Percieving Ordinary Magic - cover


Jeremy Hayward


We must now turn to consider the role of the "outside world" in perception. The traditional assumption of the division of nature into an organism which is perceiving and an "outside" which it perceives is an arbitrary, although useful, division which the organism makes in order to survive. It is an aspect of the "I" conjecture. But it is arbitrary; it is by no means an absolute division of nature, or one on which we should base a broader view of perception, as we will see in this chapter.


The Nervous System as an Autonomous Unit

In the previous chapter we saw that the nervous system, particularly the brain, is a tremendously complex system that has interconnections at all levels. It seems to function as a unit. Any change in any subsystem of the brain results in adjustments throughout the entire system.

Based on these considerations, Varela has suggested that it is more useful, and appropriate to the organism, to speak of the nervous system as an autonomous unit, an operationally closed system. This system passes through its own internal states (its conjectures), for which interactions with the "external world" act as triggers. We do not "know" the external world; we know our internal states, or perhaps we should say that the internal states know themselves. But these are in a constant state of change, and that change is triggered by "interactions" which we refer to as the "external world" or "reality." To help us visualize the sense in which the organism passes through its own internal states, Maturana and Varela use the analogy of an airplane pilot in a terrible storm with zero visibility trying to land his plane with instruments. To the pilot there is no difference at all between this situation and a simulated storm in the safety of the training cabin. When the plane lands and everyone congratulates him for making such a beautiful landing in the fierce storm, he might say, "It felt just like the hundred practice landings I did." He was responding to the internal states of the plane, which were triggered by messages from the airport control tower, but he was not responding to the storm itself. As an analogy for the human interaction with its environment, a plane landing on automatic pilot might be better: we are not assuming that the human has a "little man" inside him, separate from the body/mind and guiding it, i.e., we are not assuming a soul, or a separate "mind." The various states that the airplane can go through in response to the messages from the control tower, such as angles of wing elevations and so on, are a function of the internal structure of the plane itself. (1)

Like the automatic pilot, the nervous system, Varela suggests, is responding to its changing environment by passing through states which are constrained by its own structure as well as the history of previous pathways of states it has passed through in previous interaction with the environment. The important point is that from the point of view of the nervous system its available states are not by any means a direct mirror of the "outside world." As Varela says, "[This research] means moving away from viewing the brain as a device which takes input in the form of information to act on. Rather it means moving towards viewing the brain as a system characterized, not by its inputs, but by the operational closure of its dynamics of states, defined as a relative balance of activity between neural surfaces in a manner such that every change of state of the system can only lead to another change of state of the system itself. . . For us, the origin of knowledge and the making of sense, does not resemble the design of a system which is optimized to match a given external standard [like a camera taking snapshots of the 'outside world']. We could say it resembles, rather, a tinkering, a dynamic sculpting, a building of structures from the materials available to an organism that it puts together as they appear in a drift which follows one of many possible paths."

Varela points out that this point of view applies not merely to some nervous system we are studying, but also to our own nervous system itself. He concludes, "If we are right, our human life, our experience right now, is but one of the many possible creodes [pathways] of knowledge, where the immense background of our biological structure and social practices is inseparable from the regularity we discern in both world and self. When we follow this logic all the way through, we can understand the world in which we find ourselves as neither separate nor distant. But also, as one where we have no fixed reference points left."


Criteria For Mental Process

Let us look further at how mind or mental process might arise in this dynamic process of interplay of an organism with its environment. To do this I would like to discuss the view of Gregory Bateson which also takes us to a much deeper level of explanation where, as we shall see, the absolute distinction between nature and mental process is questioned. Gregory Bateson worked during the early part of his life, in the early 1930s, observing and participating in the cultures of New Guinea and Bali with Margaret Mead. In the 1950s he worked as a psychiatrist and began to apply the newly developing insight of information and communication theory. During this phase, he developed the double-bind theory of schizophrenia, and also continued his lifelong exploration of social and cultural behavior in humans and animals. Toward the end of his life, this wise and gentle man was mentor to a large number of young scientists working in many fields: neuroscience, cognitive psychology, ethology, information theory. He was elder to many of the young people living through the confusing upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

Just before he died in 1980, Bateson finished Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, in which he offered us the fruition of more than fifty years of participation and observation of the life and behavior of animals, including humans. (2) Bateson's main thesis is that the patterns in mind are a reflection of the patterns in nature, and that it is these patterns and only these patterns that we can "know," in the ordinary sense of "have direct experience of." We cannot "know" the things-in-themselves, nor can they know each other. Therefore, the regularities in these patterns are the closest we can come to "ultimate truth."

Bateson proposed a detailed set of criteria as a response to the question: of all the forms of life, learning, and mental process which we know, what is the pattern which connects them?

1. A mind or any living system is composite it has interacting parts and only when we look at a system as an aggregate of such parts can we determine the presence or absence of mental process. There are not isolated "atomic minds" or "atomic living systems" but only process of interaction. Minds are not "things," "monads," "pure cognizing agents," or anything else of a separate and unitary nature.

2. The interaction between parts of the mind is triggered by difference. That is to say, one part of mind responds to a difference between two other parts, not to one of the other parts alone. For example, our own eyes are constantly making short movements. If somehow they could be kept absolutely still while we were looking at an unmoving scene, we would quickly become temporarily blind. That is, our eyes are actually responding to difference caused by their rapid movements. A simple example: it appears that a frog literally does not see a fly until it flies.

The important point here is that differences, too, are not "things." Nor are differences localized. It is the difference between the blackness of this print and the whiteness of the page which provides meaning for us as we read, yet these differences are not themselves localized on the page. This differs radically from the idea of "cause" in physical systems, which can be attributed to the impact or force exerted by a part of the system on another part. Such a "cause" is always energetic accompanied by the transfer of energy, and this is the only kind of cause recognized by physics. In the case of difference, there may be no energy exchange at all. Bateson points out that an event that does not happen, such as our forgetting to send in our tax forms, can make a difference (which can alert the auditors).

3. The energy for the mental process is triggered or fired or released by the energy of the change; the latter energy does not feed directly into the mental process. For example, the energy of the frog's jump comes from the internal processes of the frog and is triggered by the motion of the fly. The fly does not directly supply energy to the frog until the frog eats it. This supplies energy for later jumps, but it is at a lower level of order than the energy by which the frog jumped, until the frog has digested the fly and transformed the energy of nourishment into energy stored in the order of its neural and muscular system.

Thus the energetic relationship between parts of a mental system are interlocking relationships between self-actualizing subsystems which go through their own internally coherent changes of state in response to differences. There may be a wide range of internal states available as response to any trigger. This emphasizes the difference between mental systems and inert "things" which are not self-actualizing. Bateson points to the "pathetic fallacy" of confusing the two either by, for example, attributing mind-like qualities to subatomic particles, or by attributing thing-like qualities to humans, dogs, and other animals. Such confusions may seem to be only styles of speech, but as we have seen, styles of speech may hide much deeper confusions. The first confusion, attributing qualities of "charm," "strangeness," and so on to particles, may be relatively harmless. The second, however, attributing thing-like, machinelike qualities to minds, could be dangerous, as well as being, according to this discussion, simply wrong.

4. Mental processes require circular (or more complex) chains of determination. This is a very important point. Bateson gives the example of a man chopping a tree with an axe. The mental or living process involved must be thought of as including the entire circuit: man's brain, muscular system, the axe, the cut in the tree, man's visual system.

Such circuits provide the dynamic stability and self-correction of mental processes. For example, each successive stroke of the axe is corrected in response to the result of the previous stroke in a completed feedback circuit. We cannot isolate a partial arc of one of these circuits and attribute all of the mental process to that arc. Bateson speaks of the necessity of taking into account the complete circuit, particularly in relation to our idea of the "self."

"The total self-corrective unit which processes information, or, as I say, 'thinks' and 'acts' and 'decides,' is a system whose boundaries do not at all coincide with the boundaries either of the body or of what is popularly called the 'self or 'consciousness'; and it is important to notice that there are multiple differences between the thinking system and the self as popularly conceived.

   a. "The system is not a transcendent entity as the 'self' is commonly supposed to be.

   b. "The ideas are immanent in a network of causal pathways along which transforms of differences are conducted. The 'ideas' of the system are in all cases at least binary in structure. They are not 'impulses' but 'information.'

   c. "This network of pathways is not bounded with consciousness but extends to include the pathways of all unconscious mentation autonomic and repressed, neural and hormonal.

   d. "The network is not bounded by the skin but includes all external pathways along which information can travel. It also includes those effective differences which are immanent in the 'objects' of such information. It includes the pathways of sound and light along which travel transforms of differences originally immanent in things and other people and especially in our own actions." (3)

5. "The relation between the differences and the mental processes they trigger should be regarded as the relation between a map and its territory. That is to say, an object, event, or difference in the world 'outside' an organism triggers changes within the organism which are not identical in type to the outside events, but are analogous to them as landscape is to a map. As we have seen, the work of Maturana and Varela suggests that the relation between possible states of the organism, considered as an autonomous system, and the triggers in the "outside world" is somewhat different from the one-to-one correspondence, the "representation" of a territory by its map. In fact, even what constitutes a "trigger" depends on the previous history of the interactions of the organism and on the immediate conditions of the present interaction.

6. Such relationships between changes or differences in mental processes form hierarchical levels of order. Each level of order involves the recognition of the context of the lower order, the context of the context, and so on.

Bateson elaborates this notion of hierarchies of order in mental processes by describing different types of learning process. (4) The first level. Learning 0, is that of the amoeba which responds automatically, according to a genetically fixed response, to the presence of food or an irritant it simply moves toward or away from it. It has no choice, and the "learning" has already taken place at the species level. The next level. Learning I, is that of Pavlov's famous dog. A bell rings whenever the dog is presented with food. The dog salivates at the sight and smell of food according to the level of learning of the amoeba. However, after several such incidents, if the bell is rung without food, the dog salivates. The dog has learned to recognize the context in which food is presented, the context being a ringing bell.

The next level. Learning II, which Bateson calls "learning to learn," is illustrated in a delightful story Bateson tells about a dolphin. A female dolphin in Hawaii was being used by a trainer to demonstrate simple Pavlovian learning. The trainer would watch the dolphin, and when he saw her do something he wanted her to repeat (say, a tail flip), he blew a whistle and then fed her. Within three trials the dolphin would do a tail flip whenever a whistle was blown. She would then be sent back to the holding tank to await the next demonstration. Of course, in order for the demonstration to be effective, the trainer would have to select a new trick each time, which the dolphin would dutifully learn to repeat. Between the fourteenth and fifteenth trial, the dolphin was observed to appear very excited in the holding tank, swimming to and fro as if agitated. When she returned to the exhibition tank for the fifteenth time, Bateson says, "she put on an elaborate performance that included eight conspicuous pieces of behaviour of which four were new and never before observed in this species of animal." Bateson suggests that the dolphin, between the fourteenth and fifteenth sessions, had realized the context in which all these trials had been taking place, namely, that the trainer wanted her to learn new tricks.

The set of possible Learning II type responses available to a person constitutes his or her "character": dependent, hostile, anxious, narcissistic, energetic, bold, humorous, fatalistic, etc. All of these describe the patterns of a person's habitual transactions with his environment. For example, a "fatalistic" man might be one whose patterns of interaction with his environment could have been acquired through a history of Pavlovian or Skinnerian experiences. It follows that the type of world a person experiences himself to be living in is also determined by the history of his Learning II type interactions. Bateson comments, "No man is 'resourceful,' 'dependent' or 'fatalistic' in a vacuum. His characteristic, whatever it be, is not his but is rather a characteristic of what goes on between him and something (or somebody) else." Thus a person's character, as well as his feeling of "reality," arise as a result of his history of Learning II experiences. A person brought up in a predominantly Pavlovian type of environment will tend to structure the contexts of his perceptions and actions to perpetuate a Pavlovian or fatalistic "reality."

The final level. Learning III, Bateson suggests is likely to be rare even in humans. Something of the sort may occur in psychotherapy, religious conversion, meditation practice, and whenever there is profound reorganization of character. Quoting William Blake's "Without contraries is no progression," Bateson suggests that the creature is driven to Level III by "contraries" generated at Level II, that it is the resolving of such contraries that will constitute positive reinforcement at Level III, and that such resolution can take many forms. We may be reminded here of the possible responses of Prigogine's self-organizing structures to sudden increases of energy input. Einstein and Bohr both provide examples of the resolution of "contraries" in their scientific work and in their private lives.

Bateson speaks eloquently of the characteristics of Level III learning in relation to self-identity: "If I stop at the level of Learning II, 'I' am an aggregate of those characteristics which I call 'my character. 'I' am my habits of acting in context and shaping and perceiving the contexts in which I act. Selfhood is a product or aggregate of Learning II. To the degree that a man achieves Learning III, and learns to perceive and act in terms of the context of contexts, his 'self will take on a sort of irrelevance. The concept of 'self will no longer function as a model argument in the punctuation of experience.' (5)

These levels of ordering should not be mixed. It is such mixing, or collapsing of various levels into each other, that can give rise to mental illness. This is the basis of Bateson's double-bind view of schizophrenia, which, he suggests, is the result of a person's being repeatedly exposed to contradiction between direct. Level I, messages, and the contextual. Level II, messages. Such collapsing of levels is also responsible for tremendous confusion about the nature of learning and of mental processes altogether. If we connect criterion 6 with criterion 4, the full description of such a level of learning or "minding" must include the entire chain of determination, e.g., an organism plus its environment. This, then, is a model of "living" or mental process in which we have to say that such process is not localized "within" the body. In fact, Bateson contends that "the phenomena which we call thought, evolution, ecology, life, learning and the like occur only in systems that satisfy these (6) criteria." We see that in looking for evidence of mind or mental process we must include the whole perceptual circuit. Bateson provides us with a way of understanding that mind itself is embodied in the higher order patterns in nature. Mind is not a "something" separate from nature. It is identical at various levels of order with all of nature, not solely with individual brains. It emerges as a characteristic of processes of nature at a certain level of evolution. It is therefore futile to look for evidence of mental process as located purely in the brain of an individual organism. We must look for such evidence in the entire network of patterns of interaction which that organism has with its environment, or which a group or society of organisms has with its environment. As Bateson says, "The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in the pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by 'God' but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology." Bateson is not talking here of a theistic idea of "A God" or "A "Mind." Rather, he is saying that when we realize that mental processes are patterns in appearances, rather than entities, then these patterns cannot be localized only in the human body.


The Fallacy of the Localized Mind

This localization of mind is perhaps the main fallacy in the idea that mind will be understood only in the circuits of the brain, analogous to a computer. Such insistence on the body as the sole locus of mind is a subtle return of the soul theory because it insists on the centeredness of thought and perception. Of course, it is more nihilistic than eternalistic in that it is usually agreed that the body is impermanent. Nevertheless, the insistence on trying to interpret perception in terms of a central locus is as anthropocentric as was the earth-centered model of the world before Copernicus and Galileo. And there seems to be no good grounds for it other than the personal wish to be at the center of things. We might note that among Bateson's six criteria of mental process, there is not one about a center. We believe that awareness is in our body because our perceptions seem to terminate there and because if we move from room to room our perceptions change while we feel they are in the same body. Thus we give primacy to the clear and distinct highlights of our immediate perceptions. But what of the awareness that there is something at all? We may question the assumption that the totality of awareness is located in the body. But if awareness is not localized in the body, is it localized in space-time at all? What could it mean to say that awareness is not localized in space-time? We should perhaps distinguish between awareness which is not localized and self-consciousness which is. We will return to this later.

There are other possible models of mind which seem to accord with what we know just as well as does the computer model. We could model the brain more on the lines of a television, than a video player. Suppose an intelligent person completely unfamiliar with twentieth-century technology and knowing nothing about electromagnetic waves were to examine functioning TV and video machines side by side. He or she would think that in both cases the picture and sound were created entirely within the machine. If we then told him that the TV set but not the video machine was picking up invisible messages from space, he would think either that we were referring to one of his gods, or that we were crazy. In this model the brain is one part of many loops which are thought or perception, and include all of the environment.

In Bateson's example of a man cutting down a tree with an axe, the whole circuit of man, tree, and axe must be regarded as the basis of mental process in that act. The man himself is only part of it. Thus, rather than say that the man is perceiving the tree and his arm swinging the axe, we could describe this situation in a way which would be more in keeping with the actuality of it by saying that the whole circuit is self-perceiving. The locus of this self-perception is felt by the man himself to be "inside" him. In our own culture he takes this locus to be in his head; in other cultures it is taken to be the heart or the ham, the abdomen. Yet any act of perception always includes some aspect of the world. Without the world the man could not perceive at all.

Edwin Land has put this well: "Ordinarily when we talk about the human as the advanced product of evolution and the mind as being the most advanced product of evolution, there is an implication that we are advanced out of and away from the structure of the exterior world in which we have evolved . . . This mechanism has no separate existence at all, being in a thousand ways united with and continuously interacting with the whole exterior domain. In fact, there is no exterior red object with a tremendous mind linked to it by only a ray of light. The red object is a composite product of matter and a mechanism evolved in permanent association with a most elaborate interlock so that there is no tremor in what we call the 'outside world' that is not locked by a thousand chains and gossamers to inner structures that vibrate and move with it and are part of it." (6) Land is, of course, no mere professional philosopher but an inventive genius who developed the Polaroid camera. He came to the conclusion we quoted as a result of a lifetime's work on perception of color and stereo vision. Thus, to think of mind as located in particular organisms is helpful for the survival of those organisms but false from the viewpoint of the whole of nature. As Bateson says, mind and nature are a necessary unity: "Break the pattern which connects and you lose all meaning."

We should emphasize that the patterns of organization which are mental process do not necessarily have to be patterns in "matter" as we think of it on the scale of ordinary human life. Such patterns could exist at scales as small as a single cell or perhaps even the genetic material. Such patterns could also exist on a galactic or cosmic scale. Physicist Gerald Feinberg and biochemist Robert Shapiro have argued that life could be based on interstellar plasmas, electromagnetic field energy, magnetic domains in neutron stars, and so on. We might note that the estimated number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy is almost identical to the estimated number of neurons in the human cortex. The possibilities for exchange of organization or information within and between galactic systems are great. The level of complexity and order in such systems could certainly be as great as that of the human brain. As Paul Davis, professor of physics at the University of Newcastle, says, "We could describe this state of affairs by saying that nature is a product of its own technology, and that the universe is a mind. Our own mind could then be viewed as localized 'islands' of consciousness in a sea of mind." (7)

There have been, throughout the ages, various views on the relation between mind and matter. Some have said that mind and matter are the same substance. This substance may have the qualities of matter, with mind being simply a complex arrangement of matter and subjective experience an illusion. This is the materialist view. Its most sophisticated expression today is the identity theory that mind is identified with certain functions of the brain and that subjective experience is simply the "inner" sense of this functioning which from an "outer" or "objective" viewpoint is seen to be merely the product of material brain activity. This approach is also very closely related to "realism," that is, the view that assumes the "reality" of an objective world entirely uninfluenced by the perceiving subject. Other theories, the idealist theories, say that the one substance has the quality of mind or ideas and that matter is merely an illusion, another idea. A third group of theories suggests that the one substance has the qualities of neither mind nor matter, but that these are accidental characteristics of a more fundamental substance. This is neutral monism proclaimed by Bertrand Russell in one of his phases, and by Spinoza.

An entirely different group of theories proposes that mind and matter are essentially separate, different substances. This is dualism, or pluralism, if we think there may be many mind-like substances. Descartes was the most influential proponent of dualism in modern times. He argued that mind substance and matter substance could not interact and that their only connection was through the beneficence of God. In more recent times, Karl Popper has argued for a pluralist view. He maintains that his World 2 (subjective feelings and ideas) and World 3 (objective theories, works of art, etc.) have existence independent from the world of physicality. World 1. With Eccles he tried to show how Worlds 2 and 3 might be connected to World I through the speech center of the brain.

Within the domain in which these philosophers choose to define the problem of "mind" and "matter," they resolve that problem more or less satisfactorily. Having conceptually divided the totality in a certain way between mind and matter, subjective and objective, they create further abstractions to heal the division. Such divisions have relative usefulness but ultimately no special validity. From the point of view I am presenting, all these theories make the mistake of looking for substance. Regarding "mind" or "matter" as some kinds of substances, they then try to decide what kind of substances these may be and how they may be related. I am pointing out that "mind," "matter," and "substance" are all patterns, levels of ordering that arise from unconditioned nature when a particular perspective is taken. We have met this view in Bohm's interpretation of quantum mechanics and will meet it again in Whitehead's process philosophy.

The networks or "patterns which connect" may include loops deep within the brain, but also go far beyond these loops. They extend to simple perceptual situations such as the man, his axe, and his tree. And they extend beyond these to networks involving one or more other individuals, as in conversing with a friend or in a therapeutic or teaching relationship. These patterns of connection, of mental process, also extend to interaction with intellectual structures, such as scientific theories, through language; to group situations, whether family, political, or professional; and to the entire mytho-cultural system of a society. For each of these situations our idea of what constitutes the "mind" of an individual must be entirely different, since it is defined by the different networks we, the definers, are focusing on. To illuminate the way in which "mind" can be variously defined by the circumstances, Victor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning, uses the following metaphor: the shadow of a solid object, such as a cylinder, sphere, or cone can appear differently, depending on which direction we illuminate it from. (See Figure 11.) Similarly, the mind/nature duality appears in different ways depending on how the observer makes the division, which questions he is asking, which networks of interaction he focuses on. (8)  


Figure 11

This, then, is a broad view of the partiality of the central conception of "I" and the false view it gives us of mind, nature, and perception because of this partiality. We are imprisoned within our brain, as Mountcastle says, only so long as we identify mind with self-consciousness localized in the brain. What we have uncovered up to this point from our consideration of experiments on the system of visual perception, in the light of reports from the meditative tradition, is that at a level of awareness which is more detailed in perception of time intervals than is usual, our experience would be discontinuous. The appearance of a continuous world "outside," a world of solid objects, is a result of conjectures which are averages of many moments of perception. This discontinuity, combined with the realization that the circuits of mental process extend beyond the organism, implies discontinuity of the supposed solid world as well.

I have proposed that the rapid flickering of our psychobiological states is a flickering back and forth between, at one moment, "actuality," form, specific conjecture about "the world," or the conjecture of "I" with a concurrent consciousness, and, at the next moment, that of which one cannot speak, what is, or a realm of unrealized potential. Specific moments in which we perceive our body and the material world alternate with moments of unactualized potentiality, and neither one is more primary.

We might note that this view of how experience of the world arises also cuts through the traditional philosophical categories of "realism" and "idealism. " This view is not "idealism" because the unconditioned moments between each moment of form and awareness, and the creative process itself by which form and awareness arise, are not the products of an individual mind or stream of being. However, it is not "realism" because the forms that arise are conjectures arising within a particular stream of being, in response to unconditioned reality, out of the stored memory and experience of that individual stream.

This rapid flickering back and forth between our own self-organizing internal states and "that," whatever extends beyond those states and triggers them, is intimate experience which, because it happens so fast, is beyond the reach of observation by ordinary untrained attention. Thus, we have to use the personal language of contemplation if we are to speak about it directly, as it is experienced.

In a later chapter we will look at what has been discovered about the arising of thought and experience as a result of the direct observation of meditation practice. We will of course be using a somewhat different language: the language of personal experience rather than "objective" brain processes. But, nevertheless, we will be speaking of the same process of perception: the flickering between form and unconditioned; the way in which specific forms and their awareness arise from thought and memory; and the way the flickering is smoothed over by ordinary, coarse-scale self-consciousness to produce the appearance of continuity. In the next chapter I will outline this same process of perception as it has been described in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.


Perceiving Ordinary Magic