Saturday, September 30, 2006

Working with "The Given"

by Fred Vaughan

This article was included in the 38th Philosopher's Carnival.

The realization that objective reality in its most basic manifestation involves exclusively subjective phenomena is an introspective “discovery” made in antiquity. For sentient beings there is a subject-defining awareness of comprehensive sets of changing sensations or perceptions commonly just referred to as “experience” but more appropriately denominated “the given” since this precedes even the subject for which it becomes experience. Because of repeated coincidences, the given “appears” to be derived at least in part from external “objects” that we would be crazy to ignore but still are not all that well confirmed. Thus, like periwinkles, we vulnerable sentient beings create a material shell around ourselves prior to any awareness using only the given and our own neurological secretions.

In addition to the creation of a physical world based on hypotheses that correlate aspects of this experiential data, the spontaneous dynamic emergence and disappearance of seemingly identical aspects suggests the concept of time. Apparent regularities in these changes provide the traditional meanings that have been given to time.

So inveterate is the habitual nature of our epistemological quest that we seldom even acknowledge the given from which it all derives. It has neither form nor substance; all one can say of it is that it is. It is by its very nature sentient being, the precursor of subject and object – the inchoate stuff of that which is real. If we would understand the real, then we must understand it.

I said sentient beings – not just thinking beings nor yet exclusively rational beings because it is more basic than that. And for this reason, we rational beings too typically consider neither the wealth of this plethora nor the terrors of puncturing through its shared surface with insanity – this rim of a multidimensional plateau separating being from nothingness.

Like those of us, blind without optical prostheses, who search long and hard for our instruments only to bump them as we attempt to rub our weary eyes, we are oblivious to how we see the world. But let’s poke at this invisible membrane just a little. The rest of you can stand guard and yell very loudly, “Have a nice day!” or “Oh, my God, it’s raining out!” if we seem to dangle too precariously over an edge. Please scream it out loudly.

At our stage of evolutionary development we are immersed so deeply in hierarchical strata of reality that it seems like our object creations are all there are and we wonder where and what we are. You ask someone to envision a house and it’s the one on Oak Street with the dormers and kitchen sink they remember from childhood but that isn’t the aspect of house-ness you meant; you try again. You want to discuss something basic like “seeing” and a landscape complete with rocks and trees or moor usurps the conversation. Once a tree acquires a needle, it ceases to be a useful concept except in very restricted conversations of conifers – and if it’s a long needle, dispense with hemlock, tamarack and fir. We need some brakes on this thing to keep each other from trampling on our visions – splashing in our given. If you want to talk about a “tree”, a “house”, a “sink”, there is no problem; we have engineered our world to accommodate these terms but they are not reality. So that, if there is some additional aspect of tree-ness that may be essential to you in a current quest, you will only learn it from the given, not from object catalogues, not from current theories of tree growth. Finally, too often in despair we discuss the kitchen sink, the rocks, the moor, growth rings and dream of one day sharing givens.

If you are a Volkswagen mechanic specializing in transmissions or a statistician who enjoys nothing more than applying regression formulas, a taxonomist…in short, if you are a doer with standard tools, words, or numbers and have seen nothing that limits your expression, you’ve wasted far too much time on this article already. Be up and at 'em!

For those still looking for meaning beneath the symbols, be advised of caveats before abandoning the shell to work with the given: It has no handles and is by its very nature fragile. If you cannot handle ridicule or self doubt for errors or stupidity, you need to pick a different genre for your creations; stick to being a mechanic, an engineer or develop taxonomies – pump some gas and sell some fries. Be a CEO; make a little money.

However, if you aspire to discovering something new, something basic about our universe you need not look in Random House, Colliers or Britannica – it isn't there. Yet! Nor will periodic peer review get you there; your peers don’t know it either! The great thinkers who have discovered what is new have all been skilled at working directly with the given; they have had to be; there is no other source of truly new ideas. Again, some further caveats: All the obvious invariances within the given have been exploited by paramecia as well as many that are not so obvious. But the given is rich with subtle meaning for those attune to its resonances.

There are several ways to work with the given: Obviously you can just let it happen because it is what happens. But it can also be manipulated in subtle ways to reveal its secrets. Patterns in the given which the natural habits of our mind careen on into objects can be studied in their own right so as to forestall precipitous ossification. We can capture patterns in their pre-object state and play with molten classes of objects not yet precluded by defining operations on our own perspective which slice through possibilities, revealing by isomorphism the one represented by the many. Or we can grasp objects already mined from the tensile ores of the given and recreate primordial impressions to determine what can be known beyond the acknowledged attributes of an object more or less as one might stroll through an art gallery not to create but to more deeply appreciate and understand the process of art. Or patterns, whose interpretation has been rushed or forced to fit some nominal mold, may be enjoyed as pure unto themselves while we explore some alternative essence unsullied by crude interpretation.

If you insist on retaining a talisman, you will have a difficult time, but do what you can.

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