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Not Communication

Marc Burock

Published: 2011


Tag(s): communication information ontology attention metaphysics 1




Part 1

1.1 Attentional directedness

1.2 Limitations of classical communication

1.3 Introduction to intentional directedness 1.4 Receptivity and compatibility

1.5 Unknown sources of intentional directedness 1.6 Effort

1.7 Materialism and directedness

1.8 Necessary degeneracy of communication

Death and Dreamless Sleep

Part 2

2.1 Newness

2.2 Sources of information

2.3 Bits of substance

2.4 Computation as simulated directedness

2.5 Identification of intentional directedness 2


This is primarily a philosophical self-help book that comes across as a work of ontology. It is partly a criticism of materialism and idealism, and especially a criticism of the concepts of communication and information as they arise in science and language. Not that I have any interest in proving these concepts false; I agree that each is useful in its domain.

Rather, these criticisms may open one up to a less confined communication that is not bounded by science or language but perfuses each. This communication nourishes the paradoxical connection between separated things.

Long stood the walls of knowledge, holding a mountain of unknown weight. How easily we now peer through those cracked walls. How painfully we eat the fallen debris, hoping to feel satiated by what used to make us full. Light shines through, but it does not illuminate. Light shines through only to reveal a darkness that glairs back in laughter, in anger, in hate. Love is lost for now. Love went into hiding. Courage is lost for now. Courage stood its ground and crumbled.

A vortex of dark, undulating light is within me. It throws its tentacles against my tubular walls, supporting itself from my inside, fearful of fall-ing into a greater abyss that is also part of me. Gray spikes protrude out of the tentacles and retract back in. They protrude in unison, swiftly, with a crack. Out and in. Out and in. The spikes grow bigger, too big to be contained by the tentacles, and they thrust out again and again.

Crack. Crack. Crack. Each crack louder. The spikes grow larger with each protrusion. My tubular walls hold despite repetitious piercings.

The spikes calm and transform into the thorns of an ancient tree. The tentacles become wooden branches and limbs, leaves sprout, and the thorns become too small to be noticed. Fruit blossoms on the tree and falls down into the abyss of light. With gratitude the fruit enters. A God arises from the bright abyss and swallows the tree whole. A sacrifice is accepted.




Suppose your insides were shrinking. Imagine that your heart began contracting in size—not just squeezing as it is supposed to, but actually shrinking in total size while still attached to your arteries and veins.

Your heart is shrinking from the size of a fist to that of a golf ball and smaller. Soon your heart will no longer be able to circulate blood throughout your body, and all of the physiologic processes that depend upon this circulation will fail. Since the body lacks a contingency response for the gradual shrinkage of the heart, you will die without acute intervention.

Now let us imagine an even more fictitious situation in which everything within your body is shrinking except for your skeleton which holds its form and your external skin covering and eyes. Let us further imagine that this process is extremely slow, so slow that your body as a whole is able to partially compensate for your slowly contracting insides. Although you will not die from this process, at least not immediately, you will certainly be altered by it. You will lose many abilities and possibilities that you possessed as a person with non-contracting insides, and those things which previously had been easy and taken little effort will soon exhaust you. Even putting on clothing, which you once did without thought or effort, now becomes a chore that leaves you bedrid-den the rest of the day.

Your body will do its best to compensate for its shrinking insides—as it does for those of us without shrinking insides—but some of those compensations will cause other, more acutely dangerous situations that will put your life in immediate danger, a danger that may outweigh the danger due to slowly contracting insides. Today’s medical science will often be able to intervene, offering surgical revisions and pharmaco-logical interactions that will stave off the immediate danger. Medicine can potentially extend and improve the quality of your life, but as for the primary problem, the shrinking of your insides, it can do nothing about.

The internal contraction is neither due to a genetic flaw nor an environmental contaminate. You can only be cured by transplanting your self into a new body that is not contracting, and hope that the new body will not be similarly affected.

Now suppose that it is not the insides of your body that are contracting, but you yourself are contracting from the inside. Whatever you are, whatever you take self-hood to be, that is what is shrinking. If you consider yourself a material body only, then this consideration will not 5

change what I have said above, and you can continue to take your internal organs as contracting. If you believe that you are your brain, then it is your brain that is slowly shrinking—which interestingly happens as we age anyway. For those of you who see more than material bodies, such as mind or soul or spiritual essence, then those things are contracting. The essence of yourself is closing in, contracting.

What would contraction of the self be like? This is a difficult question that requires us to specify what the self is, a specification that will depend upon your theoretical leanings as I noted above. I imagine that whatever self-contraction is, it will be experienced—if it is experienced at all—as though one were enclosed in a ten foot steel cube whose walls were slowly closing in on all sides. There is a dim light on within the cube so that you can feel and see the walls closing in, and for some reason you know that nothing exists outside of the shrinking cube. Or, self-contraction reflects your awareness of slowly losing your awareness, bit by bit, where you are constantly aware of everything that you are losing, until the only awareness you have left is that of pure loss.

If we realize that we are contracting on the inside and believe that we can do nothing about it, or if we deny and avoid the contraction of our internal organs because the truth is too much to bear, then how do you suppose the typical person would react? The person who avoids the truth of internal contraction would of course best be served by looking outward. Let him focus upon his skin and hair, and upon those things in the external world. Let him be distracted by political drama and focus more upon others than his self. Let him see the universe as externally expanding, for this is a necessary and true dual for one who turns away from his contracting insides. And what of the person who knows that she is contracting on the inside but believes she is impotent to slow or reverse the process? Won’t she lose sanity, pray for salvation, or marshal whatever knowledge she can to at least patch up the devastation left behind by internal contraction? Or worse still, won’t she perhaps gleefully accept her internal destruction and playfully devise means to hasten the process?

There is a connection between the internal contraction of the individual and the spatial expansion of the universe. These processes are duals of one another, and suggest that within a larger understanding could be unified if taken seriously. For example, the expansion of space is likely accompanied by the contraction of time, but it is not clear that a universal contraction of time could ever be noticed in the same way as the expansion of space. Does time contract at every point of time as 6

space expands at every point in space, and does time contract across space as space expands across time? The latter is not an appropriate comparison for the apparent ordering of time allows us to determine a meaning of acrossness, while space is not clearly ordered, or ordered in many equally compatible ways without natural preference. Expansion is fundamentally understood temporally—because it is a dynamic process—but contraction need not have anything to do with space. And if time contracted equally for everyone and everything, then it seems that we could not notice this through empirical methods, although one might infer such a thing from things measured and theories proffered.

To the extent that we are temporal things, it is conceivable that we are contracting in some way, and that this contraction binds us to the spatial expansion of the universe. On a common understanding of time, time contraction would be experienced as the speeding up of things, consistent with the experience that time goes by more quickly as we age.

The personal age-related contraction of time cannot, of course, be found in the geometric spacetime metric tensor of relativity theory; at least not unless someone determines the individual’s contribution to the metric.

Still, the speeding up of time with age is an empirical phenomena, but it is a personal phenomena associated with keeping-track of the events around us. From an external perspective it would, in contrast, seem that people are ‘maturing’ at slower rates, by which I mean taking more time to develop intended, nuanced, and natural identities. Just as seeds follow paths to mature plants, and reproductive cells grow into adult bodies, the self goes from a near undifferentiated infant awareness to an adult identity. The fact that children are reaching puberty at earlier ages does not refute my claim, but rather demonstrates the body’s physiologic compensation for the slowing development of self.

The development of the self—where self is some vague sense of identity as a self-object, a fusion of form and content within being—appears to be slowing down, and at times halting entirely, although it is unlikely that this slowing down is caused by a temporal disturbance as much as by other things surrounding the self. A plant does not reach maturity and fruit for many reasons, and it would be ridiculous to accuse time itself for not seeing the process to its end. Many things influence the rate of development and most of them are not likely law-like.

If the rate of development of one’s identity were only slowing down, or static, then it is unlikely that we would experience this as much of a problem. Who shall rightly claim that there is proper or natural rate of the development of anything? Surely we should develop at our own 7

pace, dependent upon our environment and what have you. If the modern world is a place such that personal development is slowed, then so be it. Take whatever time you need to find yourself; our world is complicated. The problem arises, however, in that not only has development slowed and sometimes stopped, but now the self is regressing well before its time. While it is natural for the self to regress with age or injury or disease, now the self is devolving prematurely apart from these causes. Something else is acting upon us from within. We feel it closing in within us, contracting us. If you imagine the self or your identity as an eloquent space, then you may see this space contracting within you.

Kierkegaard spoke of this contraction as inclosing reserve, but whereas our sense of self-contraction is a physical process in which the fabric of the self contracts upon itself, Kierkegaard saw inclosing reserve as a state of un-freedom that makes itself a prisoner. I intend no opposition to Kierkegaard and see us as trying to talk about the same thing using similar metaphors in different ways. In the end, self-contraction and inclosing reserve are both attempts to understand suffering.

While I have suggested that something in the world is causing the contraction of self-space, it is not clear to me what that source might be.

I cannot assume that it is a particular molecule or virus. I cannot assume that it is our culture, moral landscape, or philosophy; and it appears that a similar process was occurring in 1844 as it is today. More, the process appears to be acting directly upon self-space, whatever self-space might mean, and it seems that everyone is affected to one degree or another. In this sense it is process that extends across space and time that makes contact with our identities to differing degrees. I envision the cause of the process to be analogous to a black hole in that it contracts space and closes in upon itself, yet not a black hole in the sense of a geometric singularity of geometric space-time, but rather a singularity of self-time space that collapses each of us from the inside.

The primary means of combating internal contraction has typically been external expansion. By external expansion I imply many things.

Nations try to expand their territory in war. Religions send missionaries to increase their numbers. Academics preach their theories to try to dominate intellectual space. Bullies threaten on the playground to extend their domain of fear. Companies seduce or frighten us to increase their market share. Spreading these words with fear is a type of expansion. Each of these methods of external expansion, of course, fails to counter internal contraction in the long run, for none address internal contraction in the first place. However, to the extent that we measure 8

ourselves according to external metrics, we may be able to, at least tem-porarily, quell the dread of internal contraction by looking outward and by believing that we are the measure of our external domain and not that which shrinks from the inside. I suspect that the practice of looking outward only accelerates internal collapse, and that as we contract more quickly, the more we attempt to compensate by measuring ourselves by external metrics, and so on. From this perspective, the scientific theory of an expanding universe appears to reflect the human opposition to self-contraction.

Through another method we have opposed internal contraction by reaching outward. When we honestly reach out for help and assistance we extend ourselves. When we attempt to do things outside of our comfort zones we extend ourselves. When we engage in communication with another person for the sake of communicating we extend ourselves. When we help other people in need we extend ourselves.

Each of these processes opposes internal contraction, and more, the internal expansion can occur mutually between two people in the process of communication and offering assistance.

Honest communication has saved many people from internal collapse, and science, perhaps noticing this benefit, has sought to extend the range and efficiency of communication. We have since created technologies that facilitate communication, but we have done this without precisely understanding the nature of communication itself. Although some aspects of communication technology are helpful in opposing internal contraction, other aspects appear to be facilitating collapse. For example, to the extent that we conceive of communication as the movement of words or information across geometric space, we cannot be talking about something that is internally helpful. This sort of communication is measured in bits, and the growth of this communication is a form of external expansion, the very thing that often accelerates internal collapse. External communication of this sort will turn against itself. It would, for example, be undesirable for every cell in the body to begin communicating with every other cell externally. It is unproductive for every person in the world to communicate with every other person externally—less there be no actual communication at all. I am not advocating un-freedom of communication, or the silencing of speech, but I am pointing out that the expansion of external communication can be dangerous. Nor do I feel that forceful suppression of external communication can do any good, for this too is a form of external expansion by something else.


What I am advocating is the growth of communication, the type of communication that directly opposes internal contraction, and so makes some connection to one’s insides and expands self-space. I cannot call it internal communication, for this communication connects inside and outside as all actual communication does. It is the only communication that is, which implies that external communication, when understood as the transfer or movement of information across space-time, is a mis-nomer; or rather, external communication is a non-physical process, metaphysics. In this work I try to say what physical communication might be with an eye upon a means of opposing internal contraction.

We will not escape the metaphysical in the process.

Most readers will find my perspective confusing or downright con-tradictory in that I begin by assuming that attention, although personal, is not a mental phenomena. One might call this assumption a form of epoché in which we suspend judgment about the existence of mental phenomena in addition to external objects. It is an ontological skepticism that accepts first a concept of physical attention while being suspicious of physical and mental objects.


Part 1


1.1 Attentional directedness

What are you looking at right now? You read these words—therefore we assume that you are at least directing your attention at this sentence.

But is there attention without purposeful direction of attention? As I type, I can hear sounds in the background and see objects beyond the confines of this page. I was not purposefully directing attention to these other things prior to writing about them, but they are part of my attentional field nonetheless. There are also thoughts and ideas that fly by like ghosts, almost too faint to be noticed, but they are part of my attention as well. I can potentially and purposefully direct my attention to these things, and further, other things may enter attention de novo that I insist were not there in the moment before. A loud knock at the door may enter my attention. A memory or fear may emerge into attention that was not there prior. It is common to call a memory or thought that one directs attention to presently, but was absent from attention the prior moment, a subconscious or non-conscious or unconscious thing, but these labels are not immediately necessary. Few would consider the knock at the door as arising from the non-conscious, and likewise we will not consider the non-present memory or belief or fear that enters attention as non-conscious prior.

The metaphorical picture I am painting is of an attentional field in which every object (within attention) is associated with a scalar magnitude that represents the intensity of the attentional field at that object.

My notion of an attentional object is very loose at this point. An object may be a computer, keyboard, or mouse; a region of space or interval of time; or a memory, smell, pain, belief, thought, concept, theory, or idea.

Any topic or thing that we can talk about can be an object of attention.

This notion of object may create philosophical puzzles. How can we focus our attention on say, a unicorn, when unicorns presumable do not exist in nature? But on our loose view this is not a problem. A unicorn, as a topic of discussion, demarcates an object that is separate from other objects. We may not be able to say positively what a unicorn is, where the idea came from, what it is fundamentally composed of, or its conditions for existence; but neither can we say this definitively for most things. I am now, for instance, focusing my attention upon attention without knowing precisely what attention is or if it exists at all. Without any further argument I will take an object of attention to be a subject of discussion.


Why, then, do we call it an object of attention at all? Part of the reason is historical. We have always spoken of attention and its objects, not its subjects. The other reason follows from the directedness of attention. Attention is directed to or at something. Linguistically, S directs attention at O; so in a sense we are always talking about predicate objects when we speak of attentional objects. But we also assume that attention is more than linguistic structure. When conceived of as a physical process, we can imagine the flow of attention as it moves toward a destination, the destination being the goal or object of that flow. A logical analysis of the structure of the attentional relation supports the use of object, and we will continue to use object language, remembering that these objects are being understood as topics or subjects.

Although the cognitive scientific study of attention focuses upon objects of sensory attention, it remains that we can focus our attention upon non-sensory objects. I may direct attention to the idea of God, to the feeling after completing Lolita, to the concept of the column-space of a matrix, to the general theory of relativity, or to a story that has never been written but plays out in my thoughts. These and many more things are objects of attention.

The object space of the attentional field has a complicated form.

Objects from each sensory modality, and objects from each non-sensory category, are all accessible to attention; and more, these disparate objects may be combined in perhaps every imaginable way to create the object space of the attentional field. Some objects may be related, such as a region of visual space in front of me and a particular thing in that space such as a computer. Attention may focus upon the region or the computer, and both are within the attentional field. These objects are related by a containment relation. Other attentional objects, such as the smell of roast pork and the thought of pi, may both be in the object space of the attentional field, but the relation between these objects is unclear, and the fact that they are categorically distinct presents a problem for attention. How can attention be directed similarly to such disparate objects?

We will not answer this question presently, if ever.

The attentional field is in constant flux, in part under our control and in part out of our control. Under conditions when I am quietly reading, a knock at the door will reflexively distort my attentional field, causing high values of attention to be associated with knocking sounds, and lower values of attention to be associated with the story in my book. I can also control, to some extent, the magnitude of attention associated with particular objects. For instance, at any moment I hear multiple 13

sounds, but it is possible for me to focus upon the sound of a car moving past my house, or the wind outside, or the sound of my breathing. Each of these objects is associated with some attention, and I can systematically modify the magnitude of attention at each object. We typically call this focusing attention or directing attention, but this language betrays a binary way of conceiving all attention. Directing attention upon an object involves increasing the value of the attentional field at that object. Attentional field values are continuous, or at least quantized but not binary. Attention is not only on or off. If the attentional field value of an object is zero, then that object is not a part of the attentional field at all.

A binary way of viewing attention would be appropriate if we typically had only one object in the attentional field at any particular time, but that is far from everyday experience. Granted, a singular attentional field may arise in extreme obsessional states or within someone who is a mas-ter of meditation, but within most of us a multiplicity of attentional objects, with varying degrees of attention to each, is the norm.

Given the idea of an attentional field, there is still the problem of selecting a particular object within the field, which does suggest an all-or-none phenomenon. The value of the attentional field at the selected object increases, but it is not clear if selection itself, acting outside of attention, consequentially increases the value of the field, or if an increase of the attentional field at a particular object is equivalent to selection. Selection and attentional increase happen near simultaneously, and I cannot conceive of a situation where attentional selection occurs without attentional increase. Sometimes I control the attentional object that is selected, at other times I reflexively ‘select’ or ‘orient-to’ an object—in both situations the value of the attentional field at that object increases.

We can also ask if the selected object of attention is associated with the largest value of the attentional field. Immediately, it does not make sense to say that another object in the attentional field has a larger value of attention than a presently selected object. But we also said that selection cannot be easily distinguished from quantitative increases in attentional field values. Combining these two constraints, we conclude that selection is associated with the process of increasing to the relative maximum value of the attentional field among all objects within the attentional field, or of the attentional field undergoing a qualitative transformation during selection. This picture of attentional selection is somewhat analogous to the onset of an action potential where the attentional field value of an object can be compared to the change in electrical potential across the membrane of a neuron. Once the attentional field value 14

begins to increase beyond a certain value, it may continue to do so in a stereotyped pattern until reaching a maximum. Despite the analogy, we are not assuming that attention need have anything to do with neurons or action potentials.

If we assume that selection is analogous to being the maximum value of the attentional field, then one or more objects of the field will always be selected. In some situations, the magnitude of separation between the maximum field value and other field values may be small, in which case the maximum will shift quickly between objects, much like waves in the ocean. In other situations, a prominent peak of the attentional field may stand out like a mountain relative to the field values of the remaining objects in the field. We may speak of the degree of selectedness as the relative peakiness of the attentional field.

Can the attentional field value of an object increase without that object being selected (becoming the relative maximum field value or undergoing qualitative transformation)? I will answer yes to this question because I see no reason to constrain the attentional field values in this way, and my experience suggests that attentional field values change apart from purposeful or reflexive selection. The aggregate attentional field is dynamical even apart from selection.

It is well known that directing attention to one object withdraws attention from other objects. In other words, when we increase the attentional field value at one object, the values of the field at some other objects tend to reciprocally decline, although it is also possible that certain other field values increase. These changes may occur reflexively as in the door knocking example, or purposefully when I select a particular sound among many. When purposely changing attentional field values, it is still possible to maintain the value of the attentional field at one object, and then to carefully increase the attentional field value at a second object while holding the value of the field of the first object relatively constant. Perhaps we can call this multitasking. Nonetheless, we assume that increases in the values of the attentional field reciprocally decrease values of attention at other objects. These considerations lead to the belief that the attentional field is finite in some sense. For instance, we might assume that a summation of attentional values over all attentional objects will be finite. However, this assumption does not immediately follow from the observation of reciprocal declines in attention with increased attention elsewhere. The summation of the attentional field may be infinite, but it still may be possible that increases in attention cause reciprocal decreases elsewhere.


The finiteness of the attentional field is suggested from other observations as well. On some days, I wake up and feel particularly alert. On others I am sluggish and have difficulty focusing on anything. Certain drugs, like caffeine and other stimulants, can increase attentional abilities or simply make attending easier, while others can decrease overall attention. Some people appear to have more attentional capacity than others.

Overall attentional capacity varies, and it would be difficult to account for this variability if attentional capacity were infinite. One might still argue that the attentional field is infinite, but that the ability to make use of this field is limited and varies between and within individuals. At least some aspect of attention, either the attentional field or our use of it, is finite.

Certain objects are, within an individual, intrinsically or automatically associated with large attentional field values. Pain, for instance, typically has a large field value within most people, and consequently, this is one of the reasons why pain is so functionally debilitating. If pain did not have a large attentional field value, then it would go on ‘in the background’ like many other objects of attention with low field values. Con-versely, it is well known among pain specialists and psychiatrists that the more one focuses attention upon a pain, the more unbearable and debilitating that pain becomes.

Sensory changes, especially sudden and intense sensory changes, are associated with large attentional field values, and typically become attentional field maxima, at least transiently. For experts and specialists, certain objects are also automatically associated with large field values.

A radiologist may look at a plain x-ray of the chest and notice a patchy area of whiteness that stands out like a sore thumb, while you or I see nothing particularly salient. While the radiologist and I see similar images, the radiologist, through training, has associated particular patterns on the x-ray with large attentional values. Just as the presence of pain automatically attracts attention, one can also learn to have particular objects associated with high attentional values.

It should be clear that experts are not the only people that learn to associate particular objects with large values of attention. It is rather quite common for all of us to make these associations. Each of us takes notice to different objects with differing attentional intensities. These differing associations are based upon our history of learning and our compositional differences. For a given individual, each attentional object may have a tendency to distort the attentional field to differing degrees.

This idea can be understood as the metaphorical rest mass of an 16

attentional object. Some objects, like pain and abrupt sensory changes, naturally have large attentional rest masses and thus tend to cause large values of the attentional field. Other objects, like a patchy pattern of white on a chest x-ray, can acquire a large attentional rest mass with learning. Note that the rest mass of an attentional object does not in itself determine the value of the attentional field at that object. One can purposefully direct attention to an object regardless of its attentional rest mass, and this process tends to decrease the attentional field value at other objects. Further, many other factors determine the values of the attentional field, most of which are unknown to us. For instance, the attentional field may be an object of attention, and changes in the attentional field may be a function of the field itself, or a function of previous maxima, or a function of the particular objects within the attentional field.

We have so far described attention as a field associated with objects where each object has a field value, but we can also describe attention as a distance between a person and that person’s attentional objects. Pain, for instance, is typically attentionally close to the person experiencing that pain, while a background noise may be attentionally far. One can bring the noise attentionally closer, and this process is associated with attentional selection and increasing the attentional field value of the object. The attentional distance of an object is obviously not the space-time distance between material objects in everyday understanding. Pain does not have a space-time distance at all, nor does the idea of black, yet each of these may have an attentional distance, where the distance is relative to a referential center, a center analogous to the I or self or identity.

Large attentional field values correspond to small attentional distances, and much of what we have said about field values can be taken as about distances. Thinking in terms of field values may be useful when we want to avoid referring to an I; the concept of attentional distance is undefined without it.

To summarize our picture of attention: There is an attentional field occupied by objects, where an attentional object is any subject at all. The field is dynamical. Each object is associated with a value that represents the magnitude of the attentional field at that object, or similarly, the distance between the object and the self-identity. Values of the attentional field are not necessarily binary. Each object is also associated with an attentional rest mass that distorts but does not determine the value of the attentional field at that object. The magnitude of an object’s attentional rest mass may be changed with learning or unlearning. Selecting (reflexively or purposefully) a particular object of attention corresponds 17

to the attentional field becoming a relative maximum or to the attentional distance between the object and the I becoming minimal. Changes in the field value of one object tend to change the field values at other objects. The attentional field is finite in some sense, and overall attentional capacity varies between and within individuals. This description, and it is only a description, communicates a working understanding of attention. Physical and quantitative analogies were chosen for their concise-ness and clarity, not for their truth or for their amenability to future scientific measurement.


1.2 Limitations of classical communication You may be an object within your attentional field. This is called self-reflection, introspection, self-analysis, and many other things. You may be an object of your attention as a biological organism, as a thinking thing, as a brain, as an attentional field, as a set of beliefs, as a set of desires, as a physical structure, as a creature of God, etc. The nature of you as an attentional object depends upon what you think you are. Regardless, when you are an object of your own attention, you are both the source and object of attention. Attention begins and ends at you. Since attention is a natural phenomenon with a source and objects, we will often pretend that attention flows from its source to its objects.

Attentional self-objects are likely important, and perhaps we will have more to say about them later, but for now, we have only mentioned them as a contrast to a more common sort of self-object taking—communication. When I am communicating with another person, I take myself as an object and the other person as a source. Of course, during communication, I also take the other person as an object and myself as a source, but the distinction I want to focus upon involves taking oneself as an attentional self-object in self-reflection versus taking oneself as a self-object for receiving communication.

To better define oneself as a self-object in communication, we must say something about our understanding of communication. The classical structural form of communication suggests a source ( S) and a receiver ( R), and something that is sent ( s) and received ( r). Within this structure, it is not clear that what is received by the receiver need be the same or a similar thing that is sent by the source. Still, if no relation exists between what is sent and what is received, then we have little reason to call this process communication at all. One might argue that only the parts of s and r that are identical constitute communication, but there is no way of matching these parts together. The receiver has all of r but none of s and no infallible way to separate the parts of r that are identical to s from those that differ. Further communication between R and S may help clarify previous communication, but we are stuck in an infinite regress, and precise communication of this sort is impossible. Claude Shannon’s mathematical communication theory, when applied to known models of source, noise, and received signals; can be used to construct minimal error communication. This sort of modeling does not apply in the non-engineered setting when the source and noise are unknown.


On a physical understanding of the communication model, S represents physical properties or substances according to currently accepted scientific theory, s are likewise physical properties or substances that

‘travel’ from S to R that are transformed into r for reception by R, and R

is a human being. We may also speak of s causing r with little change in our argument. On this model, s is transformed into r within R, which implies that the s- r transformation is dependent upon R. This dependency leads directly to a concept of possible errors in perception and Cartesian skepticism about the external world. The s-r transformation may go wrong in the sense that the r that R receives does not correspond to the s that S sent, or that a demon or scientist may instantiate r’s within R that make little connection to the presumed surrounding world of S.

Since we cannot infallibly determine whether the s-r transformation went wrong—because we presumably do not know S or s to begin with—we cannot say anything definite about S or s based upon r.

Philosophers who subscribe to this model but reject skepticism may attempt to establish a set of conditions that determine when an s-r transformation is correct or in error, but this search for conditions cannot succeed within the above model. Without knowledge of S to begin with, establishing conditions for true s-r transformations cannot be more than speculative theorizing, for we have no way of directly testing if our conditions work. Science has advanced, where philosophical speculation has stalled, by abstaining from any direct attempt to know S or the nature of s-r transformations. It has done this by creating theories and models and practices T that unite collections of r’s and that determine other r’s from accepted r’s. With guidance from T’s, specific r’s are chosen as the conditions that lead to subsequent r’s. These T’s have also created the possibility of r’s that would have been otherwise impossible without T.

But science has not solved the communication problem between world and human beings; it has denied a logical premise of classical communication altogether. An optimistic science now ventures to comprehend the essence and conditions of possibility for r and T, even though the beginnings of science arose from the suspension of this very sort of questioning.

It remains that some form of communication exists, the most obvious example being between two people talking with each other. When I talk with another person, I may instill something within that other person for a purpose. Many times I am not aware of that purpose, and I do not intend that a purpose necessarily has something to do with my goals, desires, beliefs, or any part of me that I identify with. Purpose in 20

communication does not always mean ‘my purpose.’ The purpose may have little to do with what I am, even though that purpose may travel through me during my communication.

Often the purpose in communication is explicit, at least on the surface. For instance, when I give an order to another person to perform a task, in some way the purpose of that communication is for the person to accomplish the task, even though giving commands often has other purposes, many of which are more important than the surface purpose of the task. Nonetheless, giving commands is an impoverished sort of communication in that the communication is not intended to be bi-directional. One who gives commands does not typically desire any response other than performance of the task requested—any off-task response is ignored or redirected back to the task.

Humans often communicate for the expressed purpose of being understood by each other, and get angry or frustrated when this purpose is not fulfilled. Being understood in this sense does not mean that someone acquires the semantic meaning of verbal/written language originating from a particular person. One could understand all of the words and still not understand. The meaning of being understood is closer to acquiring knowledge about what the person is, or grasping the essence of the person, but even these interpretations are naïve. If we take knowledge to be, classically, justified true belief, then being understood would mean to acquire justified true beliefs about another person solely through the language of that person. But comprehending the language of another person, by itself, could not provide this sort of knowledge, at least no more so than an arbitrary robot speaking the same sentences. Additionally, understanding requires the cooperation of the receiver apart from language. If S communicates with R for the purpose of being understood by R, then S’s communication cannot succeed unless R

communicates with the purpose of understanding S. If R has no purposeful interest in understanding S—or at least is not ready to acquire belief—then no matter how loud or long S shouts, R will not understand S and communication will remain unfulfilled.

In the linguistic situation, communication is more than simply hearing sounds, more than hearing words, and more than understanding words with meaning. One could have all of these happen yet not be communicating with another person in the sense of understanding something about the person or the world. The fact that Wendy says to you ‘I like apples’, and that you speak the same language and understand the meaning of this sentence, does not imply that you understand 21

anything about Wendy, at least nothing more than the fact that Wendy produced that sentence. It is possible that Wendy was planning to say that sentence to you at that time regardless of her inclination toward applies, or that Wendy thought you wanted to hear that sentence, or that an evil genius was controlling her speech production from afar, or that Wendy nervously talks about apples when meeting new people, or that you remind her of someone who gave her an apple in the past, or that it was a random utterance. Philosophers spend precious time trying to determine the conditions which make Wendy’s statement ‘I like apples’

true, not seeing that a sentence exists for a purpose and is tied to the world in innumerable ways. There are reasons why a sentence is spoken, reasons that far outpace the surface semantic content of a sentence in providing knowledge about the speaker and world. Even if a sentence is true, the truth of the sentence does not explain why the sentence exists for us at that time and place.

Philosophers have long argued how sentences connect to the world in terms of truth or how sentences can accurately describe the world. All of us are interested in such things—who has not accused another person of lying at some point? But connecting via truth is not the only way that sentences may be connected to the world, nor is it obviously the most relevant. Sentences are spoken for reasons, reasons that may have nothing to do with the truth of the sentence. I may tell you that ‘my computer is composed of atoms,’ and you may take that sentence to be true, but the reason I wrote that sentence just then may have little to do with the truth of it.

Again, command sentences are the most salient example. When someone gives us a command, we do not ask if that command sentence is true (although we may ask if she really wants us to perform the command task); rather, we assume that the person desires the command task to be done—and that is a reason for the sentence. Propositional sentences, although more amenable to truth-type wondering than commands, can always be given reasons as well. Who has not explained another person’s propositional speaking with reasons independent of the truth of the speech? He’s just angry, he’s trying to get something from you, he wasn’t listening, someone told him to say that… And many propositional sentences are in fact command-like in that they are spoken for the purpose of getting you to do something. Consider most of advertising, which is the science of fabricating propositions that lead you to buy things.


Sentences are spoken for reasons, yet reasons are also sentences, and we may be inclined to ask if the reason sentence, the sentence meant to explain the original sentence, is true. If my reason sentence is not true of the world, then on what ground should I take it as an explanation for the presence of the original sentence? But again, we may interrupt this search for truth, for it is similar to the truth-seeking in the original sentence. My reason sentence, the sentence meant to explain, was also spoken for reasons independent of the truth of the reason sentence. If I am a Freudian psychologist, I may give you reasons associated with childhood complexes; if I am a materialist, I may provide reasons about atoms; if I don’t like the person who is speaking, I may give reasons for his speech that demean and attack the person; if I want you to like me, I may give reasons that flatter you; if I am tired, I may give reasons that I think will quiet you. I may hope that my reason sentence is true, but the reason I gave that reason is not truth, or at least not only and not most relevantly truth. A philosopher may find this hard to believe, but I often provide people with reasons that I do not even believe myself—and I am being honest when I do so.

A sentence is spoken for a reason, and that reason involves the speaker; it is a reason for the speaker’s words rather than someone else’s words. However, if I am communicating and I wish to understand the speaker, then I must have a reason for the speaker’s sentence, but the reason sentence—if it is in the form of a sentence—is my sentence, and my reason sentence is spoken for reasons related to me. Thus, a reason in communication potentially involves or explains two people as a unit, especially when I consider the reasons for my reasons, which is what we might expect from the concept of communication.

In talking about reasons, I worry at this moment that we have confused justification with explanation. I see it as follows. Justification of a sentence is about giving reasons that support the truth of the sentence, while I am suggesting that we focus upon giving reasons that explain the token presence of the sentence for that person. In the same way we give reasons for the existence (presence?) of the moon, we ought to give reasons for the presence of a sentence. I am not suggesting that we give only material reasons for sentences, although one may choose to do so. Nor am I saying that the meaning of a sentence is the best explanation of its presence, although one may say that as well. Rather, I suggest that we take an empirical attitude toward the presence or absence of a sentence and work from there.


You may have noticed that the practice of giving reasons for the presences of sentences in communication leads one down a potentially infinite regress, just as it does in the justification of beliefs. A sentence is spoken, a reason for the sentence is given, a reason for the reason is given, etc. Materialist explanations face similar problems in that the materialist assumes a never terminating history of causes that may all claim to be the cause of X. Of course, the materialist cannot and never does exper-imentally examine the entire alleged history of causes. Rather, she selects something specific and repeatable to focus upon, and tests it accordingly.

From a materialist perspective, the reason that a sentence is spoken follows from the mechanical workings of the organism, and we can, in theory, follow the movements of the mouth, tongue, and larynx to electrical impulses on nerve fibers back to the brain tissue. When we ask,

‘why is the brain tissue such that it leads to this sentence,’ we can trace it back to previous material arrangement in the brain, and to external conditions that physically impacted the particular organism over the course of its life. Reasons, on a materialist account, are replaced by the history of ‘physical states’ of the organism and world. Nonetheless, the reason for a particular sentence, whether material or otherwise, is connected to the world through elaborate routes, independent of the truth of the sentence.

As much as I wish to interrupt our focus upon propositional truth, there is a sense in which this truth plays a role in our search for reasons.

Propositional truth-taking presumably both begins and ends our reasoning. The presence and absence of propositional truth-taking, even when unknown, influences our reasoning, and influences what we reason about and how we reason. Unfortunately human beings are not sensitive to the presence and absence of propositional truth, nor has there been any progress in developing an instrument that would aid in the detec-tion of it, and we would not likely recognize propositional truth if we found it. Truth is always unknown. I realize that this reason is foundational, or at least blocking in that it attempts to block off our request for further reasons. As well, I realize that the reason I give this reason has nothing to do with the truth of this reason.

These considerations lead to at least a negative understanding of communication. When you are talking with someone, if you spend the majority of time judging the truth or falsehood of that person’s statements, then you are not communicating with that person. Why is that?

Because spending time on propositional judgments presumes that you 24

are ignoring the countless reasons why the sentence was spoken in the first place, reasons that would provide knowledge about the speaker yet have little to do with propositional truth. Nor should one try to determine the true reason why something is spoken during communication.

Judging your reasons as true or false equally shuts down communication—if any reason occurs within you during communication that explains what the other person is saying, then that reason plays a relevant part of the communication and must be understood in the same way as the other person’s speech. That is, you came up with a reason that explains the other person for reasons of your own. Judging your own reasons as true or false prevents you from understanding yourself in addition to understanding the other person. Communication demands an openness to a cascade of reasons without propositional judgment, and occurs when the maelstrom of reasons congeal into understanding, a process which may not occur until long after the talking has ceased.