Meandering thoughts on consciousness

by Neil Rickert

This post might wander all over, as I jot down thoughts that seem relevant.

Ding an sich

Kant used the expression “Ding an sich,” which is usually translated as “the thing in itself”. Kant’s idea was that we cannot know the world in itself; we can only know the world as we experience it.

This has turned out to be a controversial view. Many people disagree with Kant about this. However, I am inclined to agree, though perhaps my reasons are different from those of Kant.

In Genesis 1:2, we read “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” I am inclined to see that as a pretty good description of the world in itself, although I doubt that I am using that in the way the author(s) of Genesis intended.

If we attempt to describe the structure or form of the world, we may find ourselves using words such as “texture”, “height”, “color”. We use these words to express human concepts. When we talk of the world in itself, we should limit ourselves to what can be said without depending on human concepts. And there isn’t much at all that can be said.

As for that “darkness” part of the Genesis text, we can reasonably assume that the earth was bathed in electromagnetic waves. But most electromagnetic waves are not visible to us. Our sight depends on a narrow range of wavelengths. That we happen to be able to sense those wavelengths is part of our biology. So we should exclude that as part of what we consider the world in itself.

Kant contrasted this with the world of appearances, or the world that we experience. It seems entirely reasonable to me, that the way we experience the world is very different from the way that an ant experiences the world, or the way that a bird experiences the world or the way that a bat experiences the world. So when we talk of the world in itself, we should consider only what is observer independent. But we cannot know anything apart from observation. Hence my agreement with Kant’s view.

I’ll add that it is only because I have been thinking about consciousness and perception, that I come to this view. Otherwise, I would be a naive realist and assume that the world is just as we see it. But when I look into how perception must work, I begin to realize how naive that view is.


Kant described his view as “transcendental idealism”. So Kant was not a realist. This is where I disagree. I do consider myself a kind of realist, though I have had philosophers tell me that I am anti-realist.

Kant’s view was that all we have access to, is appearance. This is a reference to perceptions. It is a view that has come to be known as phenomenalism. Here, our perceptual experiences or appearances are said to be phenomena. And, according to phenomenalism, those phenomena or appearances are the starting point for our investigation of the world.

To me, this seems mistaken.

If I am in a movie theater, watching a show, all I have is the appearances from what is projected on the screen. But, in real life, I have more. In real life, when I see something, I might be able to lift it up and look underneath. Or I might at least be able to move to where I can see it from a different perspective. And I may be able to touch it and get a feel of the smoothness or roughness of the surface.

No, we are not limited to appearances. We interact with the world, and we create those appearance by means of how we interact. And when I take some action, in addition to the resulting appearances I also know what action I took to generate those appearances.

This is analogous to how science works. The scientists are not limited to observation. They carry out experiments to test the effects of their own actions. And this testing is basic to science. It is the same with us. We try things out and observe the effect of whatever we are trying out.

This is why I consider myself some kind of realist. I take the view that there is a reality that is independent of us, and that we work to find out what we can about that reality. We do this by means of our interactions. We push and shove against the world, and the world pushes and shoves back. And it is this interaction that generates those appearances.

Of course, a different creature might push and shove in different ways than we do. That’s why the experiences of that different creature might not be the same as our experiences. And this is why how we see the world might not be human independent.

To illustrate this, lets imagine that an alien from the andromeda galaxy were to visit earth. When we look around, we see mountains, rivers, trees, birds, cats, dogs, etc. Would the andromedan visitor see these? It is very difficult to guess what the visitor would see. But lets suppose that this visitor were to examine earth using our standards. That is, it would use our standards for what is a mountain, for what is a river, what is a tree, etc. In that case, we would expect the visitor to find the same mountains, rivers, trees, birds, cats and dogs that we find. I’ll note that I recently posted on standards.

Of course, there is no reason to assume that the visiting alien would use our standards. We should, instead, expect it to use standards relevant to its different way of life. But this example suggests that the visitor would find what we mean by mountains and what we mean by trees, if it looked for them. From this perspective, it is reasonable for us to say that mountains, rivers, trees, etc, are real. That is to say, they fit what we mean by real. And, as far as I am concerned, that’s enough for me to consider myself a realist.


I have made a number of posts about categorization. However, people don’t all mean the same thing when they use that term. You might find the paper “Cognition is Categorization” to be useful here. There’s an “appendix 1” where he compares what he calls the “classical theory” with others.

For me, categorization means dividing the world up into parts and possibly assigning category names to some of the parts. And that’s about what Harnad describes as the classical theory. The rough idea is that the world in itself concists of undifferentiated stuff. We make the distinctions that are important to us. As a result, instead of having undifferentiated stuff, we see a world of things. We might say that categorization amounts to thingifying the world — looking at it as composed of things.

An alternative view of categorization is that it assigns things to categories based on archetypes or similarities. But the problem with that approach, is that it fails to say where things come from. Being able to look at the world as composed of things is an important part of how we see it.

By way of illustration, consider what a computer does. It receives input as signals. But you cannot compute with signals. The Turing Machine definition of computation starts with symbols. So the physical computer must first convert its input signals to symbols, typically binary 0 and 1. That’s really a kind of categorization of the input. And it is prior to any possibility of computation.

Similarly for us, categorization is a preliminary step to allow us to find ways to talk about or think about the world.

Knowledge is relational

I have never liked the definition of knowledge, as justified true belief. It has always seemed mistaken. From my perspective, knowledge has more to do with knowing how that with having true descriptions.

When we look at knowledge as knowing how, we can see that it is relational. Our knowledge is closely related to how we interact with the world. If we go by the “justified true belief” account, it might seem that knowledge has to do with true descriptions. But even that can be misleading. Our descriptions are relational.

If I see an apple tree or a peach tree, I may call that a fruit tree. But if I see a tree with inedible berries, I normally do not call that a fruit tree. We use “fruit tree” only for a tree that bears edible fruit. And this has to do with the ways that we interact with the tree and its fruit. Similarly, we call something a “see saw” rather than a plank because of the way that we use it. We say that tomatoes and cucumbers are vegetables, rather than fruit, because of the way that we use them. We call things “tables” or “chairs” because of the ways that we use them.

When we talk about the world in itself, this seems to be talking of the world without regard to how we interact with it. And this is why it isn’t even clear what it could mean to have knowledge of the world in itself.

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