Horsepower, Apple Flower

Jay Thompson
August 31, 2010
Comments 1

When I tell you I believe, what am I telling you?

When we understand (as I wrote about two weeks ago), our understanding seems to occur in a perpetual, thick-present instant. When I think of something, I’m thinking of it now. So: where and when am I when I believe?

Philosopher Ullin Place–whose brain now lives in a jar in Adelaide, image below the cut to prove it–inquired about the problem this way: Is belief a state, or a disposition? To equate conscious experience with a trip in a 2009 Prius, is a given belief the upholstery, surrounding you whether you’re on the freeway or in a driveway? Or is it horsepower, noticeable mostly as you accelerate or haul a load?

Place came down on the side of disposition. “We don’t have privileged access,” he wrote, “to our beliefs and desires,” finding belief best elucidated by hypothetical statements about behavior. You’ll find out your horsepower only when you gun it up a hill; what you believe is how you behave.

So. Does what goes on in my head count as behavior? I think that I think that belief is just as intentional as emotion or observation: if it’s a syntactic operation, it’s one with a direct object in the perceived world: love of autumn in me contains–takes its shape from–woodsmoke, sharp breeze, IPA, Trapper Keepers, apples.

And maybe these bright containers, like this-many-miles-to-X landmarks, tell us something about what they surround. The apples map at least one or two features of my feeling about bark or cyanide or autumn’s opposite, blossom.

Rosmarie Waldrop:

A space can have color even though light ought to be the same to all observers. The frame of memory both distinct and not distinct from looking at photographs in order to remember.

Noam Chomsky (debating Michel Foucault! emphasis mine!):

“If you didn’t begin by knowing that only certain things are possible theories, then no induction would be possible at all. You could go from data anywhere, in any direction. And the fact that science converges and progresses itself shows us that such initial limitations and structures exist.

If we really want to develop a theory of scientific creation, or for that matter artistic creation, I think we have to focus attention precisely on that set of conditions that, on the one hand, delimits and restricts the scope of our possible knowledge, while at the same time permitting the inductive leap to complicated systems of knowledge on the basis of a small amount of data.

Does Chompers think, then, that the architectures of I-believe and I-accept in the brain can be studied in a content-neutral fashion? Horsepower free of the road? Belief seen purely as a shape, like a Louis Zukofsky poem or sentence diagram?

My boss, a behaviorist, says that we don’t remember things but differences between things; that is, the “presentationally immediate or phenomenal” qualities of a thing, its “like-this-ness,” consist of difference, apple from pear or blossom from blister. John Searle would argue the very opposite, that the experiential content of a perceived thing in our heads is all that makes human thought what it is.

In thinking about my own art, I find I can believe both. The things I think of seem to color (stained-glass-style) what I consider through them, and seem to be made up (stained-glass-style) of many meltings, suspensions, and pressures themselves. Colors in colors in colors. Cheers to the end of summer!

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