Sunday, August 12, 2007

Conscious Thought is Symbolic -- No More, No Less

Many people -- perhaps even most people -- hold the naive belief that normal, everyday consciousness mirrors reality. That's an especially dangerous assumption which can, and does, cause all sorts of emotional and logical problems. For one thing, when we assume our thoughts mirror reality, we become much more inclined to narrow-mindedness. For another thing, we are much more prone to becoming attached to our thoughts and to believing our thoughts are just as important as the things they "mirror". Both of those mistakes are quite common, and they can both be traced back to the naive assumption that normal, everyday consciousness mirrors reality.

Instead of saying that normal, everyday consciousness mirrors reality, it would be far more accurate to say that it maps reality. That is, the relationship of consciousness to reality is basically the same as the relationship of a map to its terrain.

The differences between a map and a mirror are many and subtle. Yet, if you spend enough time comparing and contrasting those two metaphors, you will gain for yourself the practical insights of an introductory college course in epistemology -- and all without ever having to learn how to spell "epistemology"! Deals like that don't grow on trees.

From time to time, I will post articles here on the many and various implications of the notion that consciousness is to reality as a map is to its terrain. But in this article, I only wish to discuss one of those implications: A mirror reflects reality, but a map merely symbolizes it.

To illustrate, suppose I take out an indispensable map I recently bought which shows the locations of all the erotic dance clubs in Colorado. Looking at the map, I first notice that it does not reflect Colorado and its dance clubs like a mirror would, but instead it symbolizes Colorado and its dance clubs. For instance, the location of each dance club is symbolized by two tiny figures -- the first of a dancer, and the second of an enthusiastic patron trying to take the dancer's g-string off with his teeth. The two tiny figures do not reflect or mirror what the dance clubs look like, but they do symbolize the dance clubs.

Again looking at the map, the second thing I notice is that the map's usefulness to me in no way depends on its mirroring reality. I am able to use the map to find the dance clubs despite the fact the symbol for the dance clubs in no way reflects or mirrors the actual clubs.

Consciousness is remarkably similar to a map.

In my room is a floor lamp with a rich green shaft. According to the naive view that consciousness mirrors reality, when I look at that shaft, I am seeing "what's really there". But is that so? Physics, for one, tells me differently. When I look at that shaft, I am not seeing "what's really there", but am instead seeing photons of certain wavelengths that have bounced off the shaft. Moreover, the shaft, which appears solid to me, really is not. Instead, it is made up of atoms that are themselves mostly empty space. Yet, the notion that I am conscious of "what's really there" gets even more problematic when we turn from physics to psychology. For then I learn that as my brain processes the information coming to me from the lamp shaft, it repeatedly steps down and deletes information, so that, in the end, the information I have to think about is less than one hundredth the information that entered my eye when I looked at the shaft. In short, what I might naively think is "really there" is actually more like a symbol of what's really there. The lamp shaft I see is not the lamp shaft that exists, but rather a construct of my brain -- a symbol of what exists.

Yet, even though I can only be conscious of a symbol of what exists, that symbol is useful to me. What I see when I look at that lamp shaft is just as useful to me as what I see when I look my indispensable map of Colorado's erotic dance clubs. In both cases I can use the symbol to negotiate and cope with reality.

Both physics and psychology reveal that all consciousness is symbolic. Therefore, when discussing consciousness, it is more appropriate to think of its relationship to reality as like a map to its terrain, than it is to think of its relationship to reality as like a mirror to what the mirror reflects.



I think you are right about maps being a good model of how minds are related to the rest of reality for many purposes.

However, the mirror metaphor does point to a couple of things quite nicely. Reflections are not static whereas maps usually are. Also, it is possibly more obvious that mirrors distort things in a way that maps don't.

Paul said...

Those are a couple of good points about the usefulness of the mirror metaphor, Bongo. Thank you!

Mahendra said...

I cannot tell you how glad I am to find a post on epistemology in this blogosphere!

You write very well. How the perceptions of our senses are integrated into concepts is a fascinating field of study.

Thanks so much for writing about this!

Paul said...

Welcome Mahendra! You just made my day with your kind words!

Jonathan Blake said...

I like that: map vs. mirror. Handy mental hat hook to hang that idea.

I wonder, though, if it's not a false dichotomy. Perhaps the more detailed a map becomes, the more it becomes like a mirror. Perhaps the two aren't mutually exclusive but rather two extremes of a spectrum.

Paul said...

I think I see what you're saying, Jonathan, but wouldn't a map still be a collection of symbols no matter how detailed it was? On the other hand, a mirror is said to reflect "What is" rather than reflect a symbol for "What is". So, if all that is the case, then I think there would remain an important distinction between a map and a mirror no matter how detailed the map became.

Yet, I agree with your insight that the distinction between map and mirror is not dichotomous. Maps are not the proper opposite of mirrors.

Anonymous said...

I disgree that mirrors are not static. The temporality of the static image makes it no less static.

ordinarygirl said...

Your post gives new meaning to the phrase, "living in your head." Yet, since we only have what we perceive it becomes reality to us in a relative fashion.

Your post reminded me of bats and echolocation. Bats "see" by sound in the same way we "see" by light. Even though they are blind to light their brains most likely interpret sounds similar to the way we interpret light.

Ergo said...

Your view in essence is just Kantian--and for the same reason, wrong.

Mirrors and maps are both grossly inadequate analogies.

While the consciousness is metaphysically passive, it's epistemic role is always active--never like a mirror.

However neither is it like a map, for if it were, then what "mapped the map" so to speak?

Your descriptions of the photons entering the eye are in essence your admission of "things out there" activating our sense organs. In other words, the brain receives input of things-as-they-are. Consciousness integrates these sense perceptions into the particular *mode* of human cognition (read Gestalt psychology). This is not to say that it only provides a "map" of the world, but it actively integrates the sense data in a *form* appropriate to the identity of human consciousness.

The identity of an alien's consciousness (or that of an animal) is different from that of humans. Therefore, the way they would integrate the sense-date of photons will be different; nevertheless, this difference in the *form* or *mode* of epistemic activity is not an invalidation of the ability of the consciousness to have direct awareness of things as they are.

In essence, your position entails not only the problem of "mapping the map" but also the paradox that consciousness dismisses itself as a faculty of perception because it perceives.

If you study the logical implications of the law of identity, then you wouldn't have a problem understanding that things are what they are and act according to their nature; human consciousness is no different.

Further, you are committing the logical fallacy of composition in your reduction of solids to atoms with vast amounts of empty space between them. It's true that on the atomic scale, it's mostly empty space. But you cannot attribute the quality of the parts of a whole to the whole itself.