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THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – III

In Admiring Literature, cognition, excerpts and quotes, language and communication, literature, perception, philosophy, poetry, psychology, sources of knowledge, The Method on December 8, 2011 at 12:09 am

Linked to Part I and Part II

The irreplacability of a metaphor

The potential meaningfulness of metaphor does not yield to simple paraphrase, its meaning cannot be reduced to a nonmetaphorical, propositional format without loss. This is the reason for the enormous creativity that metaphor displays not only in poetic discourse: In ordinary everyday life it can restructure ingrained patterns of thinking. And in scientific contexts it can have a heuristic* function.

*heuristic= “serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation.” (dictionary.com)

The above ‘creativity hypothesis’ of the cognitive theory of metaphor (as summarized by Jakel↓1) mentions one of the reasons why metaphor is an irrerplacable part of any effective verbal message: it is has no simple substitute for meaning. Its meaning can only be elaborated, explored, interpreted, speculated upon to an extent; but it cannot be specified exactly and absolutely.

We need the metaphor in just the cases when there can be no question as yet of the precision of scientific statement.*

*see the last post for source

As the above quote from the previous post reminds us, we depend upon metaphor to express abstract or obscure phenomenon in terms of familiar, concrete and imaginable terms. As Andrew Ortony (↓2)  puts it, “somethings are by their nature not describable.” (p. 14), and it falls upon the metaphor to express the inexpressible.

My references so far may relegate the ‘irreplacibility’ of a metaphor to the way things are: we simply use the metaphor when we have no way around it, when we lack more straightforward ways of describing something. But that view is certainly wrong. Through a literary example, see how metaphor creates new worlds of meaning to whom no other effective entry might be possible other than through the metaphor itself:

 

Fursat mein sun shaguftgi-e-ghuncha ki sada

ye wo sukhan nahi jo kisi ne keha bhi ho

 

When free, listen to the sound of the roses’ glee.

This is not speech that has been uttered.

The above is a Nasir Kazmi couplet, both in the original and in translation by me, from a previous blogpost. ‘Roses’ glee’ is a metaphor in itself (to be considered later here as an example), but right now i’m concerned with the ‘sound of’ part. The reader is forced to stop and try imagine what the sound of roses’ glee must be like. Upon analysis (which the readers of that pertinent post linked above may recall), the sound of roses’ glee most likely refers to the many messages of metaphysical nature the poet discerns in the sights and sounds of nature. Yet the interpretation is still open beyond the meaning already considered. And in terms of imagination, the metaphor forges new ground by inviting us to imagine an event that has never been experienced before. Philosopher Mark Johnson↓3 explains well what happens in such cases:

… one experiences the insight that two entire systems of implications… belong together in some fundamental way. The cognitive activity at this level… consists of the alteration of certain experiential structures (e.g. categorizations, concepts), such that one discovers a formal unity between previously unassociated things. 

We automatically associate sound with animate beings; that is the way we experience the world. When presented with Nasir’s couplet, however, we have to re-conceptualize sound as ‘a channel of communication’ or more precisely, as ‘a general aura of meaningfulness that emanates from all beings that have a purpose in their existence’ to get to the meaning of the verse. We similarly recast the flower as ‘an object created with a purpose’ from its foremost conception as ‘a part of the natural world’ or as ‘an object of beauty’.

This is not a rare phenomenon in the rarified arena of literature; more everyday examples abound. For instance, ‘my boss is a shark’ creates a new concept of ‘sharkness in humans’ that is different from both the literal shark and from the usual concept of brutality (for an elaboration of this example and the theory behind it follow the reference in Note 4. below).

 

The intensity of a metaphor

There is a sense of shock about a metaphor… which results from the clash of juxtaposed literal sense.

__ Paul Henle↓5

One puzzling aspect of the expressive capaciousness of metaphor takes the form of an image’s potential for focusing both thought and emotion in a particularly intense, economical way.  

__ Robert Rogers↓6

…by circumventing discretization [metaphors] enable the communication of ideas with a richness of detail much less likely to come about in the normal course of events.

and

… the emotive as well as the sensory and cognitive aspects [of the subject of metaphor] are more available [in mind], for they have been left intact in the transferred chunk [of meaning].

__ Andrew Ortony↓7

As Ortony explains so well in his essay, metaphor “lies much closer to perceived experience” in a significant way that makes it a particularly vivid phenomenon. We experience the world in a continuous and holistic fashion. Our stream of consciousness is a flow of sensations of all kind coming in simultaneously, whether at that time we are interacting with the outside world or going through our own ideas, emotions, or memories. We don’t experience things in a discrete, fragmented, one-by-one fashion as when we see concepts graphically displayed in a presentaion, or dissected frog parts laid out on a science lab table. Metaphor does the same by not spelling out the new grounds of meaning: it just poses an image before us and our attempt to apprehend it (holisticall, continuously) does the job. 

The following short poem by Emily Dickinson (found at bartleby) illustrates the point well:

It dropped so low in my regard

I heard it hit the ground,

And go to pieces on the stones

At bottom of my mind;

 

Yet blamed the fate that fractured, less

Than I reviled myself

For entertaining plated wares

Upon my silver shelf.

 

Without spelling out what ‘it’ was and why and how it came to be discarded from its high place in the author’s mind, the intensity of the mental event, the vivacity with which the poet experienced it, the emotions associated with the whole episode, and the strong sentiments with which the poet seems to regard in general the contents of her mental life, are all immensely clear from just one reading of the poem.

There is another reason for the vividness of a metaphor, and that is its compactness (Ortony, see notes for source): By juxtaposing two apparently unrelated objects in the readers’ minds (human emotion and a flower in one of Nasir’s examples) and forcing them to envisage a new kind of relationship between them, metaphors posit endless shades of meaning for the reader’s appreciation. For instance roses’ glee could be a reference to their beauty (smiling happy faces have been often likened to flowers), to the emotion that a beautiful sight such flowers create in us (a thing of beauty is a joy forever), to the purity associated with sights of nature, to the freshness of flowers, to their swaying on their stalks like children swinging gaily, to the pleasant sensation generated through their smell, etc. All these shades of meaning and more have been packed into a single two-word phrase, what Ortony calls the ‘compactness thesis’ of his theory.

 

The memorability of a metaphor

Compactness, vividness, and irreplacibility make for a memorable image: well-suited for educational purposes. In class-room, it were always the skillful lecturers who made the often remote-from-routine-life concepts of __ math, physics, medicine, psychology __ alive in our imagination so that we could picture them easily (and even enjoy the lecture!) that were more successful. Not possible without good metaphors:

The educational power of metaphors is thus twofold. The vivid imagery arising from metaphorical comprehension encourages memorability and generates of necessity a better, more insightful, personal understanding. But also, it is a very effective device for moving from well-known to the less well-known, from vehicle to topic.  

__ Ortony, (p. 17)

Humanliness of the literary metaphor 

Literature’s world is a concrete human world of immediate experience. The poet uses images and objects and sensations much more than he uses abstract ideas … The world of literature is human in shape, … where the primary realities are not atoms or electrons but bodies, and the primary forces are not energy or gravitation but love and death and passion and joy.

__ Northrop Frye↓8

Human beings become human through the acquisition of language, and the acquisition alienates humans from all those things language names. The name is a substitute for the thing, it displaces the thing in the very act of naming it, so that language finally stands even between one human being and another. Much of our poetry has been written to undo this situation, to remove the veil of language that covers everything with a false familiarity… 

__ Robert Scholes↓9

… literary metaphor depicts the themes that occasion it, communicating meaning imagistically by rendering it presentational.

__ Phillip Stambovsky↓10

The success of the  metaphor thus lies in recreating for us the lively vivid life in our reading experience which is so close to us. Thus it most effectively performs its fundamental function in literature: giving it the human shape we need to connect with it; and, as Stambovsky reminds us, performs it in the very manner so essentially familiar to us. This latter feature of the metaphor may be called intimation through a metaphor and is psychologically enticing and influential for the reader…

 

Intimation through metaphor

There is a unique way in which the maker and appreciator of metaphor are drawn closer to one another. Three aspects are involved: (1) the speaker issues a kind of concealed invitation; (2) the hearer expends a special effort to accept the invitation; and (3) this transaction constitutes the acknowledgment of a community.

__ Ted Cohen↓11

Perhaps the reason why so many metaphors have a peculiarly poignant beauty is because each of them kindles in us momentarily a dim memory of the time when we lost the outer world–when we first realized the outer world is outside, and we are unbridgeably apart from it, and alone. Furthermore, the mutual sharing of such metaphorical experience would seem, thus, to be about as intimate a psychological contact as adult human beings can have with one another.

__ Harold Searle↓12

Some authors even believe that the force of a metaphor’s image can lead to an exchange of material from the unconscious to conscious mind in the reader (in Rogers, p. 11). We must now consider what exactly constitutes this force; what is it in a metaphor that leads to such influence. Let us see.

 

The metaphor can be disclosive in the sense of being an eye-opener, helping us to understand hidden relations between the [target and source].

and  

Poetic devices and imaginative literature do not necessarily provide us with new information. What they do best is to give us insight into the (tacit) knowledge we already possess.

__ Snaevarr↓13

Both Snaevarr and Stambovsky associate certain terms with metaphorical comprehension that help us realize how metaphor induces an intimate connection with the author, the subject-matter, and, potentially, the world at large. Snaevarr argues how, when we understand a metaphor, we go through the same process of ‘seeing something as something’ involved in many instances of purely sense-based perception. For instance, when an object (such as a cat) is before us, typically, we merely notice what it is. Here our knowledge/concept of the object helps us quickly recognize it: perception nearly depends here on pre-existing knowledge. But when an ambiguous oil painting is presented before us and, while appreciating it, it suddenly ‘dawns’ on us that it depicts a beautiful cat: that is what Wittgenstein↓14 called ‘seeing as’.

from wikipedia 

An easy-to-relate example would be of the famous Necker cube which can be seen either as a cube projecting away from us on its northeast side or as a cube projecting on its southwest side. This kind of seeing-as is internal and spontaneous: external descriptions do not necessarily lead us to see the two different possible cubes in our mind, it has to come from within. There is also a kind of filtering and ‘foregrounding’ involved. When our mental image switches from one possible cube to the other, the first one seems to disappear and certain features of the new cube seem to ‘lighten up’ in the image. The same happens when the meaning intended by the metaphor dawns on us. The metaphor foregrounds a part and when we appreciate it a new meaning dawns on us, or an old obscure or forgotten meaning lightens up with new significance, or a subtly familiar one is brought into explicit focus.

When applied to less visual material, such a seeing-as is better termed ‘insight’: understanding the inner nature of things. The process of insight is both intuitive (that is, it does not involve conscious reasoning) and spontaneous. It also has the quality of an ‘enlightment’ and is often (specially in problem solving) sudden. It gives a feeling of familiarity with the subject in question by suddenly casting it for us in a new light (in the above stated ‘seeing as’ fashion) that we were not able to appreciate before (see famous cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon‘s paper for good descriptions of both intuition and insight). The kind of effective lectures I mentioned before created this in us: a feeling that now we really knew the topic, we knew how things really worked, how it really feels. Good metaphors achieve the same effect. Perhaps that is why:

Metaphors which provide insight into an unknown, transcendent, or mysterious subject thus can have an extremely powerful effect on those who accept them.

__ Stallman↓15 

As Snaevarr clarifies, what metaphor really does is to lighten up a piece of tacit knowledge we already possessed. The most comprehensive definition of tacit knowledge that I could find online is that it is:

Unwritten, unspoken, and hidden vast storehouse of knowledge held by practically every normal human being, based on his or her emotions, experiences, insights, intuitions, observations and internalized information. 

Indeed the feeling of intimacy and closeness will not be produced if we did not realize that the metaphor focused us on a thought or feeling we were familiar with but had never been consciously aware of. For instance consider the following verses by Nasir Kazmi, in translation by me along with the original Urdu in Roman script:

 

On the town’s vacant station

A passenger must have alighted

[shehr ke khali station per

koi musafir utra hoga]

_

 Hear it immersed in the depths of heart

No song is indeed a song of glee…

[dil ki gehrayion mein doob ke dekh

koi naghma khushi ka naghma nahin]

_

Shivering, the long nights put to us a haunting question

Their laden sound-like silence hisses answers…

[ye thitri hue lambi raaten kuch poochti hein

ye khamushi-e avaaz numa kuch kehti he]

_

In your lane all day

I pick the pebbles of grief

[teri gali mein sara din

dukh ke kankar chunta hoon]

_

From the nameless reaches of the islands of memory

The waves of your voice still reach

 [yad ke benishan jazeeron se

teri avaaz arehi he abhi]

 

These verses conjure up in us strange unspeakable feelings (and certainly many more shades of the atmosphere related to) respectively, lonely change or movement through life; the sombre sadness associated with awareness of existential realities that give rise to creative expression; introspection on the nature of our existence that typically transpires in the dark and silent moments of night before we fall asleep; the rambling recall of the many pleasures of a friendship after it has terminated; and the persisting subconscious connection with a long lost love… experiences we have all encountered in life, directlyor indirectly. That is why we relate to them and their author, and feel affected by them.

Metaphors are closer to emotional reality for the same reasons that they are closer to perceptual experience. To say of an unexpexted event that it was a miracle is to say far more than that it was inexplicable: it is to express joy, admiration , wonder, awe and a host of other things without mentioning any of them.

__ Andrew Ortony↓16

Remember that tacit knowledge encompasses a great number of sources such as bits and pieces picked up incidentally, subconsciuosly or by implication; by engaging in non-verbal skills; through general observations and readings; and knowledge of internal states personally experienced or understood through empathy. That is why, metaphor is a powerful and often the sole means of expressing our internal states. And “the particular ability of imaginative literature to disclose the unique, not least the uniquely personal” (Snaevarr, p. 361) most probably depends on metaphor.

 

The psychological power of metaphor

If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system that we base our actions on, it will alter the conceptual system and the perceptions and actions that the system gives rise to.

__ Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p. 111

In their book Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff and Johnson make the case of how metaphors do not just represent our perception of common realities, they have the power to create realities themselves. For instance, the prevalence and conventionality of the metaphor “argument is war” not only represents but also reinforces in turn a culture of argumentation where it is viewed as competitive rather than as a cooperative social exercise; whereby it is supposed to be won or lost rather than as taken to be a means of forwarding consensual decisions.

Consider the example of a fresh metaphor: ‘problems are solutions’, where solution is used in the chemical sense of the word. Actually, the authors took the metaphor from a real example of their Iranian student who thought that the expression ‘the solution of my problems’ was metaphorical. The student visualized “a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being) and precipitating out others”. The metaphor is not actually in use anywhere, but, as Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate how this metaphor creates a new, more profitable view of ‘problems’ than is currently prevalent. In this new view, derived from the new meaning constructed by the metaphorical comparison of real-life problems with a chemical solution, problems are accepted as a more or less recurring part of life. We use certain catalysts which temporarily solve some problems but the same process, or the disturbance in the combinations of catalysts created by a single-instance usage may lead to the precipitation of some other problem. “Rather than direct your energies toward solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies toward finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating out worse ones. The reappearance of a problem is viewed as a natural occurence rather than as a failure on your part to find “the right way to solve it”.”

In contrast the more current view of problems as puzzles reinforces the expectation that there is one solution to each problem, that once applied, it will make the problem go forever. Recurrence of the problem implies a failure on the part of our ability to solve it. While the problem lasts, a state of confusion and frantic attempts to solve it and resolve it continue. Etc, etc.

Similarly, James Geary mentions research to the effect that when finance journalists use ‘agent metaphors’ to describe stock market behavior (such as ‘prices climbed higher’, or ‘the market fought back’) “an enduring internal goal or disposition” is inferred with the implication that the trend “is likely to continue tomorrow” (p. 31). In fact, it is in this sense of metaphor’s effects that scholars such as Lakoff and Johnson have highlighted the political, or let’s say, ideological power of metaphor…

 

The ideological power of metaphor

  

The people who get to impose their metaphors on the culture get to define what we consider to be true.

__ Lakoff and Johnson↓17  

What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding;

 __ Friedrich Nietzsche↓18 (in James Geary, p. 116)

Indeed we are familiar with presidential candidates, regimes, or factions in society popularizing and reinforcing ‘pet metaphors’ in their followers’ minds to ingrain their preferred sets of attitudes — their ideology. Similar examples can be given from the domain of religion. The budhist’s wheel of life and the muslim’s Straight Path are presented metaphorically, binding important aspects of their faith, creating their spiritual reality for them, defining the meaning and purpose of life to them, and motivating important attitudes and behaviors in each.

[This is not the place to argue, however, on the absolute relativity (or not) of truth (a topic with which this blog though is very much concerned and is yet to present a full-fledged treatment of the problem; though the topic has been touched upon in various posts).]

After having explored the concept of metaphor, establishing its power and significance from the point of view of both the sender and receiver of a communication, we are now set to see how the topic relates to the Quranic corpus. It’s easy to find all kinds of metaphors in Qur’an; important systems of extended conceptual metaphors that present, educate, and penetrate to the heart and mind of it’s readers; beautiful, visualizable, and novel, original metaphors that capture the sentient nature of its target audience and leave lasting and powerful impressions; metaphors so original and absolute as they must be for depicting realities beyond the periphery of ordinary human perception.

I feel excited at this point of my journey in the realm of the Metaphor. For these past few months, having thought about familiar metaphors from the Quran against all my developing understanding of metaphors in general now makes me feel as if I am approaching the great universe of the Qur’an with fresh eyes.

Till then, fi aman-i Allah

Notes

1. Olaf Jakel (2002). Hypotheses revisited: The cognitive theory of metaphor applied to religious texts, metaphoric.de, vol. 2, pp. 20-42. Found at http://www.metaphorik.de/02/jaekel.pdf

2. Ortony, A. (1975). Why metaphors are necessary and not just nice. Reprinted in Cultural Metaphors: Readings, research translations, and commentary, Ed. M. J. Gannon, 2001, Sage Publications. Found at http://books.google.co.in/books?id=Ih0BUezsl6kC&printsec=frontcover

3. Johnson (1980), taken from Bob Stallman (1999), Divine hospitality in the Pentateuch: A metaphorical perspective on God as host. PhD Dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, pp. 40-41. Found at http://eagle.northwestu.edu/faculty/bob-stallman/files/2011/03/2.pdf

4. Sam Gluckseburg (2008). How metaphors create categories — quickly. In Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed., Ed. Raymond W. Gibbs. Cambridge University Press. Found at ftp://ftp.turingbirds.com/ai/The%20Cambridge%20Handbook%20of%20Metaphor%20and%20Thought.pdf

5. Paul Henle, (1958), Metaphor. Reprinted in Philosphical Perspectives on Metaphor, Ed. Mark Johnson, 1980, University of Minnesota Press, p. 102

6. Rogers, R. (1978). Metaphor: A psychoanalytical perspective. University of California Press, p. 7. Found at http://books.google.com/books?id=zxH3W27COqgC&printsec=frontcover

7. (1975), from Cultural metaphors, pp. 16-17

8. N. Frye (1964) found in Phillip Stambovsky’s (1988), The depictive image: Metaphor and literary experience, University of Massachusetts Press, p. 50.

9. Scholes (1985) in Stambovsky, 1988, p. 89.

10. Stambovsky, 1988, p. 3

11. T. Cohen (1978) from Stallman (1999), p. 44

12. Harold Searle, Collected Papers on Schizophrenia. Quoted in Rogers, 1978, p. xi

13. Stefan Snaevarr (2010). Metaphors, narratives, emotions: Their interplay and impact, Rodopi, Amsterdam, p. 83 and p. 360 respectively.

14. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is credited with this conceptamong many others he theorized upon in his now classic Philosophical investigations. For a simple explanation of his concept read point 1 of this lecture presentation: http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/teaching_staff/ahmed/WittgensteinPhilosophicalInvestigationsLecture15.pdf

15. Stallman (1999), p. 41

16. in Cultural metaphors, p. 17

17. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Originally published by University of Chicago Press. Found online at: http://www.pineforge.com/upm-data/6031_Chapter_10_O’Brien_I_Proof_5.pdf

18. in James Geary, (2011), I is an Other: The secret life of metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world, Harper Collins, p. 116.

 

 

MIND’S I EXPLORATIONS: The Wise Window on the World

In consciousness, Mind's I Explorations, Mind|Body|World, perception, psychology, psychology of religion, Psychology|Religion, Quran, sources of knowledge, The Method, universe on September 11, 2011 at 8:26 pm

This is the second edition of Mind’s I Explorations, a series I began with a view to base my reflections on the nature of reality (and how we come to learn it) on the anthology: The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.

 

On having no head

The second piece of the anthology is a ‘charmingly childish’* narration of how one day in the Hamalyas, the author↓1  discovered (or rather realized) that he had in fact no head on his shoulders! In his own words, the discovery (or rediscovery) was an ultimate outcome of pondering a question for a long time: “What am I?”

*according to editors of the anthology, in their commnetary following the original piece.

If there was no head, what was there?:

It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.

Indeed imagine not having grown up mentally, only developing the sharpened skill of seeing. And what would you have seen? No, you won’t see a head on your shoulders!

We conclude the presence of this head by comparing ourselves with others who have two sets of limbs and an overall physique similar to ours, and who speak, walk, eat and generally live like us. And based on this comparison, we deduce, that if they have a head, we must have one too. For although we can see our heads in the mirrors, can the testimony of a mirror (in a way, an optical illusion) be trusted?

This is the apparently naive explanation of the author. It’s not a philosophical explanation, rather it’s intuitive, describing things on an strictly ‘as is’ basis rather than distorting the first native experience of the world through rational logic. When we are born we have no idea of how the ‘uppermost part’ of our body looks. Our view is just like those film camera views when the directors are trying to show things from the ‘eyes’ of a particular character. Again, no head is visible in that view, only the body and limbs. And in place of the head is the view, the scene, itself.

In the author’s own words:

It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind … It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see.

The essence of this way of thinking really is: that the experience we go through at first hand must always be fundamentally different from all others. Yet, in this subjective experience lies a greater and more peaceful unity with the external world, than in reliance on logically deduced objective experiences.↓2(the anthology editors who comment on every piece seem to have interpreted it slightly differently).

All twoness—all duality of subject and object—has vanished.

 

The subject and the object: dichotomous, complementary, or uniform?

A duality or dichotomy refers to “two mutually exclusive, opposed or contradictory groups (such as): a dichotomy between thought and action”. Such dichotomies or dualities are of concern in nearly all major fields of knowledge. In human sciences and philosophy, often such dichotomies are subject of much debate as to their respective significance in some area and as to how much in distinction &/or opposition they stand with respect to each other. Examples include wave-particle duality, mind and matter/body, good and evil, creationism vs evolution, etc. Complement is what supplies the lack of another entity; literally, something which makes another thing complete, whole, or perfect. Uniformity may refer to an overall sameness, homogeneity and regularity.

In philosophy, the subject-object problem is concerned with delineating what is objective and what is subjective in our experience. As a starting point, we can think of ‘objects’, different beings in the universe, being perceived by an observer: the ‘subject’.  Thus on the face of it, the two entities appear to be dichotomous. However, we encounter various problems when we attempt to further elaborate this basic premise. For instance, if we depend on our own sensory experience to perceive an object, discerning only those properties which our capacities enable us to, can we really know the object objectively, as it really is?↓3 This also relates to the ‘observer vs the observed’ problem in physics epitomzied by the uncertainty principle so recently discussed on this blog. And then, to what extent our own properties (i.e. the subject’s) affect what has been observed?  

Thus, the way we actually experience the object (or the universe) certaintly seems to unify us (the subject) with it (the object). This is despite the fact that, through logical analysis, we may feel certain that the object (or the universe) has its own reality independent of our sensibility of it↓4, and also despite the fact that the total dependence for our own experience on our own devises of sensation and perception may also lead us to doubt whether ‘it’s all in the head’ or not↓5. Perhaps it’s best to say that what is out there complements what is in here (in me and in you), and that they are unified into one experience by the device of the mind which has no way to see the separation of the two.

Now, let us return to the original piece for further deliberations:

 

On regaining the pure nativity of one’s original perspective on the world:

What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking … as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories … like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming.

I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed—to this marvellous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is—rather than contains—all things.

…no arguement can add to or take away from an experience which is as plain and incotrovertible as hearing middle-C* or tasting strawberry jam.

— *a note in music

There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.

—-

These quotes let us infer four different aspects about the experience.

i) Our intuitive experience is pre-verbal; language is not involved. All thinking and speaking is learned from the world. The nature of the kind of thinking and speaking we learn from the world is rational: we learn to associate features with specific objects, objects with specific categories. We usually learn not to cross-over between concepts. As we grow older our creativity dies down since we are taught to think in terms of what’s rational and familiar, not what’s new and different.

ii) The ‘burden’ of all this rational knowledge and way of thinking tends to bury our own sources of pre-verbal thought (let’s call them intuition and the freshness and naitvity of creativity) farther and farther beyond the boundaries of conscious life. Whereas, the fact remains that this intuitive thought is as basic and primary to us as ‘tasting jam’ or hearing a melody.

iii) The burden is not just metaphorical, it’s literal: The more thought we put into issues, the more we experience generally negative emotions and the more the issue (that we have been thinking on) seems like a ‘pressure’ or ‘full of stress’. The most peaceful moments of our lives are indeed those when we are simply submerged in an experience rather than caught in the tangles of thought.

iv) Hence, the sense of joy and peace on having reconnected with one’s innate perspective on the world: that the whole world is unified by the fabric of first-hand experience. It’s the artifact of logic that ‘divides’ the world into things and categories and hierarchies, and into I and it. This is this and that is that. The author has replaced it with the original ‘I≡universe≡reality’ kind of experience that would have remained in our consciousness if we had not been trained otherwise by the rigors of reason.

In addition to explaining how we come to loose the freshness of our inborn perspective, these conclusions also touch upon another commonly discussed ‘duality’: nature and environment. However, the whole discussion might remain a heady philosphical or incomprehensibly mystical narrative if not made plainer.

 

How the world conditions us

The best way to clarify the subject is to recast it in terms of a famous (though not very widely known in mass media) person-centered theory of personality by Carl Rogers. In addition to becoming more familiar, an additional advantage in speaking in terms of this theory is that a lot of general psychological insights abour how life works might be gained.

In Rogers’ theory, the counterpart of the ‘native perspective on things’ is a process called ‘organismic valuing’. The counterpart for ‘the perspective the world imposes on us’ is ‘conditions of worth’. Before coming to these concepts, however, we must first consider what Rogers meant by conditional and unconditional positive regard.

When we give a person our trust and acceptance, with an expression of genuine positive sentiment towards them, despite their shortcomings, faults and mistakes, they have recieved ‘unconditional positive regard’.

On the other hand, when we treat a person based on how they behave, and how well they perform tasks, we are treating them with conditional positive regard: we love them when they are good to us, and neglect or mistreat them when they are incapable of goodness. In a way, we expect them to ‘conform’ to our standards of behavior; if they don’t meet those standards they are somehow worthy of inferior treatment.

These standards that others must meet to obtain our regard are what Rogers called as the conditions of worth.

Typically, learning takes place through the application of these conditions on the growing child. The child is given the impression of being a ‘bad child’ and treated with various forms of punishments (at the very least, the withdrawal of positive objects such as attention, praise or toys), when he/she fails in behaving as expected. It is the incentives of parents’ love and attention (positive regard) that prompts the child to learn speech, get toilet-trained, and learn to eat with manners. If parents are not very mindful of the balance in their attitude (specifically, in giving the child a steady sense of unconditional positive regard through all the ups and downs of child development) the child might well loose the innate interest and ‘fun’ in learning and exploring new things. As such, the child will learn to do every new thing just to obtain someone’s regard or to avoid someone’s punishment. That is also how many children come to despise any new learning, except what they learn from play-at-will.

Many a children have ‘discovered’ that playing with a certain child was ‘bad’ given his/her background; that someone we never thought of as good or bad is now definitely good or certainly bad since we have heard some of our elders announce and reinforce that; that even thought the idea that an act of dishonesty is unjust and harmful makes perfect sense, whether it’s ok to engage in it or not depends on who does it. Thus even when children have received noble and valuable guidelines for living at a formal level, they are more often than not negated by actual conditioning.

In adulthood, the primary forms of conditions may be replaced by other more sophisticated ones: money, power, status, achievement, renown and fame, and a luxurious life. Even though we come to experience them as our own needs, their common sense definitions contain the sense of comparison with ‘others’: more money than others, power over others, satus higher than others, achievement better than or different from others’, renown and fame among others, more luxury and comfort than others…. Our life is reduced to nothing but a race for meeting more and more worthy conditions of being.

 

What we loose in the process

What we loose in the process is our own pre-verbal, intuitive, and emotionally tinged sense of things—what Rogers called as ‘organismic valuing’. According to Rogers, all organisms (humans or lower) have a tendecy to develop as fully as possible. For lower organisms, this is restricted more or less to the physical sense: body needs and survival. For humans however, there is an additional dimension called as self-actualizing. This tendency refers to our innermost urge to realize all the possibilities of experience and capacity innate to us. This urge creates in us ‘organismic valuing’: an inner voice (of course, experienced as a feeling rather than a thought) that tells us that some things are superior and make us more content and peacefully satisfied from the inside than some other things, without anybody’s commentary as a go-between. In cases where conditioning has been rather foolproof, we never even come to realize that there are whole undiscovered, and unexplored sides of us suppressed beneath the life of society-imposed ‘values’ we are pursuing.

This rosy existence is unfortunately uncommon. We remain pressurized by the need to do more for others and for ourselves as our worth has been attached to certain objects valued by our society. We have to force ourselves to ways of behaving and thinking that are inferior in our own eyes, but suit others. We have to hide our true inclinations, attitudes, and opinions on grave matters of character and way of life so that they don’t meet with censure, ridicule, indifference, bigotry, or plain misunderstanding. Our happiness comes to reside solely in other’s being happy with us; moments of peace, contentment, and joy that originate solely from inside are few and far between.

And buried deep beneath the compost of all the negated inner and intuitive knowledge of good and right, bad and wrong, must be that original and fresh perspective on the world: of being at one with the whole universe, of experiencing the whole universe at first hand.↓6

 

Where do our innate knowledge and perspective come from

Scientists may call it nature; but nature means what is there already existing before worldly learning takes place. Hence ‘nature’ is not an answer to the above question; if used, it’d merely be a ‘circular’ definition. Nature is what has been created by God:

فِطْرَتَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا

 … this (faith) being the nature designed by Allah on which He has originated mankind. (in Ar-Rum, 30)

According to the Ma’ariful- Qur’an, English version,  two interpretations of ‘nature’ are derivable from sources. One is that nature here means Islam, in reference to the following Ahadith in Sahih Muslim, Book 33, Chapter 6:

There is none born but is created to his true nature. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Majoosi… (#6423)

and:

Every new-born babe is born on the millat, and remains on this until his tongue is enabled to express himself. (#6427)

According to the second, equally acceptable interpretation, “Allah Ta’ala has bestowed the capability to every human being to discern his Creator and believe in Him”. Once this capacity is allowed to develop, it will ultimately lead the person to submission to God in the form of Islam. In fact, Maulana Taqi (the author of the Tafseer) presents arguments clarifying that the meaning that resonates with both the context of the full ayah and the ahadith quoted above is this second one:

All children are born with the natural instinct to perceive and identify the truth through an observation of their environment; however, once they develop the skill of speaking (which actually means the ability to understand logical concepts and think accordingly) their conscious development falls dependent on the teachings of their respective social environments.

 

Where does it all fit in the subject-object problem?

 In Qur’an the world has been described many times as a thing of play and pastime:

وَمَا هَـٰذِهِ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا لَهْوٌ وَلَعِبٌ

… the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play… (in Al-Ankabut, 64)

And it’s objects a vehicle of deception:

وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا مَتَاعُ الْغُرُورِ

THE worldly life is no more than a deceitful possession. (in Al-i-Imran, 185)

And it has indeed succeded in deceiving a majority of the people:

وَغَرَّتْهُمُ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا

 … and they have been deceived by the life in this world… (in Al-An’am, 70)

And the real life will be the one to come after:

وَإِنَّ الدَّارَ الْآخِرَةَ لَهِيَ الْحَيَوَانُ 

whereas, the life in the hereafter is indeed the real life: if they but knew this! (in Al-Ankabut, 64)

 

Even research in astrophysics has progressed to the point that some authors have speculated on the ‘tentative’ and ‘image-like’ nature of this world. According to Michael Talbot, in his book The Holographic Universe:

… there is evidence to suggest that our world and everything in it. . . are also only ghostly images, projections from a level of reality so beyond our own it is literally beyond both space and time.

The interesting part is that the way we experience it, we are never in a position to ascertain whether this world is a literal inter-play of light and other energies. All our experience tells us directly is the uniqueness of one’s own window on the world — a window we cannot share with anyone else, nor can we ever succeed in ‘peeping’ out from any one else’s window. What we call red, is what we have heard others calling red and teaching us to do the same; we are not even sure (by direct experience) that what looks as red in our eyes looks the same in anyone else’s eye or not!

On the other hand, the tangibility of the objects of this world is also directly experienced by us. So we can’t be inherently sure of any ‘philosophical idealism’ either (the idea that we experience nothing but what our minds make up). Moreover, at the level of daily life, questions of what is good and bad behavior, what is just and unjust, etc affect us more though deeper deliberations do have their effect.

We also get a similar attitude from the Qur’an. While, at least at the meaningful level, the belief in the transience of this life (meant to be ever inexplicable at the level of this world and this humanity) is a direct corollary of the belief in a more real and eternal life; pondering too much on ‘how to explain it all in terms understandable to us’ won’t serve us in any practical matters:

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ

فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا

وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it, it is all from our Lord’; and only people of who are wise take heed.  (Al-i-Imran, 7)    

 

This wisdom is again pre-endowed; the same inner wisdom that begins to loose its voice pressured by the outward-imposed ‘lessons’. Attempts to scientifically analyze and study this wisdom will again fail; one cannot expect the ‘subject’ to turn back on itself and to study itself ‘objectively’. This wisdom is our side of the reality: our window of the world, whether blurred termporarily by the conditions of worth; or, open and receptive and accepting of all the mysticalities of the world, humbly accepting its own and the world’s true nature for what it is.  

This wise consciousness could well be the primary fact of life; that elusive insightfulness that imbues with belief on and certain and intimate knowledge of the only Source deservant of that belief. Interestingly, I stumbled upon but last night on an online ‘course on the consciousness‘ by a Professor Emeritus in physics, in the University of Virginia, Stanley Sobottka. It resonates nearly perfectly with the above conclusion:

Because most scientists of all types are mentally wedded to a belief in an external reality, they are unable to see an alternative picture. In particular, they are unable to see that Consciousness, rather than external reality, is the fundamental Reality. Thus, they persist in attempting (and in failing) to create an objective theory of Consciousness. When the contents of Awareness try to objectify Awareness, it is like a puppet trying to “puppetize” the puppet master, a picture on a movie screen trying to “pictureize” the actors, a shadow striving to “shadowize” the object that is casting it, or humans trying to “humanize” God.

The problem of trying to create an objective theory of subjective experience has been labeled the “hard problem” of consciousness by David Chalmers… In fact, there is no hard problem for those who are aware they are aware.↓7  

 

Notes

1. D. E. Harding was a mystical writer on the nature of self and reality.

2. The commenting editors have not articulated this angle. To read the chapter along with the commentary, click this link.

3. Read “the problem of substance” on the pertinent wikipedia page. I mentioned a relevant example formerly in Prophetic revelation and subjectivity.

4. A view called as philosophical realism.

5. The issue is examplified by this famous question that if there is no one in the jungle to hear a sound produced, can we say that the sound was really there? Yes is the answer given by subjective idealists who say, in essence, that the mind makes the world (or the subject makes the object).

6. This idea, of course, is not part of Rogers theory but links this psychological discourse with the more philosophical one we began with.

7. For flow reading I have removed internal hyperlinks in the quote pointing to sections in the course which have already elaborated in various points in here. I have also removed the cross-reference to David Chalmers. To see the original go to the section of the course here: http://faculty.virginia.edu/consciousness/new_page_13.htm#9.6

 

Related posts from this blog:

On scientific speculativeness vs certainty of Divine knowledge: Assumptions vs Certainty (Synopsis)

Note that all the related links noted down in the above-linked post page are relevant to this discussion as well.

Also, more on mysteries of consciousness ordinarily hidden from our perception: Outrageous Sensations: What can we learn from LSD?

 

LITERATURE|RELIGION: Hidden Meanings in the Universe

In Literature|Religion, nature, perception on July 24, 2011 at 4:48 am

God reflects His Self through the Universe.

To reach Him we must reflect upon the Universe.

Or we may use the writings of those who have reflected before we did.

Windows of Reflection in the Verses of a Poet:

Her shai pukarti he pas-e-parda-e-sukuut

lekin kise sunaun koi ham-nawa bhi ho

Fursat mein sun shaguftgi-e-ghuncha ki sada

ye wo sukhan nahi jo kisi ne keha bhi ho

__

Everything speaks behind these cloaks of silence.

Alas, there is no audience. Ears here are struck.

When free, listen to the sound of the roses’ glee.

This is not speech that has been uttered.

–Nasir Kazmi (Deewan, Ghazal no. 1, p.11)↓1

What is Nasir saying in the first line?

Every object around is a being in its own right with a place in the universe. At the highest and spiritual level of meaning, every object as a creation of God signifies some property of that Creator: beauty, completeness, power, or profoundness. Here, Nasir laments of the indifference of general society to this “World in a Grain of Sand” [from William Blake]. ↓2

The second of the two quoted verses serves as a specific and illustrative example of the general idea in the first. Its first line is very pleasing and fresh (read slowly in Urdu to appreciate). It creates a beautiful image in our mind that is not just a static visual (a pleasant half-open flower bud), but is additionally decked with sound! – a striking combination. One instantly indulges imagining how, say, a rose-bud must sound if we could hear it…

Of course, this is not a literal reference to a synesthetic experience, ↓3 as the word ‘shaguftagi’ helps us realize. Word ‘shaguftagi’ is masdar in Urdu grammar, equivalent to an abstract noun in English. The poet thus is attempting to call our attention to the delightful quality of the rose. It bespeaks some meaning that is part of the mystery of the universe. (The mysterious atmosphere of the Urdu verse reinforces this conclusion).

Moreover, the Persian word ‘sukhan‘ in the fourth line is used not just for ‘speaking’, but also for the best form speech can take: literature. Thus the glee of roses not only speaks, it does so at the highest possible level, aesthetically and meaningfully.

 

The Highest Level of Meaning…?

All communication is made up of small signals or alphabets which combine in a way to form something bigger and meaningful (a symbol).↓4 Symbols (such as words, equations, or lines of html) in turn combine to produce something even larger and fuller. Fuller because the meaning of the combined product goes beyond a mere sum of its parts (such as a rousing poem, a theorem that helps explain some mystery of the universe, or an interactive computer program that seems a far cry from the lines upon lines of dry code it springs from.).

Thus ‘meaning’ is the overall pattern created by hierarchical combinations of symbols and signals. As such meaning is also latent (hidden); it doesn’t reveal itself as long as you stay focused on the underlying symbols or signals. One can’t even see the whole painting on a wall, let alone interpret it, if one is standing too close looking at a portion of the whole. ↓5

The Essence of a Reflection:

In combination, the four lines lend to four major realizations, in deciphering of which, the last line is of paramount significance:

First: The ‘speech’ Nasir refers to is the ‘meaning’ contained in the layers of inscription this world is made up of: the sands, rains, leaves, seasons…. No creator of things ever makes anything without some meaning (or purpose).

وَما خَلَقنَا السَّماءَ وَالأَرضَ وَما بَينَهُما لٰعِبينَ
AND [know that] We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in mere idle play. [Al-Anbya, 16]

Nasir, in his beautifully conversational way invites us to try sense these messages in nature. her shei pukarti hei..econd: These messages are as real as our speech but seem far beyond the bubble of our existence, since we have never really looked beyond that bubble; or if we did, we just focused on the symbol, appreciating at most, say, the beauty of a flower.  fursat mein sun..

وَإِن مِن شَيءٍ إِلّا يُسَبِّحُ بِحَمدِهِ وَلٰكِن لا تَفقَهونَ تَسبيحَهُم

and there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; And yet you understand not how they declare His glory [Al-Asra (also Sura Bani Israil), 44]

Third: Moreover, these messages correspond with the finest possible form this mode of communication can take. The whole of Al-Qur’an proves that the form in which the timeless realities of the Universe are revealed must have been the epitome of all literature.↓6
We do not even need a reference ayah for this point. Attend closely to any good and authentic recitation of the Qur’an or learn it by translation.↓7  ye wo sukhan nahin..

Fourth: Nasir’s comparison of these hidden communications to human literature is solely for the purpose of explication. It is no comparison in fact. Since even though many magnificent examples of literature exist, no person has ever said anything approximating the timeless meaning of all the signs in God’s universe.  Qur’an’s own challenge (unanswered to date!) to humans to produce anything like a single surah (Al-baqarah ayah 23) of it is sufficient for reference. jo kisi ne keha bhi ho..

Meta-reflection:

Note that there is an incomplete loop in the flow from human perception to metaphysical inferences. I mean, even though we may begin to glimpse and apprehend to a very meagre extent the mysteries contained in these symbols, they will certainly remain beyond our full encompassment. None of us can ever claim that we have comprehended the universal significance of all objects truly and completely because of their latent quality.
Interestingly, The above conclusion is a highly logical deduction from Nasir’s own words: as soon as the meaning of the universe becomes totally comprehensible by humans, it will be translated into the human form of communication. It will mean that someone has spoken those meanings in words. But that is not possible. That has never happened in this world, and by implication will never happen in the future either.
وَلا يُحيطونَ بِشَيءٍ مِن عِلمِهِ إِلّا بِما شاءَ
and they cannot comprehend anything of His knowledge except what He pleases [Ayat-ul-Kursi, Al-Baqarah, 255]
Certainly, that is why Nasir refrains from hinting at any particular meaning he might be discerning through his mysterious teachers. Since the bounds between the human and the divine sounds are essentially unsurpassable, any subjectively derived meaning could be just that: subjective. The humility and the unbiasness of the highly real Nasir must prevent him from sharing his intuitions. Poetically, his reticence helps retain the mysterious and obscure quality of the world of meaning and of the corresponding ‘air’ of this verse.
 

 I am amazed what depths of phenomena may be explored in the span of a ghazal’s verse by an honest and artful poet.

Indeed…

God’s own Word can be the only link enclosing the gap between the limitations of human perception and the real meaning and significance of all the elements of the universe out there.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Notes:

1. Translated by the humble author of the blog.

2. Nasir had a particularly incisive eye for the sights of this world. In the second line of this verse, he laments of his difference in this respect with typical ‘others’ in society.

3. Ever heard of synesthesia? On first reading, ‘the glee of a rose-bud’ reminds of that welding of two or more senses when sights are experienced as sounds (or some such other combination of sensations). For a first hand description of a synesthestic experience, read my older post on ‘outrageous sensations‘.

4. The concept that the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ is old (generally known as holism) and has been popularized in psychology by the gestalt school who explain it very well.

5. Read Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid for more on the nature of meaning. My absurd attempt to organize and summarize the concepts developed in the book reads here.

6. On the human level, being able to sense the glee of roses also corresponds with the highest possible form psychological experience can take. Abraham Maslow devoted his life to studying just such ‘peak experiences‘ which have an indescribably transcendental quality, when a person’s senses and emotions seem to go beyond the limits of daily life and to perceive something ‘pure’ and otherwordly.

7. For an interesting article on the literary aspects of Al-Quran, click here.

WONDERSoftheWORLD: …And we thought EYES were needed to SEE?

In God, perception, psychology, science, Wonders of the World on May 11, 2010 at 6:42 pm

What is so particular about this portrait?

Clinton? No. It’s the artist who painted it.

The Wonder…

I didn’t start out to be an artist.

I just wanted to learn about the world around me that I was living in.

I think I’m starting to know it, but I can’t be sure without feeling it.

Esref Armagan was born without eyes. As a child he grew a passion for drawing objects he was familiar with through touch. “Growing up, he felt socially isolated because of his blindness and would often spend hours alone drawing in the sand and exploring the relief patterns of his figures.”

He learned to associate colors with objects – by far the only thing he learned from his sighted others. Practically everything else in the art he uses, he has discovered on his own.

He would first etch “the image in his mind” on a cardboard. Then picking from systematically arranged oil paints (always placed in the same order for identification), he would apply a color with his fingers. Letting one color dry up in a few days, he will have to be patient before he could apply the next color.

Today he sketches using a stylus that makes raised outlines. He has also come to apply acrylics as they dry more quickly.

The Miracle…

The object must be made into a raised drawing.

I must work for days in order to perceive it in my mind.

I use a putty outline which enables my hands to easily distinguish the lines of the drawing. I do not use a brush. It’s impossible for me to understand whether there’s paint on the brush.

I have to paint with my hands.

The most amazing fact about Esref’s paintings is not that he imagines touched objects’ forms fairly well and represents them accurately on paper. His paintings are at par with any drawn by skilled sighted artists. As specialists studying him have said, his paintings show the right mixture of real world characteristics such as color variation, shadows, light and shade effects, light reflection, contrasts and perspective.

If we focus on a single of these characteristics, we might apprehend the miracle better. Perspective refers to the property of 2D pictures which accurately reflect 3D patterns in space. The modern use of perspective in drawings was considerably advanced by the observation made by Filippo Brunelleschi, who was standing one day before the famous octagonal structure Florence Baptistery in Italy. He noticed that the upper and lower horizontal lines of the walls of the Baptistery (if extended imaginally) converged at the horizon. Using his observation he drew an accurate mirror reflection of the Baptistery. A test of his accuracy was to place his painting beside a mirror facing the Baptistery. Viewers could see that both the representations (mirror and the painting) were indistinguishable.

Dr. John M. Kennedy, a perception psychologist at the University of Toronto, wished to test Armagan’s ability to drawn in perspective using this historical place as a venue. Armagan was not aware of his commission, except that he had to reach a certain place in Italy. Upon reaching, he was guided through a tactile exposure to the Baptistery’s design, seated at the same position as presumably Brunelleschi had adopted, and given the challenge to draw the Baptistery in perspective. Amazingly, Armagan was able to do so; on the other hand, even sighted people often have difficulty in using this artistic technique.

Moreover, his pictures show accurate representations of objects he could never have touched with his hands, such as sun and clouds…. His method of doing portraits highlight this aspect of the living miracle. He would ask a sighted person to draw around a photograph. Turning the page over, he would feel around the sketch with his left hand. And then transfer his feeling onto the paper. One might say that the raised outlines helped him out, but to get the whole face so aptly is certainly out of the ordinary.

The discovery…

Dr. Aamir Amedi is a an Instructor of Neurology at the Harvard Medical School. He and his colleges invited Esref as a single-subject in a brain-scanning study. Esref provides a unique opportunity to explore the brain of a person whose artistic prowess allows him to communicate his internal perceptional experiences in an external form. Scanning Esref’s brain while he was engaged in exploring forms of objects through touch and in drawing a novel object he had never come across before, the following amazing discovery was made:

Activation during drawing (compared to scribbling) occurred in brain areas normally associated with vision, including the striate cortex along with frontal and parietal cortical regions. Some of these areas showed overlap when EA was asked to mentally imagine the pictures he had to draw (albeit to a lesser anatomical extent and signal magnitude).

Interestingly, several areas, most notably in the medial posterior occipital cortex, showed much greater selectivity for drawing compared to all other tested conditions.

Within the occipital cortex, activation specific to the drawing condition was found in occipito-temporal areas …. corresponding to the primary and secondary visual cortical areas (areas corresponding to mid and peripheral visual field representations).

The same brain areas were active in Esref’s mind that are also active in the sighted people’s brain engaged in the same task! It means the brain process taking place inside Esref’s mind was the same on touching objects, as in people when they SEE those same objects.

The interpretation

This finding challenges the preconceived notion that vision (or precisely: the information from environment in form of light-rays) is needed for the ability to see. Here is a man who can imagine things as well as sighted people can, as both his art and the scientific investigation made upon him illustrate! The following explanation by Dr. Kennedy helps us further:

Any differences in definitions of shape and distance are matters more of convenience and habit than of geometrical principle. When the core common to shape and distance is evident, it is easier to understand how touch can achieve distal perception.

Jim Cranford points out that Esref’s extraordinary ability to reflect the world without ever seeing it reflects the working of the organism as an information processing feedback loop. In Jim’s words:

The senses input information from the environment, the perception apparatus, which includes the whole body in it’s scope, produces an internal model of the environment, that the hands use to paint. Remove eyes from the loop and it continues with what is available.

Another explanation (related to the one above) lies in the plasticity of our brains, an idea that has gained acceptance only in the recent decades. The brain can utilize all it’s untapped potential to construct reality so that maximum survival is possible.

Feeling my way around with my fingers has completely erased my blindness. It’s as if I see like anyone else.

The meaning

Most amazing of all, in the whole story, is the realization that somehow Esref visualizes (‘imagines’ is a more accurate word) the outer world as it is by focusing on the shapes, sizes, and distances, and on the patterns formed by these elements just like we do. The only difference is that we rely primarily on vision and he relies solely on touch and actual moving about. Fact is that we too have learned a lot of the information (that creates the perception of the world we are familiar with) through the sources Esref uses but we don’t realize that too often, we are so used to seeing.

One would like to get inside Esref’s mental world and SEE the pictures it shows. Esref himself  comments in the documentary made upon him: nobody can say I can not see.

Esref’s experience reminds us of the concepts of ‘tangled hierarchies’ and ‘strange loops’ Hofstadter developed. Whatever we see, hear or feel is the outcome (a percept) of the underlying system which combines information from diverse sources. Information is nothing but a pattern contained in a series of symbols. The phenomenon of perception is just like the reading off of the larger pattern made up of small and interconnected loops of information.  Our mental world (whether eyes closed or open) is just like reading the meaning contained in the loops, slashes and dots that we call ‘writing’ in combination. Or, it is like getting immersed in the Computer Screen’s display which is nothing but a pattern of pixels. We are not looking at the pattern of pixels though. Our minds are locked onto the patterns of meaning those pixel-patterns represent.

The lesson

#1

Art, on both a technical and conceptual level, externalizes the inner workings of the brain (Zeki, 2001).

Esref’s story once again makes us realize that this world is nothing but a product of our minds.  Surely our minds are subject to certain governing rules that have been programmed into it. Just that. Change the rules and the perception and the world changes. I will here point out my reader to the case of outrageous sensations resulting from a dose of LSD. LSD is not the only relevant example. Think about the profound changes in the percept, given mescalin, meditation, optical illusions, or neurotransmitter disturbances in schizophrenia.  Lesson: all our perceptions are limited by the defining features of the environment we are in. We cannot really go beyond the restrictions imposed on us by the environment and perceive more or differently than we currently can.

وَما هٰذِهِ الحَيوٰةُ الدُّنيا إِلّا لَهوٌ وَلَعِبٌ ۚ وَإِنَّ الدّارَ الءاخِرَةَ لَهِىَ الحَيَوانُ ۚ لَو كانوا يَعلَمونَ

for,  the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play –whereas, behold, the life in the hereafter is indeed the only [true] life: if they but knew this! [Al-Ankabut, 64]

#2

We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Esref’s story also reminds us of that essential limitation of science. It is a tool for testing the certitude of pieces of theory, but the theory and the tools are heavily limited by the limitations in our own perceptions that the lesson one points out to. Since it is not possible for the observer to move outside the FIELD in which the observation must take place, all observations are limited by the definition of the field. All the progress in knowledge made through science is therefore abrupt, jerky, and subject to nullification or heavy modification given a contradictory or unique discovery not made before. Esref’s story merely illustrates the heavy limitations on perception given biological constraints and allowances. But the modern-day scientist’s story illustrates the psychological (or let us say, the spiritual) constraints on perception…

فَإِنَّها لا تَعمَى الأَبصٰرُ وَلٰكِن تَعمَى القُلوبُ الَّتى فِى الصُّدورِ

For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts. [Al-Hajj, 46]




The thing I fear most in life is being asked to  do something I’m incapable of doing.


NOTES

  1. Paintings by Esref Armagan can be viewed on the websites armagan.com and esrefarmagan.com
  2. Esref’s full statements highlighted in blue have been taken from the Volvo S60 Blind Preview documentary.
  3. Kennedy’s perspective challenge to Armagan has been video-recorded in a documentary on Armagan available on YouTube.
  4. Reference to Amedi et al.’s article from which the quotes have been taken:  Neural and behavioral correlates of drawing in an early blind painter: A case study. Brain Research, 1242, 252-62. (2008). Retrieve Online.
  5. Dr. Kennedy’s quote taken from: Kennedy, J. M. (1993). Drawing and the blind. Yale University Press, p. 9. Retrieved Online.
  6. To read my rendering of related concepts that Hofstadter developed in his classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, click here.
  7. Zeki’s quote in Amedi et al (2008) cited above.
  8. Quote in lesson #2 by Robert Pirsig in his famous Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

QUOTES: On Losing Sight of God

In God, perception on April 21, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Tranquility

When modern philosophies pronounced God is dead, it was  divine in human that died, not God.

H. B.  Danesh (1997) in The Psychology of Spirituality.

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…experiences that are called “visions,” the whole so-called “spirit-world,” death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.

Rainer Maria Rilke

in Peter Matthiessen‘s (1978) The Snow Leopard.

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As the hand held before the eye conceals the greatest mountain, so the little earthly life hides from the glance the enormous lights and mysteries of which the world is full, and he who can draw it away from before his eyes, as one draws away a hand, beholds a great shining of the inner worlds.

Rabbi Nachmann of Bratzlav

in Peter Matthiessen‘s (1978) The Snow Leopard

sunset

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Related posts from this blog:

What can we learn from LSD? Part I & Part II

On Prophetic Revelation and Subjectivity

On the Arrogance of Scientists