Photo credit – Richard Ricciardi – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricricciardi/23513339926/
Primary concepts and constructed reality
What is a person, but a collection of choices. Where do those choices come from? Do I have a choice? Were any of these choices ever truly mine to begin with?Westworld
A living organism by using its sense organs captures a portion of the outer world to create its own reality. Human reality pictures the world with space, time, objects, colors, movements, sound, smell and heat. A bacteria might have its own reality about this world based on its chemical sensors. Humans use eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue to obtain attributes of the physical world. These signals are distinctively processed by our brain giving rise to different aspects of our ‘perception‘. Elements of the physical world that are seen through our eyes will be ‘perceived’ by our mind as ‘light’. Other elements are captured as sound, smell, taste and touch by our perceptual system. Of all the senses, eyes capture a detailed image of the world. The ‘perception of light’ is further transformed by our brain’s ability to create ‘concepts‘ by the next level of processing called ‘cognition‘. The light from the physical world is transformed into a set of concepts like space, objects, shape, size, distance and color. These are primary concepts that our brain structure is inherently able to create from the signals captured from the surrounding without explicitly ‘taught’. A concept is a coherent mental picture of an ‘experience‘. Conceptual structuring brings ‘meaning’ to the signals and helps to direct our action to survive in this world. ‘Something’ in the physical world is turned into an electrical signal by our eyes, it then becomes light in our brain and then it transforms into objects with size and beauty in our conceptual mind. ‘Something’ in nature becomes a signal, transforms into sound and then emerges as music or noise. But the ‘true nature’ of these elements will never be known and does not need to be known. We describe it as electromagnetic waves and pressure waves in the discipline of physics. Even these are merely concepts(not true nature) created in our mind after incorporating additional signals about these elements that were captured by using instrumental sensors. These additional signals and more advanced conceptualization of these elements have sharpened our understanding of nature and advanced our manipulative power to our needs. It is because of our scientific instrument’s capability to capture other aspects of nature that now we ‘know’ more about ‘light’ than what our ‘eyes’ could reveal.
Ability to understand the ‘Primary concepts‘ like size (big and small), shape (round, rectangle) or distance (far and near) are naturally acquired by a child during the development of brain. Human reality is the final coherent construct in the mind of each one of us built out of signals from the world. There is a great concordance among humans in the understanding of primary concepts. When we talk about big and small objects, all humans irrespective of their culture or language have similar understanding about the concept of size. The same is not true for another animal which does not have the ability to conceptualize ‘size’. The same goes for other primary concepts like space. Human brains create a three dimensional ‘space’ to describe this world using signals from our senses. We do not and will never know how this world looks like in a lizard’s reality.
In addition to the outside physical world, our mind is also shaped by our ‘emotional world‘. We ‘experience‘ our emotions in the same way as we experience the physical world. Our emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, freedom, shame and anger does not have any real existence in the physical world. Hence our conception of these experience does not have any shape, size or color. As a result of this it is difficult to accurately quantify and compare two individuals experience of happiness. However, all humans know by experience that these emotions are as real as anything in this physical world. In fact, these emotions are true physical entities – all of them have characteristic features in the physical matter of the brain. They are not some illusions. But their physical nature exist only in the brain of the human being. We again use ‘concepts‘ to understand and communicate these elements by associating it to an established real world experience. Our brain does this by conceptual structuring using metaphors,
Fear is the foundation of obedience (structure)
Fear is my demon (person)
Happiness is a dance (activity)
This is a burning shame (fire)
Metaphors and secondary concepts
So far we have seen how our direct physical and emotional experiences are understood by organizing these ‘experiences‘ into conceptual structures. These simple primary concepts are designed for us to ‘know‘ our surrounding and survive in it. Every organism has its own set of sensors to create a ‘meaningful‘ reality of nature and direct actions to avoid death and to seek food and mate.
Our ability to investigate nature using instruments has revealed us aspects of the physical world that we cannot directly experience. These instrument sensors are merely an extension of our body because the signals are eventually fed into our brain. There is a vast portion of the world that is not accessible to our sense organs. We have never perceived it and we do not know how it ‘feels’. It is very much possible that we are just seeing a ‘shadow’ of something else. However a fraction of this imperceptible world can be captured by instrumental sensors.
- Our body can sense that we are surrounded by ‘air’ and it cannot be seen. We can feel it and even smell it. It can be warm or cold. We breathe air in and out. Our instruments informed us that air is actually made up of different types of elements and one of them is oxygen. It occupies 21% of air and it is essential for life. It also has an element that we labeled as carbon dioxide and is released as a waste product from our body. Air has a physical property that we conceptualized and defined as ‘pressure’. It can be quantified by our instruments and we realized that the pressure decreases as we climb up. Once we understood more about the air pressure, we started to fly.
- Our eyes reveal that the world is made up of light and darkness. This light helps us to see the color, shape and sizes of the objects around. We can see our food and mate, thus survive and reproduce. We can sense danger and prevent death. Our instruments informed us that light has electrical and magnetic fields. This element is present throughout this universe and we are able to ‘see’ only a portion of it. We created a concept to incorporate all the newly ‘sensed’ properties and defined it as ‘electromagnetic waves’. We calculated how fast it travels. We noticed that not only we can ‘see’ the world but we can also ‘talk’ by manipulating these waves(cell phone).
Our brain cannot directly experience any of these signals that are captured by instruments. To make meaning out of these signals we give structure to them and categorize them. Our mind performs this by conceptualizing these signals using structures from our primary concepts. Most scientific theories are metaphorical in nature. We understand abstract scientific concepts by indirectly associating it to a domain which we can naturally experience and imagine.
- Flow of electricity is understood by highlighting similarities to flow of water
- Atom is described by conceptually imagining to contain particles with definite shape and size
- Thought experiments like Schrodinger’s cat to explain findings that are difficult to conceive
In addition to imperceptible world there are also elements in reality that are incomprehensible to human mind. Events in the subatomic space appear to behave both like a wave as well as a particle to our mind. The concepts of ‘wave’ and ‘particle’ were already created in our mind by using our experience of other ‘noticeable’ things in macroscopic world. In our attempt to conceptualize such esoteric elements we use concepts from within our world like size, shape and motion. Experiments on such elements appear to us as if they have ‘conflicting’ properties. It is merely an inability of our mind to imagine a single complete concept that could explain all the findings that we observe about the subatomic world. This is because our brain has never directly experienced anything that could help us to ‘narrate’ a coherent concept for this element of nature. Even though we lack the ability to conceptualize the data for the purpose of understanding, we still can make meaningful predictions using mathematical functions. Hence an electron is not a structure with a finite shape and size, rather it is merely a mathematical construct. Mathematization of reality broadens our predictability zone much beyond the limits of comprehensibility.
Thus we are able to incorporate more signals from the physical world into our reality by conceptualizing these newer elements based on already existing natural experiences. These indirect understanding will always remain to be a partial truth and we can never know the true nature(if such a thing exist) of this world. Our world is what we feel and imagine. In addition to the ‘formless’ signals from the physical world, our mind is also faced with a necessity to understand secondary concepts that helped us to form our complex human society.
Humans are social animals and we work in groups. Using narratives or ‘cultural concepts‘ we progressively expanded the size of our society. These narratives are abstract entities like purpose, success, liberty, faith, future, time and money. If you explore attentively you would notice a plenty of these poorly delineated abstract concepts using which we constructed our human society. All of these concepts have true physical existence in our brain. They probably exist as maps of neurons connecting different parts of human brain that are domains for primary concepts. These cultural concepts progressively integrated more and more humans to work in coherence and form a larger superstructure. Unlike primary concepts, these secondary concepts are understood differently by every individual and it greatly depends on their cultural background. The concept of liberty is not the same in all societies. The conception of time must have been very different in ancient societies. We conceptualize time by the following descriptions,
It is a valuable commodity – Time is money. Invest time carefully
It is a linear path with past, present and future and we travel along that path
Time is a limited resource – We are running out of time. You are wasting my time.
Time is an entity with absolute quantity – Measured in seconds, days, months or years. I have few days to live.
Societies that are not culturally tuned to conceptualize time as a resource or a commodity with an absolute quantity may ‘feel‘ and ‘experience‘ their present and future differently.
Using secondary concepts we expanded our ‘partial’ understanding of the truth behind nature and also created narratives that progressively integrated the behaviors of millions of people to cooperate for a common fabricated purpose. Both together have made mankind the most powerful species on earth. The major limitation of secondary concept is that it is a ‘learned‘ knowledge and the conceptual structure in each individual’s mind could vary widely – Force, electrical field, gravity, electron, faith, trust, honesty, liberty – They all exist in different shapes and forms in each human being in our collective society. However primary concepts – Inside- outside, big- small, light – darkness, slow- fast, round-triangle – all create the same understanding and same changes in the brain structure in all humans when communicated.
- Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. 1980
- From molecule to metaphor – A neural theory of language. Jerome Feldman. 2006