Introducing the Aumwelt

This is worth the 20 minutes IMO, as Eagleman lays out the contemporary view of sense. Where he leaves off is exactly where I want to pick up, and then to run in the opposite direction.

He begins by talking about the limitations of each species and how, for example, a tick lives in a world of temperature and butyric acid…a bat lives in a reality constructed out of air compression waves. This ‘slice of their ecosystem that they can pick up on’ is know as the umwelt.


The German word Umwelt means “environment” or “surroundings”. Lacan contrasts the term with Innenwelt– the inner world–to emphasize the interaction between the imaginary interior space that the “I” occupies and the physical world in which the living human subject is situated. The connection between Innenwelt and Umwelt is, for Lacan, always dialectical; in the mirror stage, the “I” only comes into being through an association with an image that is outside of and other than the infant.

So far so good. He then gets into the exciting directions that his research is going in, technologies to extend our sensory capabilities beyond the human umwelt, etc.

That’s great, and I have been looking forward to technologies like that all of my life. To be able to not only see in the infra-red range, but to be able to model information from any source – an Excel spreadsheet even, in a tangible, tactile way, is amazing.

What I suggest, however, is that the entire model of the umwelt being a slice of an ecosystem (the ecosystem being ‘real world’ or ‘welt’), while empirically sound *within a given umwelt* is actually reversible. The further we get from our own umwelt (which is only ever our umwelt’s view of other umwelts) the more it curls back in on itself.

It’s more like this:

The idea of a concrete reality which is completely outside of all experience is an unfalsifiable mirage generated by the umwelt as a boundary condition to the umwelt. What is beyond our experience is not the anti-experience of math and physics – not Platonic ‘information’ forms floating in a void, but simply more and more inclusive experience. Not a ‘welt’ but an Aumwelt:

In this view, the umwelt appears as a hazy cataract which masks the totality. The totality of all sense experience and capacity (which I see as ultimately the same thing) is what I am calling the Aumwelt. The haze is something like {the difference between the Innenwelt and (the difference between the Innenwelt and the Aumwelt)}. Each umwelt is not assembled autistically, but filtered or carved out of totality of sense (’artistically’ or aesthetically).  In this way, the aesthetic foundation (aumwelt) is divided into smaller dreams (innenwelt) with the remainder of that division serving as both diaphanous partition and reflective lens to the totality. The umwelt is like a semiconductor, half-silvered mirror or semi-permeable membrane; alternating between inner and outer, outer and absolute, and absolute and inner. This is what consciousness is about – not merely adapting to a body’s survival needs more effectively.

Why complicate things? Because if sensation were truly nothing other than “electrochemical signals coursing around in your brain”, then sensory substitution would not be necessary. Regardless of what frequencies and patterns occurred, they would all be formatted as those patterns – not as some fancy ‘feeling’ or ‘color’. Something like colorized film shows that computation is sufficient for deriving color information without seeing color. There is no computational reason to have to invent color simply to signal information about a wavelength of retinal activity or its isomorphism to exterior conditions. Occam’s razor does not allow us to take the leap from information to sensation. We can, however, use information to enhance and extend sensation.

  1. Alethea Eason
    March 22, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    Do you think the “unfalsifiable mirage” correlates with the idea that we’re really in a hologram?

    • April 4, 2015 at 12:03 pm

      In a way, yes, since the only way to reconcile things like relativity and quantum mechanics with the expectation of objective realism (what I’m saying is the unfalsifiable mirage) is to invoke some kind of ‘unreal’ real object…a hologram. But ultimately a hologram depends on a viewer to make it whole again. It is through perception that a hologram is made to seem like an object.

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