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notes on awareness, memory, language, and reality.
by francesco ranci
18 June 2002 09:53 UTC
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Starting from the last point:

- I think we are usually not aware of what is going on
while we perceive something, because it's an extremely
fast set of processes, we do not have much of a theory
about it, and (last but not least) in our everyday
activities we are interestet in the results of such
processes (as opposed to being interested in how such
processes may be understood and described).
For example, if I am thirsty I get myself a glass of
water (I do not start asking myself: "how did such
sensation of "thirst" arise in me ? How come that I
know I'm supposed to perform an activity called
"drinking" in order to extinguish it ? How do I
distinguish a "bottle" from a "glass" or a "fork", and
"water" from "vinegar" or "potatoes", and so on).

By the way, this basic unawareness helps explain in my
view how the tradition theory of knowledge went of the
tracks and a whole set of metaphors came to the fore
(including the mirror metaphor). The explanation goes
as follow: the human being is used to relate and
compare the results of mental activity in order to
survive. He has to learn that the "sun" warms up and
may burn up your skin and so on. So, when he asks
himself how does he "perceive" something, he follow
the same methodology and tries to establish a
relationship between himself and what he perceives,
not realizing that both already are results of his
mental activity (something that he is not aware of,
after all - from this point of view of course).
Ernst Mach (1889) said more or less that "I" and
"Thing" are "useful fictions", and they surely are,
but not for every purpose. Mach proposed his
"elements", of which both "I" and "Thing" can be
analysed. That was ain important step on the way to a
reliable theory of knowledge I think.

We can, however, become aware to a certain extent of
such processes, I believe.
- Memory: memory is repetition of mental activity
(another misleading metaphor shows up here, i.e. the
"storage" metaphor). Again, we are not aware of the
process (for example, hoe do we recognize a face or an
object ? All I would say is that we may feel a set of
processes starting up "again" in our brain, and of
course we are not always right). In order to verify if
we remember something correctly, we do not compare it
with an impossible (in my view) "reality-as-it-is": on
the contrary, we put together a narrative based on
more comparisons, consistency, knowledge that we have
about the things involved, and so on. It is
interesting on this point to note how easily any of us
can get confused about his memories by a lawyer in a
trial, for example (or in similar situations).

- "Closed circle" (?). Well, I see it as a circle
somehow (self referential circle) because we see what
we already know and we know what we see. But, we are
talking to each other now (somehow) and we do
understand each other everyday, at least just enough
to cooperate more or less. So the circle is open. When
we are born our mothers guide us with their words to
pay attention to what happens in a certain way and use
certain words to express what’s happening according to
us. When my son was learning his first words, I used
to come home from work at a certain our (as I do now),
and my wife used involve him in the celebration the
event by happily screaming “Daddy in home ! Daddy !”.
As a result, for a while every time my son was excited
about something he said “Dada ! Dada !”.
He also used to use the same word (“Mama”) for mother
and for “banana”,  and my interpretation is that as he
was breastfeeding he found enough similarity between
his mother and bananas to justify using the same name.
There are so many other examples of how children learn
how to talk and gradually build a memory that it’s not
only their own, because they have to use a language
that is shared.

- Reality. A reality check comes from repeting
ourselves a set of operations. So I know how to make
myself a cup of tea when I can repeat the set of
activities that allow me in the end to have a cup of
tea. However, someone may say that what I make is not
a "real" cup of tea. So, we usually have to have a
social agreement about what is "real". My son quickly
learned how to express his excitement in different
ways than by saying "Dada !", in order to be better
understood. The history of science is obviously a good
source of inspiration on this issue, but not the only

- Senses/Brain. Another contraint on the process of
contructing our reality is the way we are biologically
made. I agree with that. You could never teach a
shellfish how to sing "New York New York"... Or, as a
more intelligent example: in order to teach chimps a
language that was more similar than theirs to our
language (so that we human could understand them a
little better) it was necessary to rely on sign
language and computer keyboards. They are learning a
lot, but I do not know how far they can really get on
the way of sharing our cultural habits. The same
applies to computers, with the obvious difference that
they are not even alive (whatever that means) yet.

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