It appears that we experience the world in the first instance through our perceptive faculties or senses of sight, hearing, touch, and taste. The immidiate response to stimuli through these faculties is biological – that is, we see, we hear, we feel. Much of this response is routine, reflex, normal, part of an hourly or daily routine, mainly taken for granted, some perhaps even boring. The response can be thus passive or routinely reactive. We can simply gaze at the scenery or flick away the annoying fly, chew the food or spit out the piece of bone.
Occassionally, or frequently in some environments, the stimulus carries a message that, although purely biological in the first instance, triggers off what is known as an ‘affective’ response. In the landscape we have been idly contemplating, a lion appears. The affective response is what we know as emotion and in the language of affect psychology emotion is biological response informed by ‘scripts’ – that is, our awareness that lions or police at our door can be dangerous. An affect can also be positive and someone we love could enter the landscape being viewed, or knock on our door, so that instead of fear we may experience the affect of pleasure or joy.
Much of all our experiences based on our perceptive and emotional faculties is routine, except in times of crisis, whether of a contented or unhappy nature. Whether we can improve our lot in the practical world or move to a higher order of being depends upon a higher set of faculties, which are very difficult to describe. These are cognitive faculties and they embrace both intelligence and the much more difficult to define faculty or sense of ‘awareness’. Before trying to define our awareness, we need to deal with the semantic environment.
The semantic environment
Where lions can chase and kill us and loved ones arrive to embrace us in the physical environment, our semantic environment can produce both greater terrors and equal or greater blessings. There may be no greater manifestation of a continuing terror in our semantic environment than the inquisitions, based on totalitarian ideologies, which appear to dog every age. As we moved from the physical daily risks of the hunting era, the dogmas and doctrines of our increasingly complex semantic environment appear to have provided at least an equal potential for danger for the individual, especially one trying to experience individuality or liberty. And, one should add, the potential for a more fulfilled life.
As we age and mature we begin to appreciate the two worlds of the physical and the semantic. If one is hounded and shunned and perhaps imprisoned for what one reads, writes, or looks at, one's grief comes not from the physical world but from the semantic or evaluational environment, the world where humans make dogmas, doctrines and laws, described by Samuel Bois as the world of mental constructs, our man-made and man-organized world of abstractions. So how the rules and laws are made is all-important for both our wellbeing and our survival, but the ways in which the laws are made and implemented are interwoven with the quality of the semantics, or perhaps Bois would say the epistemics, the accuracy and truth or at least truthfulness in the sense of not being artful, deceitful or disingenuous, above all not using constructs simply to communicate but as self-serving, especially to hurt others in the course of achieving our selfish or political ends.
J. Samuel Bois, who invented epistemics, describes two worlds in which we live, as follows:
"Let us speak of two worlds in which we live. One is the empirical world of things, people, movements that we can see, phenomena that we can observe. Some call it the world of reality, and we agree to its existence and its properties because we all have the same sensory apparatus and share common perceptions.
"The other world is the world of mental constructs, our man-made and man-organized world of abstractions, or units of discourse. It is the world that we carry around with us wherever we go and whatever we do. I have called it elsewhere our structured unconscious. Each item in this world is a part of speech: noun, adjective, verb, etc. A part of speech is a unit of discourse. These units differ from one culture to another, as our units of measure (inches, feet, yards) differ from the metric system, with its millimetres, centimetres and meters, or as our units of money (dollars, quarters, dimes, and nickels) differ from the pounds and shillings of England. In matters of measurement and of money, it is evident that our mental world determines the manner in which the empirical world is parcelled out- - - . From (these) evident facts, let us try to pass to the idea that our whole empirical world is also parceled out according to the mental pattern we carry about in our structured unconscious. In other words, our units of discourse determine the units of 'reality' we deal with in our empirical world, or - however paradoxical it may sound at the moment - our world is what we say it is."
This requires much patient reflection, but while it is both desirable and probably essential for our survival to make meanings in a more careful way, 'making meaning' is not simply a cognitive exercise (organize, collect, laws, rules, etc.) One only has to picture an ancient man standing alone on a great plain under an even greater sky to appreciate how meaning can begin in silence at the affective level. It may begin with a sense, and combining with past experiences or other things or people around us, evolve into a feeling. The more gifted amongst us may then be able to express it in words or art.
Our semantic environment, which has created our civilization and underpins it and all that we hold worthwhile and even great, has also worsened our displacement, first from nature and God and then through the inadequate and spurious ideologies, which we appear unable to avoid, even from each other, such as when moral panics destroy neighbourliness and sow suspicion and dissent, leading to social isolation.
A fascinating mental exercise is to take the model of semantics which begins with the existence of doctrines and dogmas, and imagine several other 'domains of meaning' or 'levels of awareness', in an imaginary world where we have moved beyond the domain of doctrines and dogmas, into one where we discard black and white labelling, a priori assumptions, and accept ambiguity.
Moving on from how we experience within the physical and semantic environments, we come to what may be our most noble activity – the consideration and development of a process that uses and consolidates all of our perceptive and emotional faculties within both the physical and semantic environments, which we know as our awareness. J. Samuel Bois, the French Canadian philosopher, greatly influenced by Alfred Korzybski invented the science/art of epistemics to understand and attempt to influence and improve our levels of awareness. One of the first dramatic lessons we learn from him and from his school of epistemics is that there are profoundly different levels of awareness between individuals. These are so great that an individual at a higher level (and even the expression ‘higher’ is inadequete and perhaps should be changed to ‘expanded’) can be as different to one at a different or more restricted level as an 18th century gentleman would be from a savage. These two individuals simply do not and cannot agree on certain complex issues because their ways of making meaning differ.
A greatly simplified description of the levels could be as follows: at the very basic is the individual who responds mainly to the day to day physical environment and more or less ‘does and believes what he is told’ within the semantic environment. At the next level are the managers, academics, social workers, psychologists, police, judiciary and government that create the doctrines and dogmas accepted and largely believed by all at the first level, some of whom may be well educated and read the ‘best newspapers’. The levels beyond the second become complex and will not be considered in depth here but suffice it to say that, although very much a minority, there are a significant number of individuals who believe that the doctrines and dogmas used at the second level are perverted by bias, deceits, prejudice and are largely based on political aspirations, profit or used as a means of control. For example, these individuals will have a jaundiced view of the ideology of sexual correctness and will see much of the legislation which supports it as a means of political and social control. At this level, as both Korzybski and Bois might have pointed out, individuals will see both the authors of the doctrines and dogmas and themselves as part of the problem. They will not accept the concept of the censor and policeman/judge who pontificate on the sin being themselves beyond tempation. Indeed they may see their very loathing as an act of disavowing something hated within themselves and projected onto hated others.
The world as illusion
There is a recent intriguing way of regarding existence as we experience it and its adherents call on quantum physics in its support. It is that the world and the universe as we experience them are an illusion - indeed a hologram projected from another more real dimension. The only thing real in it is our consciousness which is part of something greater. It is an attractive, even seductive, concept as it allows one to explain apparent pain and suffering and injustices as not being real, but mere illusions. Its more devoted advocates call on us to adopt it as a recipe for happiness.
What fits in with other assumptions on this web site is that such a view embraces the thinking of David Bohm, looked at shortly, where there is an exteriority, which is manifest and where we dwell, and a hidden interiority from which all is projected, which is the more profound state. What makes this writer at least uneasy is that it also allows a somewhat callous attitude in which the more fortunate who have not been struck down by calamity and may never be, and those not yet struck, to be cavalier and dismissive about the plight of those in need. It dismisses or disregards compassion and conjures up images of the kind of 'well-heeled contemplative' looked at shortly in the Gulag of indifference. The Christian tradition of the Cross is more in tune with the realities of true suffering.
If the hologram of the world as illusion can also contain real suffering, at times even a crucible of misery, then it must also contain free will and the concept of becoming, and support the idea that if we are being tested or are experiments of creation then it matters not that the testing is going on in a projection of a greater reality.
Hopefully we will return to this somewhat audacious idea at the end.
That which is unknown
Now to mightily test both reader and writer. I should warn that when I first encountered this concept it took some time to take on board, even though I had some experience of using epistemics at the time.
United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has been credited with saying, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”
This was said in the context of entering into the Iraq war. Unfortunately, the expression ‘known unknowns’ and the context in which he placed the great issue of the ‘unknown unknowns’ tended to localise the latter into a state well beneath its actuality. It helps to simply consider the known and the unknown. There are many educated people today who believe that almost everything that can be known is now known and that science will soon reveal the little bit that is still not known. Nothing could better illustrate the gap between the level of awareness of these individuals and that of someone who has truly encountered the unknown.
The unknown is mind-bogglingly vast. It stretches both out into the apparent infinity of the physical universe and into the ‘interiority’, the vast spaces within the universe which the physicists still do not understand. It reaches down beyond the structure of material and reaches out to the ‘limits’ of space and into the past and the future. It encompasses our own imaginations and our sense of awareness. Far from us already knowing almost everything, the unknown vastly exceeds what we do know, or think we know. This puts both fanatical believers and fanatical unbelievers into the same camp of believers that all or nearly all is known.
Awareness is the opposite of unawareness. We can be in ignorance of both the unknown and of the limitations in our own awareness. An expanding awareness allows us to accept a great unknown. Psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek went beyond the categories above to one where we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know something. This could include such ‘appalling vistas’ as the Abu Ghraib expression of the US ‘liberation’ of Iraq. ‘Appalling vistas’ was the expression used by Great Britain’s Lord Denning when he refused to allow an appeal against an injustice on the basis that it was better to suffer the injustice than face the appalling vista that the police and prosecution had lied.
Modified: 11:15 9 Aug 2006