Thursday 6 October 2011

Mind, Absence and the one-headed myth

Joan Riviere, the psychoanalyst of John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott remarked on what might be called the "myth of the one-headed mind":
"There is no such thing as a single human being, pure and simple, unmixed with other human beings. Each personality is a world in himself, a company of many. That self... is a composite structure ... formed out of countless never-ending influences and exchanges between ourselves and others. These other persons are in fact therefore part of ourselves... we are members of another." (quoted in John Bowlby and Attachment Theory by Jeremy Holmes, p137)
This makes me worry about 'time' and systems thinking. Time is tied up with cybernetics: first-order cybernetics was about time-series (Wiener's book on cybernetics deals with the issue head-on in Chapter 1: "Newtonian vs Bergsonian time"). 2nd order cybernetics turned 1st order concerns onto the observer, but still assumed a 'processing model' with time as the implicit ontological foundation: the observer processes their observations in time, sequentially. But the essential abstraction of time, which is a human construct in itself is never critiqued. That is because it upsets everything. How can you have a difference without time? What's different? This here now? Or this here now? The 'time' of cybernetics is Bergson's idea of 'objective' time (clock time); Objective time is an abstract and rational slicing-up of phenomenological experience. Phenomenological time, on the other hand, is Bergson's 'Temps durĂ©e'. It's interesting to think about this, because Ian Kemp told me about it first (see yesterday's post), and that Stravinsky was particularly influenced by the difference between psychological and ontological time.

What I want to say here is that 'objective time' or clock time, is mistakenly believed to be 'one-headed' time. On the other hand, phenomenological time, duration, may be accepted to be many-headed, because it is in the flow of experience of engagement: Merleau-Ponty's expression "the flesh of the world" is an apt description of the relationship of duration with many heads in the world. But clock-time may not be one-headed at all. To me, Ulric Neisser's model of cognition suggests that clock time may be just as many-headed as duration. It only feels like a one-headed construction.

Once we see the one-headed myth for what it is, the idea of "one-headed time" looks shaky and this is a little frightening - because when that goes, so do all logical abstractions which presuppose the rule of logic over lived experience.

I've been thinking about David Chalmer's 'zombie' arguments for consciousness. It occurs to me that we may believe zombies to be logically possible, but we assume that this logic that we believe is a one-headed logic that occurs independently of the objects upon which it operates (i.e. zombies). However, what if the logic we use is not one-headed, but many headed, directly engaged with the environment? That means that the thought of the "logical existence of zombies" may only occur in a world without zombies; after all, this is the only world we know. The existence of a real zombie could conceivably change the logic; indeed, in a world with real zombies, our very conception of a "logical possibility" might be entirely different from what it is in a world without zombies. This is true for most abstractions: their value lies in their reduction of complexity in an apparently one-headed context. But in fact, they reduce complexity in a many-headed context, because the complexity reductions are reductions in communications that are made. This probably boils down to the 'logical possibility' of zombies being a function of a particular set of speech acts.

But a many-headed world-view challenges basic cybernetic principles. Clock time is many-headed; therefore, the processing that occurs in clock-time is dependent on the world being as it is. If the processing changes the world, that in turn changes the logic. Maybe we begin to see how many-headed thinking can pinpoint the essential ontological problems of theory-practice gaps.

But it's not all doom and gloom, is it? Many of those cybernetic abstractions are still useful. "Difference" and "variety" particularly so. But if time is not one-headed, we need to think how it is that difference and variety are useful where abstractions about time and processing are not valid.

My argument here is that the concept which comes to the rescue is 'symmetry'. A symmetry is defined by markers. The most obvious markers are 'being' and 'not being'. Within 'being' and 'not being' there is a field of possibilities. Some possibilities 'fit' better than others; those are said to have symmetry. But symmetry 'just is'; it does not presuppose processing. It is there from any moment. It may be that what cybernetics calls a 'difference' is the realisation of a new symmetry.

This concept of symmetry gets around a few tricky problems. First of all, symmetry might give us a different sort of mechanism for anticipation. Symmetries are 'just there', and because of that, what is 'in the future' is contained within the symmetry of the present. Also, 'absence' becomes a fundamental category of mind, as something which demarcates 'not being'. This makes me think that there's something in Bhaskar's 'Dialectic'; but the dialectic isn't a 'process'; it's a symmetry. Finally, clock time (objective time) and reason in being multi-headed, fundamentally relate to continually shifting inter-relations. In this way, time is not psychological at all; it is sociological.

I'm not yet sure all of this makes sense. But there's something here. And it's seems to becoming more relevant because increasingly our technologies are working in 'real time'. Now there's a Bergsonian phrase if ever there was one!!

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