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Discovering The World Beyond Words

(Published Oct. 9, 2022 by Mariven)

A Conceptual Lens

As we go about life, we interpret reality through concepts. We interpret our real selves through concepts, interpreting this very interpretation through the concepts of “interpretation” and “concept”. Thus is objective truth filtered through a conceptual lens before it reaches usOf course, this holds for logical truths as well, as will be explored further down this page..

What do we see when we focus our minds beyond this lens? We see that it systematically deludes us in our analysis of reality, which is not itself made of whatever concepts we happen to see it through. This is the subject of this article.

What do we see when we focus our minds on the lens itself? What do we see when we manage to remove the lens? That'll be addressed in the future.

Noticing Ambiguity

A. 'Mu' as Vacuity

The Japanese character 無, “mu”, is used to indicate that something fails to be -- Wiktionary gives the definitions “nothing, nothingness, null, nil, not”. In the Buddhist tradition, though, it carries two extra meanings. One is a characteristic of the formal condition of mind, which will concern us later; the meaning that concerns us now interprets 無 as an answer to a question, roughly analogous to “N/A”. to give this answer is to say that the question as so fundamentally confused that no straight answer could possibly be a true one. It has a connotation of _absence_, and often indicates that the question wrongly reifies some actually-absent concept, rests on an implicit assumption about an actually-absent state of something, or so on. Thus, it might be used in any of the following situations:

B. 'Mu' as Ambiguity

There is a softer way in which one can take ‘mu’ — not as indicating a fundamental vacuity of the question but instead a critical ambiguity within it, some vulnerability which tends to cause answers to it to end up miscommunicating something. Let’s write this use as µ (the Greek letter mu).

C. Concept and Definition

The same ambiguity is present in most questions concerning many particular concepts, ranging from the highly abstract (“sentience”) to the apparently obvious (“knowledge”): our individual conceptions of them are highly detailed in all sorts of ways not immediately present to us, as are the means by which they’re activated in certain contexts via communication or cognition more generally, and these details color our judgements in ways that we do not directly perceive but only invent ex post facto justifications for *THIS IS TO BE EXPECTED FROM FIRST PRINCIPLES*. Given that the brain is an incomprehensibly complex product of stochastically driven natural selection selecting for evolutionary fitness above all else, we can expect no safe harbor in our conceptions of its function — the reality of biology simply does not limit itself to the patterns we happen to cognize, being infinitely more complex and subtle. In particular, one must expect that whatever part of the reality of the brain is indeed responsible for the things we call concepts does not simply carve “concepts” out as a natural kind standing on their own and merely “importing” other functions from the brain, but rather sort of has them indirectly through many other complexes of phenomena some of which may vaguely look like scattered components of the faculty of conception. Every biological abstraction is like this, ontological spaghetti with an irrational Hausdorff dimension. The _entire history_ of the study of biology, especially evolutionary and molecular biology, is people impaling themselves on this bitter lesson _over and over_ without _ever actually adapting their conceptive frameworks to it_.
!tab There is _some_ kindness to biology, given for instance by the modularity common to evolved systemsSee Alon’s actually-amazing book _Systems Biology_, esp. the final chapter, but it is never complete, being scarred in the battle between optimization for particular function (whence non-modularity) and optimization for general ease of construction, maintenance, and design storage/transmission/transclusion (whence modularity). The hands are _not exactly_ copies of the feet, for instance, as the former had to adapt to its particular function of fine manipulation while the latter had to adapt to its particular function of weight-bearing The identicality (modulo reflection) of the left and right hands is a good example of a victory for modularity; handedness can largely be relegated to a neural difference not concerning the design of the hands themselves..
!tab Another example: our brains are capable of learning how to control foreign implements as though they were our own limbs. For instance, when I play a video game I’ve played for a long time, I don’t think about how I should manipulate the _controller_ with my fingers to make the character do what I want, and I’m generally not even conscious of the controller unless something weird happens with it. I just will the character to do something, and my muscles interface with the controller in the way that makes that happenI have a running hypothesis that degradation of this skill, rather than sociocultural change, is actually the main reason that older people have more trouble adapting to new technologies; when the instinctive motor learning doesn't kick in, it becomes a frustrating cognitive task to map goal to input to movement (have you ever tried to trim your hair with scissors in a mirror?)..
!tab Given the existence of this incredibly powerful faculty, one might conjecture that we use it to learn how to operate our limbs shortly after birth, rather than knowing how to use them right out of the box. Perhaps it’s a form of facilitated variation, with the neural mechanisms responsible for this faculty having evolved a very long time ago, early in the history of chordates, and made it easier for them to adapt to all sorts of niches — flying with wings, running with two large legs or four small legs, swimming with flippers or fins; if this was in general particularly difficult for evolution, starting off with the general faculties would’ve vastly increased the fitness of chordates in general.
!tab However, supposing that this really is the case, we should expect that for any given genus/family/etc. defining a given body form, it would be advantageous in the short term to adapt this general learning system to that particular form so they can get a head start on flying and hopping. Hence, there’s a conflict between global and local optimization trends that in practice produces a fractal interplay between modularity and non-modularity.

In other words, every concept can be seen as having a _liquid aspect_ through which it diffuses into and mixes with other concepts, cognitive processes, patterns of sense-phenomena, and all other kinds of mental phenomena; the liquid _refracts and blurs_ our image of both the concept itself and any given employment of it, so as to alter our cognition in an essentially uncontrolled way that is for the most part invisible to us except, if we’re careful observers, as vague changes in the “tint” and “warping” of the way a concept is made to appear through its employmentIn other words, we look at how the mind autonomously shapes the concept as it is used, trying not to get in the way. (It's difficult to get the hang of).. This conceptive liquidity As explained elsewhere, It’s confusing to use the adjective “conceptual” to mean “existing as or within concepts” _and_ “pertaining to concept formation, development, and usage”, so I use the word conceptive for the latter (comporting with its established meaning). For instance, a conceptual pattern is a pattern found in the content of various concepts, such a common reference point which they’re thought in relation to, while a conceptive pattern is a pattern found in the structure or development of concepts, such as a common habit of branching out from visualizations. Both of these are different from a concept of a pattern, such as seasonal temperature change.
!tab In any case, I mean to contrast the phenomenon of conceptive liquidity — the tendency of concepts to have a liquid aspect — with that of conceptive solidity, which roughly consists in a network of phenomenologically clear signs guiding the sorts of recognitions and applications of the concept I am consciously aware of. The solid in e.g. the concept of a dog would include among its many mental images things like “wagging its tail when happy”, “shedding hair”, “putting its paw in your hand when you reach out to it”, “having a wide range of different breeds”, “chihuahuas are especially unpleasant ones”, and so on, for each of these is a particular image that can consciously come to mind when I’m induced to think of dogs for whatever reason. (The last example is meant to steer you away from the impression that the solid component is a collection of objective facts). It’s obviously harder to catalogue the liquid, but it includes among its ranks things like the way I preconsciously avoid getting too close to dogs because of a vague image of unpleasantness-caused-by-shedding-hairs-caused-by-contactI have a slight allergy, such that _hugging_ a dog would probably make me a bit itchy and irritated; shaking a dog's hand or walking next to one wouldn't, but unless I'm consciously approaching a dog, my mind will nevertheless project an unpleasant-itchy-field around the dog which it steers to avoid..
!tab Note that this contrast isn’t a clean split, but instead a continuum, so that ontologically speaking we’d do better to say “this is _more_ solid, _more_ liquid, _less_ solid, _less_ liquid” than “this _is_ solid, this _is_ liquid”. But it’s just as when someone contrasts sharp knives with dull knives despite sharpness being a continuum, the categorical phrase “sharp knives will do this well” easily being substituted for the continuous phrases “knives, insofar as they are sharp, will do this well” or “the sharpness of a knife enhances its facility at this”.
is the cause of a significant portion of internal mental confusions and external communicative breakdowns.

Thus, if I'm being honest with myself, I ought to say:

In each of these cases, I can’t convince myself that I don’t actually have multiple determinations (or, in a geometric manner of speaking, a broad space) of the essential concepts involved in the case in a manner that would lead me to different answers based on which !c{determination}{or mixture thereof, as sometimes happens} happened to come to me by chance. For instance, whether I consider the question “are numbers real?” with a conception of reality in which thoughts are real and so are particles or one in which particles are real and thoughts are not matters significantly; I can only extrapolate via induction the existence of a whole ecosystem of partial determinations of the concept of reality each of which affect my analysis of the question in some possibly important way yet only a few of which I can actually seeArguments over Platonism generally come from a failure to understand that we each have _slightly different spaces of conceptions_ of ‘real’, ‘number’, and so on, and we therefore get different answers when honestly applying them to answer a question like “are numbers real?”. If everyone is given a function $f$, and mine is $f(x) = x^2+1$ while yours is $f(x) = \left(x+\frac1x\right)^2$, it’s ridiculous for us to debate whether $f(1)$ is $2$ or $4$ or to debate whether $f(0)$ is $1$ or inconceivable/incoherent/nonexistent.. So what can I answer to “are numbers real?”, or any of these other questions, but “µ”?

We might call this the µ-problem: we cannot generally be sure that our concepts are so-determined as to allow for particular answers to any of the questions those concepts allow us to ask. To be precise, we might call this particular form of it the internal µ-problem, contrasting it with the problem of discrepancies in conceptions among different _people_, the external µ-problem.

Don’t think that you can escape this by assigning definitions to the words you use to represent certain concepts in order to reason about them in a logical, propositional manner as is done in mathematics. For:

This is a problem that we cannot simply throw off — nor is it a problem that we _ought_ to throw off, for it’s part of what allows our thoughts to be productive.

The Non-Kind World

Reason tends to assume that anything it can ask it can find an answer to, and that this answer is simple in structure: if the question may be _interpreted_ as bivalent, having either one answer or another, Reason postulates that it _is_ bivalent — this failing, it assumes that the situation is such that one of the two answers may be selected as “close enough”. If there are many possible answers, it tends to assume that one among these can be selected as the “real” answer — if it is somehow decisively shown that no perfect answer exists, it tends to assume that it can get one “real closest approximation”. If there are many possible perspectives or definitions each of which yield their own answer, it tries to pick one perspective as the “canonical” one, thereby obtaining one answer. One, always one. It assumes that words have definite meanings, that statements have definite logical forms, that things in general can be made systematic and boiled down to single, clear answers. Even those who consciously deny this manage to assume it at every opportunity, because they don’t consciously realize — or, at least, care — that it takes deep mental alteration to gain even the slightest hope of defying the natural illusions to which the mind patterns its cognitions.

“Whose fault was the plane crash?” — why do you assume that there was a _who_ whose fault it was? Do you not see that, in reality, it happened because of a multitude of happenstance events, a plurality of essentially random coincidences, a series of ordinary reactions, a chain of simple misunderstandings, all combining in some boringly predictable way to cause the accident? The reality of the situation is right there, and _it is no more than it exactly is_. If there is an agent to whom we can attribute an _exceptionality_ of behavior, such as the pilot who, uncoerced and unprovoked, axes his copilot and points the plane straight down, then we’re in one of the rare cases where we can _reasonably_ pin the fault on one single person.

More commonly, there are multiple agents with less exceptionality — the repairman who, hungry, forgets to double-check a few bolts in an engine because he’d like to finish up quickly to get lunch; the inspector who, having slept poorly enough to earn a crick in his neck, fails to look up high enough and see the loose bolts hanging; the new pilot who, interpreting the ergonomically induced tension he feels as anxiety, is nudged into panic by the loss of the left engine even though he trained for recovery even when both engines go down, his mind racing right over the procedure his instructor failed to properly drill into him; the air traffic controller who, hardly being able to make out the pilot’s panicked, stuttering voice over a poorly engineered tin can radio, mishears a couple words so as to misunderstand the situation and give directions to an airfield where local winds prevent the pilot from approaching correctly with just the right engine working.

Maybe you want to blame one person, saying somehow they were “essentially” the one at fault. Obviously, this is wrong, but I doubt that’ll stop you. Maybe you’ll be a bit more cautious and say here that the blame is shared by multiple specific people, but of course the number of people depends on how wide the net of exceptionality you cast is, there being no canonical size to this. Furthermore, the more details we consider in judging the exceptionality of each person’s behavior, the less exceptional it ends up being! The more powerfully you condition on someone’s psychology and situation, the less surprising their actions will be; the more powerfully you condition on someone’s upbringing and genetic tendencies, the less surprising their psychology will be; and so on. Don’t bother creating some ad-hoc counterfactuality condition that you fail to see just spreads the ambiguity around so you can’t see it as easily. _There is nothing more to the situation than what it exactly is_, and there is no notion of fault inherent to the bare reality in which this situation obtains! It’s an illusion which sticks to reality through the transcendental equivalent of static electricity.

“What is the function of the prefrontal cortex?” — there is no exact function. You can approximate, and if you’re lucky this approximation will give you decent answers to a significant range of questions concerning its behavior or connectivity, but you must expect reality to defy your conceptual approximations when you look closely enough, because reality is not _built_ according to your concepts, only thereby _interpreted_. Of course, there is no real thing that is ‘the’ prefrontal cortex either — can you exhibit it? No, you can only point to a part of any given real person’s brain, and you will have pointed at something which is unique in structure and connectivity (as brains are) and therefore slightly different in function from the “corresponding” part of any other real person’s brain.

“Is this supplement healthy?” — why do you assume it either will be or won’t be healthy? I’ll leave out the narrative here to skip to the conclusion: _it will make the alteration to you that it specifically will make to you specifically, and no more_. To the extent that you can know this alteration and carve out some part of it which you can coherently assimilate under your image of health, that’s a bonus — there is no notion of ‘healthy’ inherent to the reality in which the, say, plant underlying the supplement is produced, so you don’t get a “yes” or “no” when you ask whether it’s healthy, but another ontological fractal. This holds even when the supplement is designed to be ‘healthy’. Not that I avoid supplements on this basis — there is some transcendence. The _formal condition_ of the question, when a precise and entire answer is demanded, is illegibility, but humans manage to make do for approximate and limited purposes.

The ubiquity of these indefinable fractal interplays hiding beneath the shallow words we wrongly assume are supported by definable categories is what I mean when I speak of the “non-kindness” of the world. It’s an overloaded phrase, ‘kind’ here meaning both type/class/category and nice/pleasant/easygoing. In general, reason assumes that it is living in what an epistemically _kind_ world — or a world where it can neatly, coherently classify things according to their kind. This is false. The world is epistemically cruel, or _non-kind_, such that any assignment to things of a kind into which they fall is always loose at the seams, always partially incoherent. When we do not realize this, we set ourselves up for failure as we repeatedly aim for a perfect answer that just does not exist.

There is no guarantee...

Humans systematically neglect the _incongruity between conceptivity and reality_, thereby ending up in constant confusion and conflict over fictions. We do this because we do not have the mental tools required to navigate a non-kind world. These tools are what I'm building.