Naturalizing Representation

I wrote this essay a few years ago for a philosophy of mental representation course. I think I would rework a few ideas looking back, but I would still defend the idea that reality is not describable from 1st or 3rd person perspectives alone. Both are part of a larger ongoing whole/part.

Q: Why is misrepresentation supposed to be so difficult to explain naturalistically? Do you think it is possible to do so?

To properly address the question, we must first gain an understanding of the context of naturalism in science and its relationship to a representational theory of mind. Naturalism refers to the philosophical stance that all phenomena are natural, physical processes, and therefore that “all supernatural phenomena are nonexistent, unknowable, or not inherently different from natural phenomena” ( When applied to cognitive science, naturalism provides the foundational dogma of the representational paradigm, requiring that consciousness be equated with the lawful, physical functioning of the brain. From this perspective, a theorist need not concern him or herself with subjective experience itself, but rather ought to study only that small part of experience decreed measurable in objective, physical terms. It is either, then, that (a) consciousness—something we all experience directly every moment—has been deemed supernatural, and as such nonexistent, or (b) consciousness is simply not required for a naturalistic description of the universe.

Leaving the issue of such a negation of consciousness aside for a moment, let us lay out the problem of misrepresentation. Naturalistic representational theories suppose that the world exists preformed and ready-made for our brain, which is inserted into it as if from outside. Once inside, the brain retrieves basic information about this pre-existing world via the senses. From there, further processing leads to some form of cognitive representation. These mental representations mirror the world, acting as vehicles carrying their contents to an agent. There is, however, a tendency for the brain to incorrectly supply the vehicles with their content, thereby representing the world inaccurately. Any naturalistic explanation of misrepresentation, then, must reveal how a purely physical system such as the brain could mistakenly retrieve and represent information from the world. It must also shed light on what it means that a representation should represent what it does (i.e., what role can interpretation play in what is supposedly an objective world?).

Some theorists suggest that mental representations are only pragmatic mirrors of the world, meaning they are required to be merely good enough to get one by. They cite that evolution does not require perfection, only proficiency. An organism’s cognitive map need only recreate especially vital aspects of its environment correctly (i.e., it need only function properly most of the time). The glitches in the representational process are said to deal with aspects of the world largely unrelated to survival and procreation; they therefore are tolerable to the functioning of the system.

How such a pragmatic theory of representation deals with the notion of interpretation is unclear. To say that representations should refer to the world correctly because natural selection has accidentally programmed them to do so is to forget the large role that interpretation plays in higher-level cognition. For instance, in the case of human cognition, one cannot use natural selection to explain why one person sees a glass of water half full and another half empty. Clearly, each chose* how to represent the glass themselves, one feeling it should be half empty and the other feeling it should be half full. What also becomes clear in this example is that each person might change their mind in the future should they so choose (they can swap representations of the glass at will).

* In this case, “chose” refers to the interpretive process of the overall cognitive apparatus (predispositions, and current emotional status) and not to some specific notion of a self who makes a distinct choice based on free will. The point of the example is merely to show that the way the world appears to each person depends on the subjective state of their perceptual mechanism, rather than on the state of some objective, external domain. Such a domain, could it be said to exist at all, is not one the human organism is privy to.

Of course, the theory of a pragmatic representational process may still hold for certain unconscious operations; but when the representations in question are brought to the level of awareness, they seem to gain their momentum from an aspect of reality deemed superfluous by naturalism (that aspect being one’s actual subjective experience). In other words, the role played by interpretation in selecting representations seems to call into question the premise of the problem of misrepresentation itself. For, if interpretation can play such a large role in how we represent the world, why is it that we suppose there is an objective world “out there” for us to represent in the first place? Once this metaphysical assumption is called into question, the issue of misrepresentation becomes moot. If there is no objective world to represent (at least not one we are capable of reaching), one needn’t worry about misrepresenting anything at all.

Before continuing too deeply into this question of the substantiality of the physical world, let us see from another route why it is that we must call it into question. Let us start with a description of what we know about the brain, given by Alan Wallace:

“…What neuroscientists actually know is that specific neural events (N) are correlated to specific mental events (M), such that if N occurs, M occurs; if M occurs, N occurs; if N doesn’t occur, M doesn’t occur; and if M doesn’t occur, N doesn’t occur. Such a correlation could imply that the occurrence of N has a causal role in the production of M, or vice versa; or it could imply that N and M are actually the same phenomenon viewed from different perspectives. There is not enough scientific knowledge at this point to determine which of these types of correlation is the correct one.
So then, we see only a correlational relationship between brain states and mind states. We must then ask: How might someone who equates brain states with mind states (i.e., a naturalist) account for the intentionality of cognitive systems? Such a theorist would say that evolution has designed the brain (a) to directly represent its own body and (b) to indirectly represent whatever it interacts with. Neurons are then said to serve the specific evolutionary function of representing those interactions. “In short,” Wallace says, “[their] solution to this problem is that the brain has the capacity to represent other things because it was designed that way ‘by evolution.’ This ‘explanation’ obviously illuminates nothing other than the fact that [such a theorist has] great faith in the mysterious ways of evolution, which for the biologist here takes on the role theologians have long ascribed to God.” In other words, saying that a representation has content (that a neural state is about something) because of evolution does nothing to further our understanding of what is going on.

Regardless of this shortcoming, the role played by interpretation in developing the human cognitive system’s understanding of the world is under attack by most naturalist scientists. Their goal, based on the notion of a pre-existing external world, is to disambiguate our conceptual models so that they better fit the actual world in which we live. In other words, they suppose that there is an independent and objective world, and that within our head is an imperfect re-creation of that world based on sensory input. They then assign themselves the task of correctly aligning our inner representations with the true outer reality. The problem with this approach, as Wallace explains, is that:

“…Scientists have no body of external objective truth by which the alignment of scientific theories and the world outside our heads can be calibrated…The empirical data that we perceive, together with our scientific theories that account for them, all consists of mental representations ‘within our heads’…We have no objective yardstick with which to compare those representations with what we assume to be the ‘real world.’”
The basic idea is that, if our only view of the world comes through the filter of representation, we can never know what the world is in itself. This seems troublesome, but this is only so because we feel so compelled to know the intrinsic qualities of things in themselves. Hilary Putnam refers to this grasping after things in themselves as “the deep systemic root” of the objectivist view of the world. He argues against the idea that intrinsic qualities exist at all, as all “objects” gain their meaning only in relation to the subject whose nervous system interprets them. He argues that we cannot understand what an object “is” if we suppose our representation refers to a mind-independent object. Instead, objects are said not to exist independently of our conventions and conceptual schemes. It is our interpretation of the world that breaks it up into objects. Putnam continues: “Since the ‘objects’ and their [representations] are alike internal to the scheme of description, it is possible to say what matches what.” So then, from this perspective, mental representations have content because they are contextually embedded in one’s chosen (or culturally adopted, or biologically predisposed) conceptual map of the world.

The problem of misrepresentation, then, seems impossible to explain naturalistically. Insisting on a naturalistic account of the mind using the representational model puts unnecessary constraints on a viable theory of cognition, requiring that one tip-toe quietly around an insoluble problem using over-complicated distractions and abstract logical gymnastics. No matter how many linguistic loops a philosopher tries to run around the issue, it remains steadfast in its implications: no physical entity, no matter how complex, can be about another. We know this because aboutness implies meaning, and there is no room for meaning in a causal world of automatic and objective physical processes. Meaning requires context to be understood, and context is relational and groundless. That is, no part of a contextual scheme’s meaning can be known objectively “in itself,” only in terms of what it is not (or how it relates to the whole). We derive meaning from the world experientially by being embedded in our own conceptual understanding of it, not by correctly representing its preformed state.

It seems easier to start again—dropping the metaphysical requirement of a separate, external world—beginning, instead, with what we know: that neural states seen in 3rd person and mental states experienced in 1st person are both valid perspectives of what must be one co-existing reality. As such, reality cannot yet be reduced to an objectively existing physical world of matter (or to an imagined creation of the subjective mind). Any theory of cognition that begins its reasoning from a naturalistic perspective therefore assumes more than empirical science has yet proven.


à“The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience” by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. 1991. The MIT Press. (Excerpts from pages 232-233).

à“A Science of Consciousness: Buddhism (1), the Modern West (0)” by Alan Wallace. 2002. The Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Third Series, No. 4.

She Cries Wolf

t is not enough to merely believe in love.
For it to be real, it must be born.
Love as an idea is an empty promise.
Love embodied is what moves minds and changes the world.
Hate can change the world as well, but typically acting on one’s hatred is far easier than acting on love.
The risks are never considered when anger is expressed; there is no time.
We leap head first for revenge.
But love can be contemplated for eternity.
The risks are untold, incomprehensibly large.
If it weren’t for the legends of those who have loved that call us like sirens, no one would ever venture near such a trap.
Or maybe it is not the legends of others that sing to us, but the deepest secret of ourselves: that love is the seed we grew from.
Is love then but nostalgia?
Do we wish for retreat to the womb?
No, because love is also what makes the blood course through our veins even now.
It is what makes the Sun shine and the rivers return to the sea.
It is what fills the clouds with tears and makes them cry.
Why is such a beautiful feeling the cause of so much sadness?
If it is not nostalgia –if it carries regret but leaves room to rejoice– then what of it?
The pain of birth accompanies every creation.
Love is transformation.
Love is eternal life, but before we can know it, we must die.

Dennett’s Dangerous Idea

I am a little more than half way through Daniel Dennett’s book about how evolutionary biology provides you with the only meaning your life needs (or at least the only meaning it can have, regardless of what you may think otherwise). Thoughts are, after all (after Dennett waves his material wand), just the side effects of your history, which can be reduced without greed to the result of adaptation due to natural selection. That is, the molecular development of the stuff of which you are made has arisen in such a way that absolutely no intentional autonomy on the part of any one was ever required. There are no “thoughts,” no “I’d like it to be sos.” Unless by thought you mean the purely mechanical reaction of one atom colliding with another.

There are only atoms. Or in the case of your body, only macros (Dennett’s word for the molecular algorithms responsible for building you). Macros are what atoms become in spacetime. But that’s the rub.


What could we mean by the “environment” when we say it selects the fittest organisms? What could we mean by the “space and time” in which atoms collide? What is an atom but an act of mental significance upon the stage of life?

Hold on now, I’m going to take off from a discussion of atoms (the figure) and soar up into a discussion about spacetime (the ground). The motion and distance of the empirical world are ephemeral manifestations reflecting off the invisible intensity of time, the spiritual world.

Aristotle saw the world as made up of things. Darwin discovered that it was made of doings. Dennett wants to shift our attention from nouns to verbs. He wants to say that the mind is an emergent property of the brain, the process instead of the product. We are our history.

I want to say that this is not enough. We must go not only from nouns to verbs, but from grammar to nature, to our actual embodiment.

We are process and product, as well as producer, all rolled into one. That is, we are body, mind, and spirit.

Reality is not composed of words, whether they are nouns or verbs. Reality is without space and without time. Words are the world of consciousness, communication, and fabrication. Words are for the actors on the stage, the separate interactions of particles in space. The functions of their waves can be computed and arranged. But in reality, the whole production is but a show. When it’s over, the curtain is drawn as the darkness envelopes the participants. They become as one, as though uncreated. With no conflict, there’s no story to tell.

History does not eliminate essence. It merely swallow it, assume it. Order is derived from the mindless interaction between many “seeds” called atoms. But within what fruit do the seeds grow? Dennett hasn’t eliminated mind from his metaphysics, he’s just turned it into a unit of information (a measure of work done). An algorithm. He wants everything to admit it has a mother except atoms, which are virgin births of transcendental import.


It is a disease, a poison, a curse and a burden. That is unless it comes true… unless the expectation dies to itself and is set free. Love is the one remaining cosmic mystery. Understanding its secret is the rarest gift on earth, one everyone is after. But chasing it is not being in it. Chasing it is suffering it.


Tickling my tummy makes it rumble because butterflies are set loose inside. The surface conceals the circus, the tent blocks the light from chasing the jitters away.

A beautiful face with two eyes, one a smile and the other in pain. My prescriptions are mangled because I lack medical understanding. How to diagnose the situation? One symptom screams for a kiss, the other harmed even by a hug.

There is no way to look a Gemini in the eye. Anyone who tries ends up getting stuck trying to pawn the mean, trying to get a grip on something in between. But there is no middle ground. The lines are sharply drawn.

The question is always reflecting around in my mind, bouncing back and forth: Am I hiding from her or is she hiding from me? Who’s to say if love knows no angles, if it sees around all corners? How do people fall in love, is it just a glance, or does it take more?

What do all the butterflies mean?

God is Three Things

People are always talking about God, but they use the same word for three different people. Call it the Holy Trinity if you must. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God the Father is the material world, all the stuff out there (points around). God the Son is the body, an incarnate soul. God the Holy Spirit is communication, the sharing of minds between bodies.

The Son is always talking to the Father, trying to Know the Truth. The Father is dead, already in Heaven and far away from here. The Son calls out for help, but receives only His own nature. He is alone, eternal, unknown. He dies and is reborn fully fleshed. He cannot escape his fate.

The Holy Spirit is the Body’s marriage to other beings, to those out there who face us and can stare. Marriage to other beings is union of each with Being, in love forever.

God is the stars at night and He is the Sun in the morning. She has a lunar shadow that croons with delight, a reflection still scared by the past. God lights the days, turning the clock that winds the world.

Masculine Minds make for Selfish Genes

Either altruism is possible, or it isn’t, and this goes for both nature and humanity.

I happen to think altruism is possible, and that the human being is just one of the most striking examples of it. Equally striking are our bodies themselves, composed of trillions of cells who somehow have chosen to participate in generating and developing this larger thing we call ourselves.

But I suppose at the end of the day it all depends what we want to distinguish as a “self.” Point me in the direction of an organism that isn’t dependent upon lower manifestations of self (cells, molecules, atoms, photons). Attributing selfishness to something in nature is a function of a grammatical choice (which depends on the type of attitude we want to take towards “nature” or “reality”). It is not a representation of reality, but something projected by the structure of our language (ie, our consciousness) onto that which grabs its attention. What grabs its attention is not necessarily anything to do with the features of an independent reality. It has to do with the grammatical habits we have picked up as a result of our attempts to communicate with “nature” (everything other than “ourselves”) using language. Language is not a picture of the world, consciousness is not a mirror. What we call “ourselves” is involved in giving rise to the “world” we conceive of as existing independently of us. We are not passively observing and reflecting, but actively shaping and partaking in the ongoing unfoldment of reality. When you describe “nature” (the other) in a particular way (as selfish or altruistic), you are projecting your understanding of a language shared with other speakers (and the self-esteem thereby imparted). You are not explaining mind-independent facts about reality itself. In short, you see what you are. Nothing more, nothing less. In a similar vein, everything you know is something that you do. Knowing and doing are not two.

Evolution is what we call the process which emerges from the ongoing dance between the masculine and the feminine. In material terms, this means between matter and time. In biological terms, between genes and bodies, or sperm and egg, or fetus and womb. When you only see the masculine, the feminine loses significance. This is akin to admitting only the selfishness of nature, while dismissing entirely the selflessness. There is no point in over emphasizing the point despite the space surrounding it, because a point only arises in relation to the space around it! The genome helps to guide the organization of the organism-environment, whose behavior feeds back into the structures guided by genes in the form of development and learning (neurogenesis and synaptogenesis). The phenomenon of genome-organism-environment is a closed loop, and there is no gap separating the gene from nature. There is nothing to hoard because there is no one apart from the loop to be selfish.

When you see both the figure and the ground, the tree of knowledge remains firmly rooted in reality. The tree of knowledge is the nervous system, most ancient and wise in its human incarnation. It has two hemispheres, one for the writing and one for the wall. Do you see it? You need both to be alive. If you are lucky enough to discover the fruit shared by each, you may become eternal as well.