This is an excerpt from a book that I am writing.
I am sitting in a coffee shop in Seattle, Washington. A few minutes ago, something amazing happened. I walked up to the counter, made eye contact with the pretty girl behind it, and said “Medium drip coffee, please”. She took my money, said “Thank you”, and gave me back some change. Then she asked me “Do you want room for cream?”. I said “Yes”. She poured coffee into a cup and handed it to me. I said “Thank you”. Then I found a table, sat down, and began to write.
As I have just described it, the event was not remarkable at all. It was just a little slice of ordinary life. Behind that simple description, however, there lies an enormous amount of complexity. Once you start unraveling that complexity, it seems amazing that such an event could take place.
For some reason, my brain generated the intention to buy a cup of coffee. That intention was selected from an almost infinite number of possibilities. Somehow, I knew that I could buy a cup of coffee by walking into that shop and talking to the girl behind the counter. To walk into the shop, my brain had to send millions of carefully synchronized “twitch” commands to various muscles in my body. Somehow, my brain was able to navigate my body through a three-dimensional world full of obstacles merely by sending information to my muscles based on information received from my eyes, ears and skin. I was able to convey my intention to another human being by making some sounds come out of my mouth and arranging my facial features in a certain way. That action also required the coordination of thousands of muscle fibers contracting and relaxing over time. Not only was I able to communicate my intention to the girl behind the counter, I was able to get her cooperation in fulfilling it. She gave me a cup of coffee merely because I gave her some green paper. The consequences of that transaction will percolate through the global economy and (together with millions of other such transactions) affect coffee farmers, exporters, power companies, governments, and various other people and institutions.
Despite the incredible complexity of what just happened, my conscious experience of it was much simpler. I went into a coffee shop and ordered a cup of coffee from the pretty girl behind the counter. I then found a table, sat down, and began to write.
Although my brain was only receiving information from my senses and sending it to my muscles, it seemed to me that I was experiencing and interacting with an external world beyond my body. I was aware of people, chairs and tables, not the firing of retinal nerves. I did not consciously twitch muscle fibers. I walked and talked. Although an enormous amount of information was received from my senses and sent to my muscles, most of that information never entered or left my consciousness. I was not consciously aware of the precise arrangement of tables and chairs, although I managed to walk around them with a cup of coffee in my hand. I did not notice the number and intensity of overhead lights, nor the color of the girl’s eyes. I did not consciously choose where to put my foot at each step, nor which hand to use when I passed the girl my money, nor how to arrange my vocal tract to pronounce each word that I said. I was only aware of a few perceptual distinctions and choices of action. I noticed that the girl was pretty. I chose a table near the window so I could look outside. Otherwise, I was barely conscious of the event taking place.
The simplicity of the event was an illusion. It was only simple at the level of conscious awareness and will. Below that, it was very complex, but the complexity was handled by subconscious processes, and so I had no awareness of it. This is philosophically important. It shows how much we take for granted as we go about our daily lives. Philosophy is a serious inquiry into the things we normally take for granted: the hidden assumptions of ordinary life.
Buying a cup of coffee involves huge philosophical problems. What am I? What are my boundaries? What is outside of me? How do I know what is going on in the outside world? How can I act into the world to make one thing happen instead of another? What should I do? How should I choose one thing over another? How can I communicate with other people, other minds? How can I get other people to do what I want? How does society work?
These philosophical questions about the human condition are inherent in the ordinary event of buying a cup of coffee, but we normally ignore them and go about our business. We have to. We can’t indulge in philosophical speculation at every waking moment. We have to live our ordinary lives. Most people never have a philosophical thought. They are never aware of the philosophical problems that surround them.
I became aware of those problems a long time ago. I am not always aware of them, but I can become aware of them in any given moment. Once seen they cannot be unseen. So, I set my mind to solving them, to whatever extent I could. I can’t spend much time on philosophy, of course. Like everyone else, I have to live my ordinary life. But philosophical problems are always in the back of my mind, and I carve out a little time from ordinary life to think about them. Sometimes I do that by sitting in a coffee shop, thinking and writing.
Let’s think some more about the experience of buying a cup of coffee, and how that relates to reality. I did not experience the reality of the event. That would be impossible. Instead, I experienced a view of it. That view reduced something very complex to a few perceptual contrasts and choices of action. I noticed that the girl was attractive as opposed to unattractive, but not whether she was left-handed or right-handed. I chose drip coffee instead of espresso or tea, but I never considered asking for a bag of snails, or even for a latte (I don’t like lattes). There were many other things that I didn’t notice or consider. My view of the situation was abstract. It reduced an enormous amount of information to a small number of distinctions. That reduction of complexity made it possible for me to think and act in the moment. Without it, I would have been overwhelmed by all the information of my senses and all the possibilities of action.
I could have viewed the situation in many different ways. I could have viewed it as a dancing game, an illustration of philosophical problems, or a theater of the absurd. But I didn’t view it as any of those things at the time. I viewed it as “buying a cup of coffee”. I imposed that view on the situation, but it was not arbitrary. The view had to fit the situation. It would have dissolved quickly if I had walked into a garage or a flower shop by mistake. A view depends on both the viewer and what is viewed. A view is a relation between the self and the world, between subject and object. We see the world through views, and we act into the world through views.
Views are necessary for individual thought and action, and shared views are necessary for communication and cooperation. To communicate my intention to buy a cup of coffee, I only had to tell the girl what kind of drink I wanted. She understood the uncommunicated details. We both knew that coffee is normally served in a cup and paid for with money. We did not have to negotiate those details. She did not pour the coffee into a paper bag and throw it at my head. I did not hand her a fish and say “natta bubu”. We both knew our roles in the situation and what to expect from each other. To coordinate our behavior, we only had to synchronize a few minor details of a shared view.
Views are not only about the immediate situation. They can be about the past, present or future. They can be purely imaginary. They can be about generalities rather than specifics. A scientific theory is a type of view. So is a fairy tale. The view of the immediate situation is a very important type of view, because that is where the rubber hits the road. We interact with reality through that view. All the other views are instrumental to it. The view of the immediate situation makes it possible to open doors, walk around tables, and buy coffee. It interprets sensory experiences as caused by an objective reality of objects and events. It converts our intentions into muscle twitches that have effects on objective reality.
The view of the immediate situation presumes the continuity of objects, even though our experience of them is fragmentary. Looking out the window, I see a small tree growing out of a round hole in the sidewalk. Cigarette butts are scattered in the dirt around its base. I turn my head and look at the girl at the counter. She is reading a book and playing with her hair. I can no longer see the tree, but I believe it is there, just as I believed that the girl was there even when she wasn’t in my field of vision. I look back at the tree, and it is still there. I see the same kind of thing that I saw before: the green leaves, the gray bark, the cigarette butts in the dirt around its base. While I am looking at the tree, I start thinking of the girl at the counter. I can’t see her, but I believe that she is still there. She is probably still reading her book and playing with her hair.
Without a view of the situation, there would be no connection between one moment and the next. Consider the idea of the tree outside the window. It defines an object that exists in a particular place, persists over time, and has a predictable appearance. That idea ties together various sensory experiences into a meaningful whole. It predicts what I will see when I look in a certain direction. If I looked out the window and didn’t see the tree, I would be very surprised. That would be a clue that my environment had just changed in an unexpected way, or that my brain was not working. Something would be terribly wrong if I didn’t see the tree.
I close my eyes and wait for a few seconds. I believe that when I open them, I will see the table, the coffee cup, the notebook, and the tree outside the window. I open my eyes and that is what I see.
Views are not just about what is. They are also about what could be and what should be. Views model subjective values and uses as well as objective reality. I view some things as useful or beneficial, and other things as useless or harmful. Views present me with problems to solve. Sometimes, those problems are trivial, such as buying a cup of coffee. At other times, they are more important, such as choosing a job or finding a place to live.
We have views of things that are far removed from the immediate situation. I have memories of the past, going back to early childhood. I have expectations and plans for the future. I have beliefs about historical events that happened long before I was born. I have beliefs about distant places that I have never visited, such as China and the moons of Jupiter. No matter how distant the time or place, however, all those ideas are ultimately derived from embodied experience, and they only have practical significance if they affect how I act in some future situation.
Views are composed of abstract concepts, such as “tree” and “coffee cup”. A concept is a way of viewing something. It can be applied to many different things, but only if those things interact with my body in roughly the same way. One coffee cup is pretty much the same as another, and that is what makes the concept of a coffee cup useful. Without some abstract concept to apply to it, the thing in front of me would be incomprehensible. I could not grasp it mentally or physically. I wouldn’t know what to expect from it or what to do with it. But because I view it as a coffee cup, I can drink from it without any thought. I know how to pick it up, move it to my mouth, tip it more or less (depending on how much coffee is left), and so on. That knowledge is tied to the concept of a coffee cup.
We are not normally aware of views as views, just as we are not normally aware of our eyes when we look at the world. We might be aware of our eyes when they are closed, or blurry, or sore, but we don’t notice our eyes when they are working properly. The same is true of views. Ordinarily, we notice the distinction between views and reality only when a view fails us, leading to surprise and confusion. If I reached for my coffee cup and it wasn’t there, I would wonder what just happened. Did someone else move it? Did I forget where I put it? Such an event makes us temporarily aware of the distinction between our views and reality. In those moments we recognize that a particular view is inadequate, but then we switch to a different view.
Views are not reality, but we have no access to reality except through a view. We can only be aware of reality through a view, and we can only act on reality through a view.
In ordinary life, the distinction between view and reality is only important because it explains why our views are sometimes wrong. In philosophy, however, the distinction between view and reality is very important. Philosophy requires that we become aware of views as views: that we develop a theory of views, a view of views. Views imply beliefs. Any specific belief is part of a larger view. Thus, a theory of views is a theory of belief. Since the over-arching goal of philosophy is an explanatory and normative theory of belief, developing a theory of views is the central problem of philosophy. In Chapter 4, I present a theory of views, or in other words, a theory of belief. Here I will give a brief overview of it.
The brain is an information processing organ that receives a huge amount of information from the senses. Vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch provide information about the external world. There are also internal senses of many kinds that provide information about such things as blood glucose, body temperature, body orientation (balance), body position (proprioception) and tissue damage (nociception). That information is conveyed to the brain through variations in the firing rate of sensory neurons, which send their signals up various nerve pathways to the brain. The brain processes all this incoming information, while at the same time sending information out to muscles and organs, which then act on the internal body or the external world. The effects of action change the condition of the body and the external world, and thus affect the senses.
For example, when my hand grasps a coffee cup, that action changes the sensations of touch and pressure in my hand. It also changes the visual image that I see with my eyes. When I raise the cup to my mouth, I experience various tactile, visual and olfactory sensations. When I drink, I taste the coffee and feel it in my mouth. Eventually, that action will have other effects on my subjectivity, such as my feelings of hunger, thirst, and the fullness of my bladder.
As an organ of the body, the function of the brain is to generate adaptive behavior. Ultimately, behavior is adaptive if it is instrumental to reproduction. Evolution has selected every biological form for its contribution to reproductive fitness, and the brain is no exception. The brain is not a passive absorber and interpreter of information. It seeks out sensory information and generates motor information selectively. Emotion is the basis for selecting sensory input as relevant, and for generating motor output as useful. We evolved emotions such as hunger, fear and lust to drive behaviors such as feeding, avoiding danger and mating. The senses provide information about the world, but that information is always selected for its relevance by our emotions. We are more aware of what affects us emotionally than of what does not. Likewise, emotions give direction to our behaviors. We do not merely twitch muscles randomly, we twitch them in coordinated ways to produce predicted effects.
Sensation, emotion and action all take place simultaneously. Your senses are always receiving information. Your emotions are always evaluating your condition. Your muscles are always twitching. Sensation, emotion and motor twitches are the lowest level of experience. We use abstract ideas to interpret and generate this stream of sensory, emotional and motor experience. I call this stream “semex”. Views are created when the brain applies abstract concepts to semex.
Semex is both interpreted and generated by a view. Each aspect of semex is affected by the others. The direction your eyes are looking determines what you see, and that is determined by a combination of eye and head movements. What you look at is determined to a large extent by your emotions. Sensation, emotion and action are parallel streams within a continuous stream of experience, not discrete stages in a serial process. Likewise, abstract ideas are not a fourth stage in a process, but another parallel stream of information, one that is coupled to the stream of semex by mental operations. The stream of ideas both interprets and generates semex. It is affected by it, and it also affects it. The relation between semex and mental representation is one of continuous mutual modulation: each affects the other in various ways all the time.
The stream of semex is thus associated with a parallel stream of ideas (mental representations). The relationship between ideas and semex is one of analogy and abstraction. Ideas are simpler than raw semex. They reduce its complexity partly by ignoring some information and partly by capturing regularities within it.
This complexity reduction allows us to use past experience to predict and control future experiences. In order to buy a cup of coffee, my brain uses an abstract model (a view) to handle the enormous amount of information entering and leaving my brain. Such models represent objective reality, but they are induced from semex and applied back to semex. Ideas only relate to the outside world through semex.
The stream of ideas eventually folds back on itself. We spend some of our time exploring the inner world of representations and developing new ideas that are not about the current situation. We speculate, fantasize, ponder and plan. We create views of what happened in the past, what might happen in the future, what is going on far away, and how the world works. Those views are not directly linked to semex, but they are ultimately grounded in embodied experience. They are constructed from concepts that were abstracted from semex, and they can be used in the future to modulate semex. Any view, no matter how abstract, derives its meaning from semex.
This has been a brief sketch of my theory of belief. I will expand on it later, but I wanted to present it now because it is critical for understanding the ideas in this book.