosophy the term generally means the characteristic of reality to resist the will and intentionality of the psyche. If we try to walk through a wall without the benefit of a door, we will come up against the obdurate nature of reality. While I may imagine or dream that Sharon and I are having a jolly time chatting about string theory over our terrine de saumon aux epinards, attempts to do so in reality may well prove disastrous for me. Also, if I try to solve a puzzle or problem, or try to recall all the movies Sharon has starred in, and I can't seem to do it, it is my brain itself that is the obdurate reality that is thwarting my will. I am demanding more of my brain than it can accomplish. Assuming I am normally sane, the feedback from reality will at least lead me to alter my expectations, and perhaps adjust my discernment between fantasy and reality.*** If I am not able to make those adjustments, then the fellows in the white coats may conclude, with reason, that I am "crazy."

Neurocognitive adaptation has to do with our encounters with the obdurate nature of the world – both physical reality and social reality (solid walls and social conventions). Indeed, much of early development in the baby has to do with exploring the somatic and sensory limits of obduracy – the obduracy of the baby’s environment and of his/her own body.

In the second place, reality impresses itself on the brainworld through feedback. Affordancy is a term coined by the famous psychologist, James J. Gibson, to conceptualize the active interaction between experience and reality. Affordancy is what reality provides for our adaptation, whether the effects be "good or ill" -- reality provides both aliment and poison. The development of knowledge about the real world is the process by which the brain builds models from our stock of inherited neurognosis that match – that anticipate and accurately depict what is afforded by the world. That object over there is a "chair." The range of objects that we recognize (literally RE-cognize) as being chairs is vast, and are precisely those objects we code as "sit-able." Some objects are also "stand-on-able." Some "chairs" are also "stools" that are cognized as both "sit-able" and "stand-on-able." Many "chairs" do not afford "stand-on-ability" and are thus not also "stools," and we would be dumb to use them as stools. Learning all about that is a "chair" and what is not is part of our development. So too is which women are "date-able" and which are not. Alas, Sharon is, for me at least, not only "un-date-able" but probably "un-meet-able."


Anyhow, what is obdurate and affordant is determined by the interaction of an animal with its environment. Obduracy and affordancy depend upon the nature of the animal, as well as the nature of the environment of the animal. A stick laying over a stream may afford adequate support ("bridge-ability") for a colony of ants or a squirrel wishing to cross over, but not for a large dog. Flowers afford electromagnetic information in the ultraviolet range for honey bees, but not for hairless apes who cannot perceive in that range of the spectrum. A river may obdurately thwart our crossing, but not a beaver’s. That rock may afford me a weapon, but not for my dog Toby who has no hands. A small body of water may be a puddle to an elephant who walks right through it, a pond for hairless apes who have to walk around it, and an ocean to an earthworm who may well drown in it.


There are many characteristics and limitations of the brainworld that contribute to The Crisis. Some of these are fairly gross and obvious, while others have to do with the fine structure of the brain and its activities. Let me run through three of the gross ones to finish off this session. We will come back to others in future blogs.

Mangling Brainworld and Real World

First of all, obduracy and affordancy are really obverse qualities of reality in interaction with the developing brainworld. Both our real body and the external world present, not only as sensory experiences (I see my hands, I hear my voice), but also as obdurate (I can't fly in air no matter how hard I flap my arms, but I can fly in water) and affordant (I can pick up and handle all sorts of objects -- i.e., they are "grasp-able" and "manipulable") limits to our intentionality, and thus operate to guide the development of our knowledge about our physical being, our world and the interactions between the two. We encounter these qualities daily, as do all animals. We only become aware of them per se when we run up against either resistance to our intentions or new opportunities we had not recognized before. Once we have adapted to (adjusted our neural models of) obdurate and affordant features in the world, we generally "adapt-out" and lose awareness of the distinction between our experience and extramental reality. We all remember when we learned to tie shoelaces and neckties, and how the actions became automatic -- the process being relegated to what Colin Wilson once called "the robot" -- once we had learned them.

Indeed, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger noted, to the extent that our technologies are efficient, they tend to "withdraw" from our awareness. We lose track of the hammer and are aware only of the act of hammering, lose track of the automobile and are aware only of the act of driving. If the efficiency of the technology is suddenly lost, then we will again become aware of it, and of a discrepancy between how we model the world and the feedback we are getting from the world. More will be said about technology and consciousness, and the role of technology in The Crisis in another blog.

The point to be taken here is that we commonly and quite naturally mangle the conscious distinction between the brainworld and the real world. We normally operate as though the world of our experience -- the movie in our head -- IS reality, when it is never more than a rendition of reality -- reality as depicted by our brainworld to our brainworld from our particular point of view. After all, I am looking at this bright monitor while typing this blog and quite naturally -- and falsely -- assume that the light is "out there," when it is in fact "in here," inside my brainworld. Light and color is how the brainworld presents the results between electromagnetic energies of a particular part of the visible spectrum to the mind's eye. A congenitally blind person cannot normally experience light and color. His or her brainworld is devoid of light, just as the normal human brainworld is devoid of ultraviolet images that are part of the honey bee's perception, or the elecromagnetic images apparent in the electric eel's perception.

The Brainworld and the Transcendental Nature of Reality

Second of all, because we normally and quite naturally project our brainworld onto reality, we thereby lose track of the fact that the real world is always transcendental relative to our models, comprehension, perception and intentions. "Transcendental" means that there is always more to the real world, and any objects and processes within the real world, than we can comprehend, or even perceive. With respect to self-understanding, we experience ourselves as we think we are, as we imagine we are. We always know our self and other things from a point of view, and that point of view is always partial. I can see the front of this monitor, but not the back. In fact I cannot see all the sides of anything at the same time. The great painter, Pablo Picasso played with this natural limitation to perception in many of his cubist works, like seeing a woman's face from both the front and side at the same time.

So, we are a transcendental reality to ourselves. If we were to change our point of view on ourselves, our model of ourselves would change. For instance, if we make a study of our body scientifically, we soon discover we are less a "person" than we are an ecosystem. Few of us take into account the fact that billions of microorganisms live on us and inside us, and make our body their home. Just which organisms live where on us depends on many factors that effect locations on and in our bodies as niches. Temperature variation, moisture, pH, chemicals present, available forage, access to light, how often and with which products we wash, and so forth. Different places on the skin have different populations of different microbes. In one study of 26 adult humans, it was found that an average of 46,000 living organisms dwell under each fingernail (see Wilson 2004: 87). [Ha! Reflect on that next time you scratch an itch!] The point here is that our own body is a transcendental object to our brainworld. Even our brain is a transcendental object to our brainworld. We could spend the rest of our lives studying the human body -- including our own body -- and never come to the end of knowledge about our being.

It does not matter what aspect of reality toward which we turn our attention, there is more to it than we can ever know. We can study baseball, ceramics, nematode worms, black holes, ocean tides, legumes, robotics -- it really doesn't matter, for we will never come to the end of it unless our brainworld stops the process of inquiry. And that is precisely what the brainworld is designed to do. We naturally will turn toward, and become interested in novelty until at some later point our urge to understand the novelty wears thin, and then we "close" our model and carry on. The more intelligent the animal, the longer and more energetic will be our scrutiny of novelty. Chimps will study a novel object longer on average than will a monkey. And humans will study novelty longer than will a chimp. But inevitably we lose interest and our model of the previously novel object or happening closes. The object becomes redundant. We have adapted to it. Modelled its obdurate and affordant nature.

There is an interesting Buddhist meditation that teaches one a lot about this process. In some circles it is called "doing a Patthana" (named for the last book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka). The Patthana is a lengthy discourse on causation, and isolates through contemplative methods some 24 types of causality (paccaya) that are involved in any and all experiences. "Doing a Patthana" involves meditating upon any phenomenon -- preferably the simplest of phenomena, like an apple standing on a table top -- and parsing out all the causal relations necessary for that experience to be occurring before the mind. Like any meditation of substance -- and this one gets really complex -- you have to actually do it to really understand the point of it. But suffice it here to say, no matter what phenomenon you meditate upon, you end up with the entire universe, as well as its history and to some extent its future. In other words, you never come to the end of it.

So, to repeat: the real world and everything in it is transcendental relative to our ability to model it within our brainworld.

Invisibility of Causation in the Real World

And lastly, another reason that reality is transcendental is that most of it is invisible to our senses. This is especially true of causal relations between otherwise visible things and events. If a causal relationship is very proximal both in space and time, then we can be really accurate in our undersanding of many of its elements. The other car ran a red light and ran into us. I trow a stone and a few moments later see the splash in the lake. But most causation in the real world is relatively distal from point of observation. We adapt to gravity, but we can neither see gravity nor can we totally comprehend gravity. What we do it fill in the gaps with concepts and theories. I don't mean just scientific ideas and theories here. I mean stories and explanations developed in each and every culture on the planet to account for the invisible nature of the world. This is the stuff of myth.

The Navajo people of the American southwest, for instance, hold that all perceivable things in the world have invisible aspects that are imagined as "Holy People" -- for example, the Mountain People, the Star People, the River People, the Rain People, the Corn People, etc. For sophisticated Navajo thinkers, these Holy People are anthropomorphized symbols for the usually hidden and vital element within all things, and which traditional Navajo philosophy equates with "Wind" (nilch'i; see McNeley 1981). People themselves also have such a hidden dimension called "the Wind within one" (nilch'i hwii'siziinii). All these Winds are really part of the one all pervasive and all encompassing Holy Wind. Winds are never distinct entities and there is energy flowing in and out of even the most enduring objects. It is the coming and going of wind that accounts for the tapestry of reciprocal causation typical of their understanding of the cosmos. The choice of "wind" as the central metaphor is an explicit recognition -- common to many cultures on the planet -- that there are forces that normally cannot be observed, save by inference from their effects.

It is very much the function of myth in societies like Navajo to reveal and explicate the invisible dimensions of the world. The hidden energies that are the essence of the world are given a face – a countenance that may be contemplated, that is "pleasing to the mind," that may be enacted in ritual (like mystery plays) and that may be imagined in daily life as the efficient cause of significant phenomena and events. For those members who are well versed in their society’s mythological system, the core myths and their various symbolic extrusions are all-of-a-piece. They form a single, ramified "cognitive map" within the context of which events – even events in the modern world of global politics and economic affairs – make sense and are easily related to both other events in the contemporary world, and archetypal events that unfold in that timeless era of mythological mysteries.


* I borrowed the notion of "hairless apes" from my favorite comic books, Steve Gerber’s inimitable Howard the Duck (

** If you are more familiar with BS, then what I am calling the "brainworld" here is the "cognized environment," and the "real world" the "operational environment" in more technical jargon.

*** In BS jargon this process of adjusting internal models with respect to input from reality is called the "empirical modification cycle" or EMC.


Goudie, Andrew, 2005. The Human Impact on the Natural Environment (6th edition). New York: Wiley-Blackwell [This is the standard textbook on human influences upon the natural environment.]

Marples, Mary J., 1965. The Ecology of the Human Skin. Springfield, IL: Thomas. [A classic description of our skin as an ecosystem, host to many different families of microbes that populate us by the billions.]

McNeley, James K. 1981. Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy. Tucson, AR: University of Arizona Press.

Wilson, Michael, 2004. Microbial Inhabitants of Humans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Very readable and technical exploration of the human body as an ecosystem.]

1 comment:

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