What is a “something” anyway? further consideration of Darwin and Dewey

In my last post I wrote about Darwin’s recognition that the idea of separate species was just that, an idea. And, as Brian astutely commented on that post, that doesn’t mean that there is no truth to the distinction of one species to the next. It does though points to a particular challenge in human thinking and our understanding of reality, namely that we tend to create objects out of ideas, and then have our thinking limited by these “solid” objects of our own creation.

This insight of Darwin’s resonates deeply with my own deepest experiences of understanding into the nature of human experience. The mind seems to be in large part a machine for creating objects by drawing boundaries and making distinctions. These boundaries wrap at lightning speed around perceptual and functional characteristics like, size, shape, color, edible, enjoyable, etc. or any combination. For instance, a table is a flat surface (perception) used for putting things on (function).

Darwin realized that many of the objects we take as real (specifically in his case different species such as the red-tailed finch) are actually perceptual categories not actual objects. Although each member of that category is real, the category itself is an organizing tool. Dewey as we have early discussed saw the same thing in his consideration of the idea of stimulus/response
The most general perceptual category is “a thing.” And our mind is constantly creating things by drawing boundaries that separate certain parts of our perceptual field from the rest. Think about how we see the world. Our general conception of the universe as we experience it day to day is empty space filled with things. In fact the habit of seeing reality as ultimately made up of things is so strong that it is built right into our language (which means into our thinking.) I.e. Our word for totality is “everything” and our word for absolute lack is “nothing.”

When we look more closely, we see that “things” are not as clear cut as they may appear. The boundaries that separate things can be fuzzy and shifting. As we travel through the world we are confronted with a constant barrage of things. Physical things that we call objects, mental things that we call ideas, emotional things that we call feelings – and all of these things are constantly shifting and morphing right in front of us. At any particular moment one thing will stand out in our attention against the background of our experience and then disappear again into the background as another thing leaps forward in perception. Each thing be it physical, mental or emotional as it comes into awareness, is either acted upon, or not, and then returns back into the blur of shifting things and background. We get used to the constant shifting and for convenience sake we accept many of the things that we perceive to have a reality that is more solid than it actually is.

Obviously the skill of creating things out of the field of perception has tremendous advantages and has made almost all of what we know to be possible – at the same time Darwin in terms of species, and Dewey in terms of the stimulus/response concept, were seeing that it can also be disadvantageous. Darwin saw that too strict an adherence to the idea of separate species made it impossible for many naturalists to see the evolutionary evidence that he saw.

This conception of things being created out of our perception field was central to William James’s conception of consciousness and ultimately to his entire understanding of reality. His conception of reality as a fast moving, forward lurching, ever-responsive fluidity is fundamental to his conception of Pragmatism. In my next post I intend to write about James’s unique understanding of “the stream of consciousness” and in later posts return to the question of what makes up the sense of self and ultimately circle back to our discussion about freewill and conscious evolution.