Understanding Understanding: Two modes of mind

The human mind, I am convinced, operates in terms of sameness and difference*. From this conviction I have recently come to label two modes of thinking – ways which the mind ‘makes sense’ of the world:

Apophatic Thinking (AT)
The mind begins from the notion that everything is the same, and makes sense of the world around it by asking “How are these things different?”. AT thus identifies a Thing by what it is not.
Cataphatic Thinking (CT)
The mind begins from the notion that everything is different, and makes sense of the world around it by asking “How are these things the same?”. CT thus identifies a Thing by what it is not-not – i.e. what it is.

Note here that CT is not-AT, but AT isn’t not-not CT – instead AT is not-CT. To understand what I mean by this is that you can get to CT from AT-thinking, but not the other way around. This is like how you can get a positive number by subtracting a negative, but you can’t get a negative by adding a positive.

Note also the effect of analogy in the above, being sameness – thus Cataphatic Thinking – which it seems Douglas Hofstadter has successfully put his finger on (see this and this for more reading on his work), but it seems to me he hasn’t yet qualified Apophatic Thinking – but again, having not read his book on analogy, I very well could be wrong. I would playfully call an analogy a cataphatism. That leaves room for its antonym, the apophatism – whatever that ‘is’… a distinction perhaps? Is that sufficiently cataphatic (analogous)?

Indeed the mind uses both modes constantly. The more you think about how sameness and difference provide meaning to a mind, the more you will see where it’s in AT-mode or CT-mode.

But, and here again, those who’ve been following please forgive my repetitiveness, I would stress the importance – even the foundational necessity of the involutory function that is not. From not we can ‘build’ not-not, not the other way around!

And now for the speculation (girded by cautious rationalization of course):

Let us begin with a nascent, naïve, even thoroughly-ignorant mind. Within this new mind, this blank mind, there are no Things yet because all of them are the same as each other. There is, as yet, no difference within the mind, by which a Thing can begin to exist. One might call it ‘dead’ – or ‘unborn’ – which I would grant without too much hesitation.

I tend somewhat towards a ‘naturalist’ philosophy (though that term, I gather from various philosophy fora and the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Naturalism, among various sources, is still ill-defined), so I will presume here that this blank mind isn’t even a ‘mind’ yet, but would be in the physical realm a ‘dormant’ brain – one with neurons and synaptic connections, but which haven’t fired yet, nor received any ‘external’ stimulus from nerve endings. Needless to say, this state of dormancy doesn’t last very long, if this is indeed the brain of a prenatal infant human being (I’m also being deliberately vague here, so I’m omitting mention of factors such as gestation and development of a human brain, because I do not want to write a whole book here but want to press-on), because, again if it’s in its mother’s womb, the first stimulus could be anything – light through the mother’s womb, a sound outside the womb, a jostle of the amniotic fluid within the womb as the mother moves, or most inevitably, the sound of her heartbeat. This stimulus sends a ripple of nervous activity through the infant’s body and up into the dormant brain. Neurons fire, synapses transmit and a chain reaction may ‘shoot’ through the brain.

The neural pathways of this dormant brain may lead nowhere – they may peter-out at a neural ‘dead-end’. No matter – another stimulus may occur in the next few seconds. As yet, I think, there is no ‘self’ so I would still not call it a ‘mind’ yet. I think the ‘mind’ occurs only when a neural pathway successfully loops back on itself, thus setting the ‘clock’ in motion, if I may. This still isn’t a ‘self’, but I wager it is a ‘mind’. I posit that this ‘clock’, this neural loop (if indeed a signal does loop more than once – I’m not a neuroscientist!), could be the sort of ‘base state’ of a blank mind. This loop is the ‘new normal’ for this mind. This is a ‘listening mind’ waiting for input. But as yet there is still no Thing.

There could be any number of stimuli that occur in exact lock-step as that first loop, and still no ‘self’ would qualify. Instead, I think the self emerges via the asynchrony between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ stimuli. It is at this moment, the exact moment that some external stimulus does not exactly match with the internal loop that difference becomes a measure for the mind. I think this is where the mind models the involutory concept of ‘not’, so that This (a Thing) is not That (another Thing).

Each new stimulus which does not match any of the other loops (yes, I’ve skipped-ahead and posit that a few more neural-loops have been locked into the now active brain) then qualifies to the mind as ‘not any of the others’, and is thus a new Thing.

Now we have a system of sameness and difference which is constantly comparing. But how is ‘sameness’ determined by the brain? Well, the very nature of an involutory function is that a second application cancels both – so ‘not not’ is not ‘not’ – and therefore is. The ‘self’ is, in this system of the mind, forever ‘not’ every external stimulus and asychrony coming into the brain. So “I” am forever “not” everything-that-isn’t-me.

As the body begins to send signals to the brain, slowly there builds a repertoire of Things which are not-not ‘me’ – signals which occur in lock-step with ‘me’. So I come to know ‘my’ hand when ‘I’ wave it, because the visual signals (i.e. the sight of my waving hand) correspond (i.e. are same) to ‘my’ internal loops. This ‘sameness’ can lead to illusory impressions: Take for instance the situation where I have thought that you will move your hand in a particular way. If, perchance, you do move your hand in exactly that way, I am liable to ‘believe’ (ever-so-briefly) that I was the one who made you do that – telepathy anyone? Now, that illusion might be broken just as quickly by further asynchronous stimuli – whatever might occur to ‘break’ the illusion.

I end here with some wondering, for you to chew on:

“Hmm… I wonder whether already having two nots mightn’t enable a mind to ‘break’ them apart…? I did, after all, begin this postulation with a mind of utter ‘sameness’ – which is ‘not-not’… But how, if at all, would that work?”


*[You may have read my earlier posts on Adjacency Theory and the significance I hold of the Involutory Transformation or my ideas on The Emergence of Self so you may see this is merely a reformulation of those earlier ideas. Rightly so.]

8 thoughts on “Understanding Understanding: Two modes of mind

  1. I fear much of this post is beyond me, but I can add something about brains for discussion, notably, that they’re never blank. During development, the eyes and other organs are sending “test” signals that help fine tune the wiring between them and in the relevant processing centers of the brain. The brain is processing (unconsciously) from a very early stage.

    Interestingly, and perhaps relevant, brain development continues after birth. The number of synapses increases until about the age of two, when some start to atrophy. It doesn’t appear to be the addition of those synapses that enable storage of Things, but their absence, or perhaps more precisely, the differences that such absences encode, the patterns that the absent and remaining ones form.

    (Speculatively, this could be one of the reasons why we all have amnesia of our first two years of life.)

  2. That’s interesting and a big thanks for the clarification (I suspected as much – hence my deliberate omission of the gestation stages of the prenatal brain). So activity is incessant – which makes sense because there’s really no reason the first neuron wouldn’t immediately ‘be itself’ and begin firing as soon as it could. Well, I’ll need to rework the speculative parts, for sure – but that’s some of the best work anyway!

    I wish you wouldn’t sell yourself short for the ‘much of this’ part though – the ideas are very very basic, and require only the slightest of musing for it to fit together. I’m certain you already have a deep intuition of sameness and difference – only you mightn’t have paid much attention to what effects those have on your mind. Think about it, give it a try. See what ‘sameness’ means to you, how and where you recognize it. See where ‘differences’ really lie – the interstices of samenesses, their boundaries. All very basic stuff – so basic it’s often blatantly ignored.

    But I really REALLY encourage you to give it a shot – it’s such an eye-opener that I can’t begin to describe the deeply-shifted perspective you’ll have. Just play with it, wonder, test and see for five or ten minutes. Ask yourself what ‘utter sameness’ might mean to you – what effect utter sameness (absolute sameness) might have to the meaning of other things in your mind – like what does ‘up’ really mean in utter sameness? etc. Then ask yourself what would be required of a Thing for it to exist were it to be made of the exact same ‘stuff’ as this ‘sameness stuff’ – and toy with these ideas. You’ll ‘get’ it, I’m certain you will!

    Back to brains though – I’m really intrigued by what you say about the absent synaptic connections being what enables the formation (sorry, you said “storage”) of Things. Could you develop what you meant by that line of thought please?

    1. Sorry for the delayed response. Just realized I must have forgot to click the Notify option on my last comment.

      On the sameness vs difference thing, I think I do get that aspect of it. It somewhat melds into my thoughts that we are pattern matching engines.

      When we detect a new pattern that doesn’t map to the existing ones (which we do quite aggressively) we then figure out the difference between this new pattern and the closest other pattern we already know about. When then store only the difference, not the entire new pattern.

      This means that the patterns we do know about are hierarchies of differentials. It’s also why two people can have an identical experience but have radically different interpretations of it; they can have very different pattern differential hierarchies (aka worldviews).

      On synapses, not sure how familiar you are with neuroscience, but they are the connections between neurons. They’re how a neuron communicates with its peers.

      There is pervasive evidence that memories are encoded in synapses. Not in any one synapse, but in the patterns of their encodings. A synapse can vary in strength. Use strengthens it, non-use weakens it. (Old neuroscience aphorism: “neurons that fire together stay together”.)

      You can think of synapses as being somewhat similar to transistors (although don’t take the comparison too rigorously). Information in computers is stored in the patterns of transistors being open or closed. A synapse is either strong enough to excite a post-synaptic neuron or it isn’t. (Although in the case of synapses, several together signaling at the same time might be strong enough where one by itself isn’t, or a single synapse signalling repeatedly in a fast enough tempo might still succeed. As I mentioned, the comparison with transistors is a rough one.)

      With billions of transistors, modern computing is possible. With hundreds of trillions of synapses, human memory and cognition is possible.

      But just as a closed transistor is as important as an open one, an atrophied synapse is just as important, for information coding purposes, as a strong one. In both cases, it’s the distinction between them that encodes information. Which is why a 2 year old’s quadrillion synapses actually have less information than an adults less than 500 trillion ones.

      Hope that makes sense.

  3. I haven’t read Hofstadter’s, I Am a Strange Loop, but if what you write here is drawing upon that work in some way, then I wonder if Hofstadter, or yourself, give credence to the idea that the body’s recursively feeding proprioceptive sense – i.e. the feeling of ‘me doing something’ – is what sustains the sense of self-autonomy and agency? It seems the illusion of selfhood is certainly more than being purely about the sense of timing; it’s about feeling too. You begin to address this when referring to “a repertoire of Things which are not-not ‘me’”, although aren’t we still here in the assumption of selfhood, and if so, how did it come to be so prior to the repertoire’s existence; how was the ‘me’ first postulated? I think perhaps the sense of agency has an awful to do with it, and it’s the proprioceptive sense, feeding recursively back into ideas of apparent choices, and of apparently (though not actually) having chosen from them, that sustains this illusion of self-agency.

  4. Hariod, thank you! That’s very interesting – and it would indeed seem that the proprioceptive aspect does fall into that ‘repertoire’. But in seeing it in terms of the basic ‘adjacency map’ (a Thing bounded by ‘not’ and a Thing ‘outside’ it), then you would recognize I believe that the thing ‘inside’ the boundary is the positive or ‘cataphatic’ self – and thus the proprioceptive feedback I suppose? To be honest I really don’t know and I simply haven’t thought about it enough right now to have any better of an idea. I hadn’t thought about proprioception at all when I wrote this post. Your mentioning it makes me thing I really should have 😉
    To briefly touch upon Hofstadter – his “I am a Strange Loop” is brilliant and fascinating – I highly recommend reading it. Even if there’s a possibility that his ideas might turn out to be wrong or incomplete or incorrect in any way, the book itself remains of value just in the sheer joy of its content. It goes all over the place and touches upon so many fascinating things – Hofstadter’s fascination with so many things is absolutely contagious. The book is a ‘reader-friendly version’ of his main book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid” (which is dense and so completely packed with so much stuff that it’s nigh impossible that just one person ‘upload’ all of it into their brain – hence his second attempt at a ‘lighter’ more congenial version).
    But that being said, I did not (consciously) draw from ‘I am a Strange Loop’ in this post – in fact, I haven’t finished reading it (I did warn in my ‘Influences and Inspiration’ page!) and haven’t re-opened it in quite possibly over a year now. Though I do recognize that the ‘Strange Loopiness’ is now firmly ingrained in my ideas – because I have seen it for myself and therefore can’t un-see it.

    1. Thankyou very much, Thomas, and yes, I really must read Hofstadter’s book. I think Mike at SAP is keen on it too (along with Graziano), so that’s two very worthy recommendations. I agree with you, in that no one title is likely to contain any complete theory, or be perfectly correct in what is posited, as regards the conscious sense of self and agency, and I tend to suspect that a multi-disciplinary approach is ultimately required.

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