horatioalderaan (horatioalderaan) wrote,

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 2

The Embodied Mind and Subjectivity

Looking at things from a cognitive perspective, we can see that all our knowledge is situated and contextual. Whenever I learn something, I learn it in a particular place, at a particular time, when I am in a particular emotional state. For example, when I was in Year 11 at school, I learned Newton's Equations of Motion:

u + at
u2 + 2as
ut + ½at2

Don’t worry if they mean nothing to you. It’s not important. My point is that thousands (probably millions) of other people have learned those same equations, just like me. Those equations are the same, no matter who learns them, but... nobody else learned those equations in the same context that I did. Nobody sat in the same chair in the same classroom at the same school that I did. Yet, when I think about the equations of motion, I always remember that school, that classroom, and my Physics teacher. I also remember when I learned the calculus behind them in my maths class, and later at university. My understanding of the equations of motion will always be coloured and shaped by the context in which I learned them.

The strange outcome of this, is that it is entirely possible for us to dislike abstract concepts. For example, if I disliked my Physics teacher and found the equations difficult to understand, then I may come to actually dislike Newton’s equations of motion. I can form a negative preference toward a mathematical description of the way objects move in a vacuum. The equations are not in any way affected by my disregard for them. They don’t care if I think they’re stupid, because they don’t really exist. They are just a bunch of symbols that have an agreed meaning amongst a smallish group of educated human beings. Is that not strange?

Why is it that we can feel emotions about abstract things like mathematical equations? In their book, Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson [1999] write that all our knowledge and understanding is shaped by the fact that we have bodies. We never learn anything in abstract. We learn things at a certain point in time, feeling a certain way, in a certain location. We learn things in a body. Even the way we think and reason is shaped by the fact that we have eyes, hands, ears and hormones that run through our bloodstream.

This means that there is no such thing as a disembodied, objective human mind that is free from emotional attachment or irrationality. We can never have a completely emotionless, disembodied, objective view of anything. Everything is subjective.

Does this mean, then, that we are doomed to float in a sea of meaningless relativism, unable to know anything or communicate with anyone? Obviously not, or there would be no point to you reading this. We somehow manage to know things and communicate with others, however imperfectly. We can do this, because we all have a few things in common that make communication and shared understanding possible.

I mean to come back to this later, but the point is that we can communicate because we all share the experience of having brains and bodies. Unfortunately, we don’t share our brains or bodies with anyone else. My brain and my body is different from your brain and your body. Our experiences are entirely different too. Although we may have a few general things in common like school, television, driving in cars, etc. we probably didn’t go to the same school, watch the same television, or drive in the same cars. So, I can never communicate an exact imprint of what I know to you, because when I talk about schools, cars and televisions, my words evoke different experiences from the ones you had.

Unfortunately, this problem goes right down to the very building-blocks of our thought processes. Our difficulties with communication stem from the very architecture of our brains.

Lakoff, G.  Johnson, M. 1999 , Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books, New York.

Tags: communication, knowledge, subjectivity
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