Awareness and thought

We use language to describe the world in our experience. However, the world in itself is not divided up according to the same lines as the words we use. In our minds, we split the world up into pieces according to the concepts of language.

Our bodies present to our minds a picture of stimulation from the outside world that we can never know in itself. When we think in language, we view the world through language and according to its structure. This means we focus on some things and ignore others. Of course, we also do that without language, as we direct our attention to features of interest. But when we do think in language, we technically think about language and not what it represents.

Thinking is not fundamentally different from not thinking

When we consciously control our minds to focus on certain aspects of experience or form mental pictures, linguistic or other, we expend effort to direct our thinking, but in doing so we ignore other aspects that would be immediately available as experience. This always involves tension. Thinking is an act, which involves choosing some things over others.

However, thinking also influences our actions, and causes us not to notice aspects of our experience that we don’t find relevant. While we could say that conceptual thinking makes us focus on abstractions and generalizations in our mind over direct experience of reality, however this is not the whole picture. Our thoughts are a feature of the world that we experience. Whether we are actively thinking or not, we are still in a sense watching a show about the world.

At any given moment we can either experience a show about the world as our body presents it to us, or we can experience our thoughts, a mental simulation of words stored in our long-term memory. In either case, we experience an event that happens in our body and is given form by it. Both active thinking and simply receiving sensory inputs are things that our bodies do. When we experience the world, we actually experience our bodies from the inside, so to speak.

Active choice or simply going along?

Thinking about the world under consciously controlled thought is strenuous and cannot be constantly maintained. There is necessarily a balance of activity and passivity in our moment-to-moment experience. A lot of our reactions to the world involve simply reflexive actions and going along with our customary responses.

When we need to achieve some result that we prefer over its alternatives, for whatever reason, we have to consciously control our thoughts and actions. The roles in which we participate in society are fundamentally formed around needing to think and do some things and not to think and do others. All societal institutions are involved with this kind of selectivity, and they produce a constant tension from needing to choose some things over others. This defines our social roles.

In order to produce a certain real-world result, we must act based on a picture in our mind – words, memories or directions – that we associate with achieving the result. This is the essence of active choice. Active choice is in contrast to passive desire, or things we simply want or don’t want without any deliberation. However, we often expend active effors to achieve things that we desire, as desires motivate our actions and give meaning to our efforts.

Navigation in the flow of life necessarily involves a balance of action and awareness. How we experience the world, the form we give it in our thoughts, as well as the desires that motivate us to action, are rooted in our bodies. In turn, our bodies for the most part function autonomously, including our minds, and are subject to influences from the outside beyond our control. Carl Jung’s idea that the consciousness is an island amid a sea of the unconscious could be expanded to include that even within our minds, conscious choice is an island amid a sea of simply going along.

Conceptual systems and reality

Earlier I have referred to ideas about how what think about the world is not the world itself, how we will never know the world itself, and how the structures of our bodies, particularly nervous systems, are inseparabe from how the world appears to us.

Our nervous systems respond to experiences by forming connections across the various areas of the brain. These connections shape which thoughts appear in our minds by association with other thoughts or experiences.

The connections we form result from what activities we engage in. Thus, whatever we do leaves its mark on our nervous systems by creating new connections or strengthening existing ones. Repetition of engagement in situations of a fundamentally similar nature (be it a game of tennis or a business negotiation) is the key component in forming such long-lasting connections that produce our ability to perform in similar situations. In our mental experience, this appears as prior skills and experience that are applicable in novel situations.

This highlights why we need more thatn the literal meaning of knowledge, or its factuality, in order to know what to do in real life. How do we translate things we learn from books or in studies into real-life activity? In this process we have to find a way to use our formal knowledge in real-life situations in a pragmatic manner. In other words, we need to make things work and to solve problems, and only ideas that help us do that have lasting value.

Societal pragmatics and conceptual systems

In the modern society where people operate and co-operate in different professional roles, based on education and life experience that is not accessible to other people that we work with. In professional practice, differing fields of study are joined together by similar pragmatic aims.

For example, the medical staff in a surgery room includes people who would not be able to perform each other’s roles and do not have access to each other’s education, but are all engaged in the same operation with the same end goal. These differently educated people who are working on the same pragmatic purpose work on the basis of multiple, only partially overlapping representations of what is relevant in the situation shared by all. Multiple pictures of what we consider the same event exist in the minds of the participants.

It follows that the same physical real-world event, such as a patient suffering from a disease, is conceptualized by different conceptual systems by different people. From the viewpoint of societally available knowledge, we could say that there are multiple levels of analysis, or conceptual systems, that could be applied to the same event.

This is demonstrated in the biopsychosocial model of psychiatry, which improved on the previous biomedical model by including a wider consideration of the social dimensions of disease (psychiatric or otherwise). Though we may consider a physical disease consisting of causes, biological processes and manifest symptoms, it is nonetheless true that being sick includes consistent psychosocial features as well, including worry, stress, ramifications for professional life, and so on. Diseases cannot be adequately considered as solely biological processes, since they routinely carry predictable psychosocial components as well.

The disease process as well as its psychological, social and societal dimensions are conceptualized as hierarchically ordered levels of analysis. Which levels are relevant for you depend on what aspect of the patient’s situation you are working with. This may be the genetic or organ-system manifestations of disease, the stresses of being sick, or possibly a disability pension system that may need to cover people who lose their ability to work because of the disease. The fundamentally same disease appears in multiple spheres or levels of natural systems, which also reflect societal pragmatics. These are organized to cover each other hierarchically.

A similar kind of thinking on levels of analysis has been applied in other analyses as well. Peter Berger described religion as a sphere of society which encompasses all the others. While societal formations based on material pragmatics are interested with mutually exclusive goals and involves in- and out-groups, religious thought covers all of these at the most abstract and most immaterial level. Religion is not concerned wíth the pragmatics of, for example, manufacturing, legislation or education. By being the most abstract and most encompassing level of analysis, religious knowledge is fundamentally not in conflict with any of the other spheres of society.

A shared yet non-shared world

Across the different spheres of society, or layers of human activity, we are engaged with a physical world that we assume is fundamentally the same. However, the part of our experience of the world that is produced by external stimuli being filtered to ou consciousness by our biological structure differs according to the unique life histories. These include shared education and other widely available social knowledge each of us has accumulated. As the Dire Straits song ‘Brothers in Arms’ goes, “We have just one world, but we live in different ones”.

Spheres of society, a well as the members of such spheres, are unified by a shared education and usage of its associated concepts, just as individuals have a unique life history, that also makes how we see the world inaccessible to others. However, what gives form to anyone’s personal view of the world in the form of the language we use to describe it, is shaped by pragmatics – i.e. what activites we engage in, based on either individual choice or professional affiliation.

Nowhere in nature does there exist language without a person using it. How we use language is always tied to what we need or want, because those are our motivation to engage in and think about the world. As a result of those choices we get our priorities coded in our minds, our long-term memories and the structure of our nervous systems. The literal meanings of words and formal linguistics can never truly capture the historically unique experiences and purposes of the people who use the words.

Thought and reality

The image of the world that we have in our mind is not the world. Nor are the words we use to talk about the world.

At any moment, there are infinite details and patterns in going on in reality that we could focus on. We can learn a lot about the world simply by paying attention to what is happening.

Instead of doing that, we think. We are taught to talk of the finger and not the moon it is pointing at. Almost all of our socialization and education, depends on language. It involves joining a common picture of reality that describes features that we are taught are relevant, and excludes others.

We think of education as a good thing. It isn’t only that. As a society, education allows us to produce what we need, and as individuals, to support ourselves by becoming useful in this process. However, it also comes at a cost to our minds.

Once we have learned to think instead of experiencing, we envelop reality in concepts, and are expected to sign up on a life-long route of societal roles and activities. These keep us putting the world into more and more mental categories or boxes that are required in order for us to participate.

No activity is really over when we think it is over. Whatever we do leaves its mark on our minds, by forming neural connections that form the long-term memory associations that our thinking is based on. When we learn a useful skill or a new concept, we tend to filter our experience according to it. We experience reality as if through these mental categories, treating unique individual events as members of their categories.

There are no sheep

Consider the existence of sheep, for example. Every individual sheep is genetically unique and has had its own experiences during its life that have shaped what it is in the material level. In that sense there are no ‘sheep’, what exists in the world are historically and physically distinct and unique animals. The category of ‘sheep’ exists in our minds and patterns of social interactions.

If that seems absurd, consider that the same situation takes place in scientific research. Every study that makes statistical generalizations over large groups of people, for example, only reports its findings at the level of averages. If a study finds an association between a certain kind of diet and, say, heart disease, the finding represents an overall risk in large groups of people. Thes study sample will certainly include people who had no adverse health effect from the diet.

However, we are expected to act according to the overall findings from large groups of people, not from our actual situation. Playing our societal roles demands that we replace uniqueness with generalizations. To be more accurate, as we use language-based representations in our thinking, we replace our direct participation in the reality that the language refers to with generalizations.

This is not only the case within the participants in an individual study. By and large, we talk about research results as gross generalizations, such as “physical exercise helps prevent depression“. While this conclusion overall represents the line of research well, it discounts the fact that it is based on a number of individual studies. Every single study that this generalization is based on has its limitations, as scientific studies are never perfect, and there may even be some contradicting studies within a scientifically legitimate generalization.

Researchers will understand this, but as scientific knowledge is disseminated in the public in the form of sweeping generalizations by non-experts, the reality and details of the actual studies behind the conclusions are not part of the discussion. Even more, since more studies testing an elaborating on previous ones are published all the time, in extreme cases what we are today citing as scientific truth changes into untruth as the line of research progresses.

This is not to say that this is an issue specifically with scientific knowledge. All generalizations are just that: generalizations, no matter their source, and when we think in concepts we generalize.

What is the real event?

Reality happens at a given moment. What is real is there at the historical, unique moment you experience it. This can be sensory experience of things outside your body, which always takes its form within your body in the form of sensory organ and nerve activity. When you are recalling a moment in the past, you are still recalling it now.

Being aware of and representing in our minds something that we think about as a separate event in our minds, for example ‘my best friend’s wedding’, is an inseparable part of the event. Because we think in language or other symbols that exists in our minds, our intuition is that things and events outside our body go on even if no-one is there to witness them.

This is not entirely true. They cease to be things and events if no-one is thinking about them as such. They appear in our minds, then they disappear, but apart from that there is nothing in between that we can be aware of. Even when we try to grasp what the outside world is like when we aren’t thinking about it, the outside world appears in our mind. We imagine what takes place in between the periods when we are thinking of something, but even then it is just that – something we imagine in our minds.

It is easy to neglect that thought is also an event that happens in a specific place and at a specific time. Like sensory experience, mental experience takes place within our bodies in the form of brain activity. The content of our experience that we experience is correlated with brain activity. It is not that sensory or mental experience causes brain activity: artificially induced brain electric activity also causes us to have mental experiences. Stimulating someone’s brain with an electrode causes the person to experience urges to move or sensory percepts, depending on what part of the brain is being stimulated.

No matter if it is an external or internal event, we experience it in transient form. When we recall a past event to memory or think about the future, we are doing it now, and our act of doing it only lasts as long as it does.

When we think in symbolic terms, the formal content of thought, such as the word ‘sheep’, is unchanging. However, the meanings that we give it are different at different times. We may be sitting in our car, annoyed at a herd of animals slowly crossing the road before us, or we may be reading about how the species evolved. Formally the concept ‘sheep’ appears to be temporally stable and to correspond to a definition that could be given in a dictionary, but it is used in unique situations.

In our thinking, language is stored in our brain structure and thus our long-term memory. It is a means to relate the present to the past either in the form of abstract learning or memories of past events. Thus the past only ever appears in the ‘now’, because the act of thinking is an event, which exists in physical form in our brain structure and activity.

Further, our thoughts about the world do not really simply refer to the world outside our bodies. They refer to the activity of our nervous system either as it receives stimulation from outside events, or as we recall them in our memories. In turn, our nervous system, specifically the nerve connections in our brains, is continuously reshaping itself in response to our experience and learning.

The truth created by language

The way we are first taught language is by giving objects common names, which place them in categories. The sheep is not a member of the category ‘sheep’ before it has such a name, as before then the entire category does not exist. This is no different with other kinds of words we use. They are symbols for something non-linguistic. We learn no only the symbol, but also how to use them in conjunction with other symbols, and we do this as we participate in social interactions.

Even the best scientific knowledge we can produce is like that. Societal knowledge is still a symbolic representation of the world, coded on our brains and repeated and modified by the social patterns in which we use them. It is not the world. Sticking to scientific facts does not change that our thoughts refer to our the state or shape and activity of our nervous system. We had to learn those facts the same way we learn anything else, and we will have to use language (or other symbols such as number) as symbols or category labels that we use to refer to parts of historically unique events in the now.

Even as I sit here writing this on my computer, I may talk about science and socialization, but neither is anywhere to be seen. They were present while I thought and wrote about them, but they will disappear when I cease to do so. They may return later. That is the nature of mental pictures, or the act of thinking or saying “something is (like) something”. Their essence is in the act of saying or thinking.

No matter what we think the ‘real’ state of affairs in the world is, it isn’t. It is always a mixture of ‘it’ and ‘us’.

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