Home > consciousness, light, metaphysics, philosophy > Envisioning the General and Local Aesthetic

Envisioning the General and Local Aesthetic

January 24, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Aesthetics: late 18th century (in the sense ‘relating to perception by the senses’): from Greek aisthētikos, from aisthēta ‘perceptible things,’ from aisthesthai ‘perceive.’ The sense ‘concerned with beauty’ was coined in German in the mid 18th century and adopted into English in the early 19th century, but its use was controversial until late in the century. (Source: Google)

The term ‘aesthetic’ may put some people off. It’s a pretentious word, has a funny spelling, and contains vague meanings that range from what you might hear in a philosophy class to what someone on TV might say about a fashion designer’s garbage bag frock. My interest in the term comes from a different sensibility – the medical sensibility that defines agents which suspend consciousness as “general anesthetics” and substances which numb sensitivity as “local anesthetics”. This is closer to the original Greek sense of the word. By dropping the an- prefix, we can turn the meaning of the word around so that there is a concept of consciousness as “general aesthetic”, or perhaps even aesthesis, and individual sensations as “local aesthetics”.

The goal here is to make sense of all phenomena as part of a single continuum or spectrum, so that for example, the seer, the seeing, the seen, light, and sight can be understood in relation to each other and as aspects of one common thing. This is also reminiscent of the relation between General Relativity and Special Relativity, especially since the function of relation is arguably one which is synonymous with perception. In order for one thing to relate to another, there has to be a context in which that relation is presented or accessed. Rather than speculating on what such a metaphysical context would be, Einstein used terms such as ‘frame of reference’ and ‘observer’ to map the when and where relations of physical effects, without discussing the what and how of relation or measurement itself. As he labored to find a unified field theory, it probably never occurred to him that qualities such as significance and questions of who and why could enter into it. Even though relativity is conceptually inseparable from the subjective act of perception, the notion of perception itself as a physical phenomenon is neglected entirely, and relegated to a one dimensional concept of detection.

A quick survey of our own senses reveals that the fundamental mechanism seems not to report on actual or absolute properties of the outside world, but rather their relevance to each other, to us, and to our interest in them. We know of many examples in perception where colors or shades look different when they are seen adjacent to each other, or shapes flip depending on how we are relating them to foreground or background. We know that ordinary light looks too bright if we have been sitting in the dark, and that cool water feels warm when our hands are cold. Every sensory palette works this way as far as I know. We say that they are perceptual ‘illusions’ because they reveal that what we perceive is not what our mind expects, however we should understand that our minds too can only make a particular, mental kind of sense. Thought is unlike seeing, tasting, or hearing in that thinking is stripped of tangible aesthetics and reborn as abstract thoughts.

Thoughts have their own aesthetic, to be sure, and language plays both midwife and policeman to those semiotic qualities, but the killer app of thinking is of course, its transparency and reflectivity – the capacity to represent without getting in its own way. Thinking provides us with a way to re-experience our tangible sensations of X as intangible sensations of ‘thinking about X’. Thought is to representation as perceiving is to presence, and the brain is to the body. They are all the ‘same thing’, only nested onto different levels. Part of human cognition is the ability to compare representations and evaluate them. We can decide which thoughts are to be trusted or doubted, but even that thought process is subject to its own evaluations, doubts, and censoring.

We now know a lot about cognitive bias and how preconceptions shape what we believe. From logical fallacies to subliminal advertising, our minds are riddled with blind spots considered to be weaknesses or illusions of human psychology. The project of scientific literacy is to single out only those thoughts which have been tempered through experiment into reliability and offering us the least amount of illusion. By refining relationships of our shared subjective fictions we can infer or deduce another kind of story that we like to think of as ‘fact’ or ‘knowledge’. From this vantage point of distilled purity, the story that our naive sense tells us about the world can be replaced by one which is thought to be universal and reliable. Logical Positivism made a lot of sense. Maybe too much. By assuming a pristine epistemology or noumenal science, the utility of the phenomenal world became hard to justify at all. Existentialists and postmodern philosophers questioned how we could really know to what extent we are fooling ourselves about anything. The challenge of escaping the bias of unscientific beliefs could be seen as even extending to science, and to knowing, and to consciousness itself. The Cartesian Cogito of ‘I think therefore I am’ was seen to be reversible as ‘I may have no choice but to think that I am, but it may not be true’.

At the same time that 20th century philosophy, art, and politics were attacking our sense of reality – physics and mathematics were disproving the reality of the world. Einstein’s 1905 discovery of the special nature of light’s constant speed in defining mass and energy was followed in 1916 by the general theory of relativity that displaced classical, Newtonian models of the entire universe. We had moved from a common sense view of the world as a vast place filled with mechanical objects to an evolving, elastic world-ish-ness which changes with one’s perspective.

Heisenberg and Gödel followed in 1927 and 1931 respectively, introducing uncertainty into quantum physics and incompleteness into formal logic. 1931 was also the year that Salvador Dali painted The Persistence of Memory, and the world slid into the Great Depression. In a few short years, the Western world that had worshiped an aesthetic of certain realities became transfixed by uncertain surreality. Physics had become metaphysical.

Taking the next step in philosophy and science has become something of a problem. As the 20th century marked an explosive shift into a new world, the 21st century seems to be both frozen in a polarized deadlock, and splintering off into esoteric factions. We have become unable to generalize our specialties or specialize in generality, so that there is no longer a coherent aesthetic of progress. This may be an entirely appropriate state of affairs in the wake of so much radical transformation in the last century, but when and if we find our way out of the current confusion, I suggest that we seek to unite physical science with metaphysical philosophy in the same way that space-time and mass-energy were united. The 21st century’s Hard Problem of Consciousness is an invitation to develop a cartography of aesthetics to match our current model of physical reality.

To begin to develop such a mapping technique, we should become familiar with what has been called the Spectrum of Consciousness, which is reflected in many mystical traditions and psychological frameworks. It is not necessary to believe in this spectrum, only to understand that such a spectrum model can be constructed and that it is potentially useful. The theme of a hierarchy of conscious qualities and states is hard to avoid, and its similarity to the electromagnetic spectrum is hard to overlook as well. Both the EM spectrum and the spectrum of consciousness offer a smooth continuum which is vaguely divided into sections related to frequency, intensity and scale. In addition to what has already been covered here and elsewhere, I offer this way of conceptualizing how it is that something like seeing, light, and images can actually be different descriptions of the same thing.

hedrons2

In the diagram above, four figures are shown:

  1. Sight (Phenomenal Vision)
  2. Seen (Phenomenal Image)
  3. Visible (Phenomenal Light)
  4. Unseen (Optical Physics)

The use of these prism-like figures are to represent the facets of the total phenomenon, so that in the first, top right figure, sight or seeing is represented as one facet of a block. The other facets in this block would be the other sense modalities that we have (touch, smell, sound, etc), as well as the interior facing modalities of awareness (emotion, cognition, intuition, etc). The #1 block is the subjective view of subjectivity, known as phenomenal consciousness or what I would call general aesthetics (GA). In its largest sense, GA would be the container of all qualia and is reflexive, in the sense that as far as I can tell, consciousness it is a quale itself. ‘What it is like’ to be conscious (“I am, I feel”) is itself part of the total spectrum of ‘what experiences are like’. Consciousness is an experience.

It doesn’t seem to work as well the other way, since if we have a container of consciousness which has no quality at all, then we fall into an explanatory gap. If consciousness can exist in the absence of all qualities, then what would qualities add to consciousness? For example, while it is clear that seeing is a container of sight that cannot be seen itself, it is not as clear that just because we personally define ourselves as ‘ourselves’ doesn’t mean that consciousness in general would have any good reason to define itself that way. We feel like we are a seer who is seeing images, but this may be due to the fact that we are a different type of sensation than what we are seeing or seeing itself. It may be all one continuum of ‘phoria’ which waxes and wanes in its subjectivity. Applying this principle to this example above, we have a natural metaphor in light for how the receiver of awareness, the object of awareness, and awareness itself can all ultimately be the same thing, and be accessible within itself as a reflection of that thing.

In the top left figure, the #2 block is flipped horizontally to imply that the #1 view of subjectivity is not available here in this second context. When we look out at the world, even at the reflection of the pupil of our own eye, we do not see our own seeing. The entire world of phenomenal consciousness is hidden and inverted by a kind of theater of appearances. What is seen is still phenomenal because we are seeing images (real or imagined) within a subjective medium of two dimensional shapes. Image is what allows the local aesthetic (LA) of sight to relate to the GA (consciousness) through the mask of physics.

The bottom left figure which is labeled “3. Visible” corresponds not to the experience of being a seer, or the experience of seeing an image, but of the experience of seeing light’s specific qualities. Like a director making a cameo in their own movie, light presents itself not only as the fact of seeing what is visible, but as the presence of the source of visibility as a visible experience. Phenomenal light exists both within the image that we and transcends it, addressing the seer directly. We can take a picture of a sunset and see that it looks like light radiating from the Sun onto the Earth, but we understand that the picture cannot produce light itself.

This is an astonishing feature, really. Light has a look of its own, and its look explains, in visual terms exactly what visual terms are made of. Strange loop. Blown mind. Move on. Suffice it to say that what light looks like is spectacular. It is practically synonymous with grabbing our attention. Glowing, flashing, lighting up a room, putting a spotlight on something. Within our visual field, light shows us what there is to see, and then shows us what to look at in particular. The dynamics of color harmonizing and clashing, the rotational symmetry of the color wheel, etc, are all part of light’s story about itself. The visible qualia of visibility meeting the physical mechanisms of optics.

With these three contexts, we have still not even touched the physics of light. Seeing light can be used like a trail of breadcrumbs to find Classical optics, but to understand the physics of light we must depart from the world of seeing altogether. There’s a couple of equations there in the fourth block representing how to calculate the energy of a photon and spectral radiance. With a nod to Gödel, the fourth block depicts the final category, where the unseen circumscribes the incompleteness of the seen, and wraps around from the LA of the seen to the GA of sight.

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  1. Omar T
    January 29, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Nice job. Seer, seen, and sight would have to be exactly what I have been writing about. 🙂 However, in your multisense realism, the seen would have to be something other than mind if it were to have any sort of capacity to create sight in a seer. This threefold classification comes from Tibetan Buddhism, known as the three spheres of activity.

    • January 29, 2015 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks. I don’t think that sight is a capacity which has to be created. By default, all experiences are present. It is only the ‘diffraction’ or obstruction of sensitivity which limits the totality to a local channel of ‘sight’ or ‘seer’. I see ‘mind’ as a channel as well. I see sense as the parent of mind, self, non-self, seeing, sight, light, etc. Sense = the aesthetic foundation of multisense realism = the universe.

      • Omar T
        February 13, 2015 at 10:28 pm

        Certainly sight would have to be created. Without sight we wouldn’t have seer or seen, and sight is material, while seer and seen aren’t. I agree with the rest though. 🙂

  2. February 13, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    What is material about sight? Why are you certain that it has to be created?

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