Ruminating on Michael Polanyi's epistemic model as developed and conveyed by Dr. Esther Lightcap Meek in the book Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Concrete and Abstract Clues

In the book LtK, Dr. Meek gives three categories of clues (used in the technical sense she defines in the book): in your world, in your body, and in the directions. The distinction is helpful but, in my opinion, not very precise. All of the clues are in your world -- your body and the directions exist in your world. So, what we really have is a situation in which all clues come to us (at least initially) from our world, but we distinguish two categories of world-clues (we can just say "clues" since all clues are world-clues) which do not cover the whole field between them. We have:
  • in-my-body-clues
  • directions-from-authoritative-guides-clues
  • all the rest of the clues

I think another distinction can made within all the rest. Some clues are essentially concrete, or material; by that I mean that the sensory data itself acts as a clue. Others are essentially abstract; by that I mean that the sensory data tells us nothing in and of itself; rather, the meaning we assign to it as information is what acts as the clue.

Take, for example, Dr. Meek's illustration of the Magic Eye picture of the dolphins. The dots themselves act directly as clues, they themselves form the pattern. Or consider what we do while driving a car. Much of what we perceive visually of the road and surrounding traffic tells us immediately how to control the machine to accomplish our objective safely. We see the road curving, and we know that we must turn the steering wheel when we reach that curve if we wish to keep the car on the road. The visual data is the clue.

But consider Dr. Meek's copperhead example. In the book, it illustrates clues in the directions, because we have to be taught how to distinguish a copperhead from the forest floor, as well as from a non-poisonous snake. But, the directions having been received, the clues of the coloration and the hourglass shapes on the snake's back are clues from the world which must needs be integrated with the direction-clues. But even though they come from the world, they don't act directly as clues. Rather, the meanings we associate with the information we gain from the sensory data are what acts as clues. Maybe that's not very well said. I'm thinking of it as a chain or hierarchy of the flow of information: eye sees hourglass shapes --> brain recalls ideal hourglass shape, compares these instances of it, and correctly identifies them as real instances of the hourglass shape --> brain recalls that authoritative guide taught us to associate this shape on a copper-colored snake's back with the idea of a copperhead snake. It's what we associate with that shape in the abstract that lets us know we're seeing a copperhead.

Or consider once again the case of driving with respect to road signs (for reasons I'm completely unaware of, I've always gravitated toward making automobile-related illustrations). While visual images of the road itself work directly as clues, the official road signs must be interpreted. We learn to associate certain shapes and colors with certain kinds of instructions. Upright rectangle, white with black letters, small letters at top with large, two-digit number underneath: long before you're close enough to see the words "speed limit," you know that it's a speed limit sign, because that's what speed limit signs look like in the USA. After you've been driving for a short time, you pick up that number in your peripheral vision, glance at your dashboard, and know how much over the limit you're going. :-) The knowledge of your speed, and of what speed you ought to be limiting your vehicle to, is not gained directly from the visual data. It's inferred from meanings you have learned to associate with data of that kind. The image in your eyeball of a shape similar to 35 is not the clue. It must be combined with your understanding of what 35 m.p.h. means in terms of the velocity of your vehicle relative to the road, and with your understanding of the authority of the state to require you to restrict your speed. It's your abstract comprehension of the meaning of "35" in this context that, combined with clues in the directions for driving received from authoritative guides, acts as a clue to your knoweldge of how fast you ought to be going.

I don't know quite how to label these differences. In fact, the distinction isn't parallel to the body-directions-remainder categories, because directions-clues are inherently abstract, while body-clues tend to be more concrete. Nevertheless, there are certainly non-directions-non-body abstract clues, and non-body concrete clues.

Here's how I came to think this stuff through. I subscribe to an electronic newsletter for webmasters that often contains very useful info, but was kind of hard to follow due to semantical irregularities. Everything about the look and "vibe" of the newsletter led me to tacitly assume that it was written by a very sharp teenager or very young man from either America or Great Britain. Some turns of phrase seemed definitely British, but the grammar seemed sloppy and chaotic in a way that suggested a product of the US public school system.

Even though the verbage was frequently confusing, I continued to read every issue because I was able to regularly glean savvy hints and tips. Then one day recently, the writer mentioned the name of his company in passing, and it had the word Singapore in it. Singapore! So that's it. He's an Asian using English as a second language.

Suddenly, I was able to follow him much better. The only thing that changed was that I expected him to sound like an Asian who hadn't quite mastered the English language, rather than picturing him as a poorly educated native English speaker. That was enough to dramatically increase my comprehension of what he writes.

Granted, the clue came from my world: from the writer, through the internet, to my computer screen, to my eyeball. But it served the role of clue, not at that point nor during that time, but afterward. It changed my expectations about what I read from him. It functions as a clue purely in the abstract. It's a clue in my expectations, which is, perhaps, a sub-category of non-directions abstract clues.

Anybody got any ideas for better labels?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

C.S. Lewis Knew, Way Back When

For my next installment in the developing "Artists Have Always Known" series (so far including J.R.R. Tolkien, Pete Townsend, Neil Peart, Gerry Rafferty, Art Blakey, Nashville studio musicians, the script writers for the movie Kate & Leopold, Flannery O'Connor, Steve Talbott, and George MacDonald): C. S. Lewis' Space Trilogy. It's clear from certain passages in these books that, on some level, Lewis understood many of the essential principles outlined in LtK. The books were published in 1943.

Adept Perception, Latent Meaning, and Indefinite Possibilities

In Out of the Silent Planet, the unlikely hero is a man named Dr. Elwin Ransom, a middle-aged Cambridge fellow who is a philologist--a specialist in the science of language. After being kidnapped and taken away to the planet Malacandria, he escapes from his captors, and finds himself wandering alone, terrified, and with no idea what to expect. Encountering a large, seal-like creature, he overhears it making sounds that his trained ear knows must be a kind of speech:
"In the fraction of a second which it took Ransom to decide that the creature was really talking, and while he still knew that he might be facing instant death, his imagination had leaped over every fear and hope and probability of his situation to follow the dazzling project of making a Malacandrian grammar.... ...what might not one discover from the speech of a non-human race? The very form of language itself, the principle behind all possible languages, might fall into his hands."

As a philologist, Ransom had become expert at distinguishing language from non-language. He was skilled at knowing the difference between the sub-lingual (but still meaningful) sounds of mere animals and the complex orderliness of a true language. His ears knew what to listen for. This illustrates Lewis' grasp of an epistemology based in part on a "skilled egagement" of the world, which "unlocks" that world for the knower. It also shows that Lewis had some sense of the reality of hidden, or latent, meaning. He knew that a trained philologist (you remember that one of his closest friends, J. R. R. Tolkien, became the most "famousest" philologist in the world) could recognize that a pattern of sound was a meaningful pattern long before he could explicitly recognize any of the meaning in it.

Even more pronounced in that passage is the idea of the opening of indefinite possibilities, what Dr. Meek calls "uspecifiable future prospects" and "expanding horizons," at the moment of profound integration. To Ransom, the possibilities seemed unlimited. As Lewis said in more than one of his stories, anything might be possible now. It would be impossible to predict what might be learned about language from a non-human, non-terrestrial language. But it was certain that profound insights were just beyond his horizon.

The Moment of Integration, and more on Indefinite Possibilities

Later in the same book, Ransom's knowledge of the Malacandrian language had become sufficient for him to converse on an everyday level. But its poetry and song remained over his head for a long time. One day, the subsidiaries finally began to converge for him. Lewis describes it in a way that seems almost as if he were quoting from LtK:
"To every man, in his acquaintance with a new art, there comes a moment when that which before was meaningless first lifts, as it were, one corner of the curtain that hides its mystery, and reveals, in a burst of delight which later and fuller understanding can hardly ever equal, one glimpse of the indefinite possibilities within. For Ransom, this moment had now come in his understanding of Malacandrian song. Now first he saw that its rhythms were based on a different blood from ours, on a heart that beat more quickly, and a fiercer internal heat. Through his knowledge of the creatures and his love for them he began, ever to little, to hear it with their ears."

Again, we clearly see Lewis' grasp of the principles of the moment integration into a meaningful pattern, and of its coincident profound sense of unstatable but certainly real possibilities. It's interesting to me that he attributes to love the motive for his struggle to know. It was through love, not merely through the collection of data, that he learned to know what they knew. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. It was through living in community with the Malacandrian creatures, not as a passive observer, that he learned their language and culture.

Seemingly Unrelated Pieces Forming a Pattern

In the second book of the trilogy, Perelandra, Ransom wrestles with, among other things, the issue of the interactivity of Divine Sovereignty, the free wills of God's creatues, and natural occurances. He comes to recognize that:
The whole distinction between things accidental and things designed, like the distinction between fact and myth, was purely terrestrial. The pattern is so large that within the little frame of earthly experience there appear pieces of it between which we can see no connection, and other pieces between which we can. Hence we rightly, for our use, distinguish the accidental from the essential. But step outside that frame and the distinction drops down into the void, fluttering useless wings."

Here Lewis acknowledges the value of the Aristotelian distinction between the accidental and the substantial or essential. But he puts it to work in the context of the understanding that there is a pattern -- his own word -- an ultimate and all-embracing pattern, which transcends the ability of creatures to perceive it exhaustively. Through our "little frame" we can no more see the connection between all the pieces than we can look at both sides of a coin at once. Yet every coin really has two sides despite our inability to perceive them simultaneously, and the cosmos has a real pattern, despite our inability to grasp it all coherently.

Ascribing Importance, and Using the Pattern as a Touchstone

Finally, in the third book, That Hideous Strength, a woman named Jane has been having vivid dreams about alarming and disturbing events that turn out to be real events that have just happened, are happening, or are just about to happen. Her friend Dr. Dimble tells her to visit a Miss Ironwood about it. Miss Ironwood tells her that she (Jane) is a messenger, unwitting and unwilling though she may be, sent as a guide for the salvation of humanity from a great evil.
"...Then suddenly she [Jane] added, 'But how can you know all this? I mean--what realities are you talking about?'
'I think,' said Miss Ironwood, 'that you yourself have probably more reason to suspect the truth of your dreams than you have yet told me. If not, you soon will have. In the meantime, I will answer your question. We know your dreams to be partly true because they fit in with information we already possess. It was because he saw their importance that Dr. Dimble sent you to us.'"

Here Lewis, speaking in a specifically epistemological context ("how can you know...?"), demonstrates his working knowledge of two LtK principles. One is what Dr. Meek calls "meaningful hiddenness." Miss Ironwood says that Jane has reason to suspect the truth of her dreams. Jane doesn't yet know for certain that she is seeing real events. She has concocted possible (if admittedly far-fetched and incomplete) naturalistic explanations for the experiences. Also, some things in the dreams seem to demand a more analogical than literal interpretation. But Miss Ironwood knows that Jane's life circumstances must contain enough sufficient "clues" to point her to suspect the incredible truth.

But how does Miss Ironwood know? Herein is the second principle. She knows because it fits the pattern. She knows a lot of things that are hidden from Jane for the time being, and those things already point to a profound pattern. Jane's story fits into that pattern in a way that increases both its coherence and richness. This is what Dr. Meek calls "the telltale features of the real." Dr. Dimble, who was among the first people Jane confided in about the dreams, also had a grasp on the beginnings of the same pattern, and immediately "assigned significance" to her story. Most people, upon hearing Janes story of awful dreams that corresponded ominously to real events she could not have known of in such detail, would have sent her to a psychiatrist, who would no doubt have put her away or at least put her on medication. Only a very few people like Dr. Dimble and Miss Ironwood, who saw the world as a spiritual battleground, and who had knowledge of the imminence of certain events, would have understood that Jane was the embodiment of a key to averting global disaster.

A Lewisian Bent

One other thing I found interesting while reading the Space Trilogy. The term used throughout the books to describe mankind's condition due to the Fall is the English word "bent." I say "English" because often it is used as if it were an English translation of a term in the Malacandrian language. The creatures of the two planets Ransom travels to are not fallen, and therefore have no corresponding terminology. But they do have some kind of awareness of the possibility of perversion, of turning aside from the will of "Maleldil" (God). They call it "bent." It's interesting that Dr. Meek settled on the same term in LtK. I'm not saying that she got her ideas from Lewis rather than from Polanyi, but it would fit the pattern that she was at least influenced by his writing. Which would mean that it's not so strange that a man writing in 1943 should seem to have nearly quoted from a book written 60 years later.