Saturday, February 09, 2008

It's All in The Mind 1

Long ago - in the mid to late seventies to be precise - I remember a friend of mine always using this phrase, or more properly this sentence, that is, that "it's all in the mind.  His name was Noel Brosnan, a Cork man, with whom I have long lost contact.  Noel had studied philosophy at Maynooth University before he had come to Mater Dei Institute of education in 1976.  As he was an accomplished footballer and quite a good philosopher I was somewhat in awe of him.  However , I always associate this phrase with him in my mind.

I suppose my title is one of those "throw-away" phrases or sentences that we all use from time to time without paying too much attention to them.  However, unlike most of our other "disposable" or "throw-away" phrases, it possesses a profundity of insight.  It is, after all, in the final analysis - if I may pile cliché upon cliché for effect - down to the way we see the world or the way we perceive the world around us.  It has always intrigued me over the years the various versions of the same incident one will get from different witnesses.  Oftentimes, I have wondered whether they had witnessed the same incident at all.  Then, you have to add in all the various biases and prejudices of individuals into the mix.

And so, we are back to the very important philosophical debate between subjectivity and objectivity.  How objective can I be?  I have often asked myself this question when correcting an essay.  Am I influenced by how well behaved this or that student is in class?  Are my marks influenced by whether I like or dislike this individual?  How objective, in fact, are my results? This has always been the arguments used by various teachers unions against continual assessment in favour of the more objective standing of the examination system's results - after all they are marked anonymously by unknown examiners. 

Long ago, back when I was in first year college we did a course on perception in our psychology classes.  The two famous drawings that can be interpreted two distinct ways come readily to mind from those lectures.  The first was either a drawing of a candle holder or two distinct faces looking at each other depending on how one looked at the picture.  The second was a picture of a very old lady or a very young woman depending also on how one looked at the drawing.  The following is a very good site to look at with respect to the "tricks" our perception can play on us: Visual Puzzles.

There is also another very famous sentence, one which I also like very much and which indeed I have quoted many times in these pages.  That sentence runs:  "We see the world (or things) not as it is (they are), but as we are."  I have long given up the attempt to trace the original speaker of this sentence or thinker of this thought.  I have found it variously ascribed to The Talmud, traditional Jewish proverb, Anais Nin, Carl Gustave Jung and even Immanuel Kant.  However, I think, like my title, it probably is attributable to many.  Anyway, the sense of this statement that "we see things not as they are in themselves, but as we are" has many important implications for us - not alone for the way we think, but also for the way we act in and on our  world.  Salutary lessons are that things may not be as they seem to us at all.  We may be too quick to jump to conclusions about others.  I have long believed that we are (and certainly I am or have been quite often) too quick to jump to conclusions about the actions and motivations of others.  Indeed oftentimes things are not what they seem to be. 

We get a similar lesson in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  That is what the Searcher/Qoheleth tells us in a passage in Ecclesiastes 6, where he declares that things are not what they seem to be. We think life is one way and it turns out to be something quite different. His thesis is that we may be reading everything that is happening to us entirely wrong. In Chapter 6, the Qoheleth, the Searcher of Israel, says that prosperity may not always be good; and in the first fourteen verses of Chapter 7 he takes up the opposite and accompanying truth - that adversity may not always be bad.

Now a little pure philosophy if you can bear with me for a few moments.  Immanuel Kant asserts that perception is based both upon experience of external objects and a priori knowledge (a priori knowledge is knowledge that is already there). The external world, he writes, provides those things which we sense. It is our mind, though, that processes this information about the world and gives it order, allowing us to comprehend it. Our mind supplies the conditions of space and time to experienced objects. According to the "transcendental unity of apperception", the concepts of the mind (Understanding) and the intuitions which garner information from phenomena (Sensibility) are synthesized by comprehension. Without the concepts, intuitions are nondescript; without the intuitions, concepts are meaningless — thus the famous quotation, "Intuitions without concepts are blind; concepts without intuitions are empty."  In other words there is the Mind that perceives and the objects perceived through the five senses and our perception of them is a more complex process than just registering them on an empty screen as it were.  The Mind in itself is not purely a Tabula Rasa or Empty slate - this latter thesis states that individual human beings are born with no innate or built-in mental content and their minds are in a word, "blank", and that their entire resource of knowledge is built up gradually from their experiences and sensory perceptions of the outside world.  Kant was to prove this this thesis, while containing not a little empirical truth, needed to be complemented by a more sophisticated understanding of mind .

1 comment:

Daniel Shaw said...

Dear Tim,

In my quest to find the source of the saying, "We see the world (things)...", I found your wonderful blog. Thank you for sharing this all for us! I am inspired!!

Stay well,

Daniel E. Shaw, Ph.D.