Comments on “Schematic overview: all dimensions”

Add new comment

Dualism Sales Pitch Suggestion

Daniel Mroz 2011-01-22

Dear David,

In appreciation for all your great work here, I’d suggest that the ??? Sales Pitch for dualism is that dualism gives one a sense of position, be it positive or negative. ‘I am enabled, my place is granted due to my separateness from x person or x structure,’ likewise one could be ‘limited or reduced due to one’s perceived separateness from x person or x structure’. One might aspire to change position, but one’s perception of separateness would always guarantee an accompanying perception of submission or dominance.

All the best,


A sense of position

David Chapman 2011-01-23

Hi, Daniel,

Thank you very much for this! Your suggestion seems insightful, and probably right… I need to give it some more thought.

I haven’t actually started thinking about dualism much at all; I’ve been working on monism recently. I’ll make a note for when I get to work on dualism.

Each of the small boxes in the tables will eventually turn into something between one paragraph and several web pages worth of text, which makes this a gigantic project. It should keep me busy for a few years, anyway.

I’m glad you’ve found this extremely condensed version interesting, in any case!


Dualism: it's what's for dinner

mtraven 2011-01-23

It may be that dualism is an artifact of the cognitive architecture of the brain at some level. Under this theory, there are different modules for thinking about physical things and social/alive/goal-oriented things, with different kinds of representations. The incommensurability of these systems of thoughts is the root of philosophical dualism. So the “sales pitch” is just that it matches our innate cognitive biases.

I touched on some of these ideas in my dissertation, and Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained employed them to deal with some of the odder phenomenon of religion, such as funerary rites. Hm, and it just occurred to me they have some relevance for the arguments I’m having with my wife over vegetarianism. Some people find it easy to distinguish a lambchop from Lamb Chop, others do not.

[[PS: your spam filter is oversensitive…apparently any embedded link triggers it]]

Dining on dualism

David Chapman 2011-01-25

Love your headline!

There’s various dualisms… Mind/body dualism is the most common meaning for “dualism” in Western philosophy. In this book, I’m using “dualism” to refer mainly to self/other dualism, the most common meaning in Buddhist philosophy.

I’ve read a little about the evopsych literature on mind/body dualism, with the hypothesis that it is a natural consequence of brain modularity. That makes excellent sense and I have meant to follow up to learn more about the evidence. Thanks for the pointer to Boyer’s book; it looks like an excellent starting point.

Sorry about the spam filter. It does accept links in general, but it’s some sort of heuristic statistical thing, and maybe it somehow didn’t like other aspects of your post much, and the links pushed it over the edge. Unfortunately it’s a third-party black-box tool and I don’t have any control over it.

If it recurs, could you let me know? One approach if it becomes a problem might be to give you a login account and accept comments from logged in users without doing the spam check.

You know, this is an awful

Karmakshanti 2011-03-27

You know, this is an awful lot of stuff for human beings to be carrying around. By my count there are 334 separate notions attached to make human life all make sense. I can speak only for myself, but my life seems a lot simpler than this. I’ll try to mostly keep the Buddhism out of it, since you don’t want to go there for this exploration, so I won’t deal with the Four Noble Truths.

There seems to be a “me” inside a body. The body seems to have a fairly clear boundary from “everything else” out there, but the “me” does not. I can’t point to anything either in my body or outside of it where “me” actually lives. Everything I might point at is something that “me” perceives and not the “perceiver”.

Moreover, what is being perceived is clearly more than I am actually experiencing, i.e. the classic Duck/Rabbit problem. There seem to be a pre-existing set of notions [more formally “concepts”] that I bring to sensation in order to organize it into perception.

Unless I really work at it, the concepts are relatively simple and correspond more or less to what Grammarians call Parts of Speech: labels for things, labels for actions, labels for qualities of things and actions. Looked at carefully, these labels seem to be actually something in “me”, wherever “me” really is, and these concepts are the strongest evidence I have that “me” might actually exist.

You might call this the problem of space, since all the stuff on the outside of my body appears to interact in space and my body as a whole does too, as do, in some less understandable way, the concepts.

Then there is the problem of time. I can remember a “past”, with diminishing degrees of clarity and detail back to about 1955 [I was born in 1952]. I have a “present” in a rough and ready sort of way, rather like those simple Parts of Speech in which I’m doing the remembering. And I have the potential to extend my concepts that I use to perceive, into a “future” which does not yet exist, and a “remote past” beyond my actual memories. This is some of the clearest evidence that my concepts are independent of my sensations.

Finally, there is the problem of number. This seems to be a set of concepts that somehow is not inside “me” but part of the world that “me” perceives. My “me” seems to be atomic and only can be labeled by the number 1 or the number 0. Everything else is plural. This is the most magical and most confusing part of perception, far less graspable than space or time. For I seem to be moving in a world of space, and time seems to be passing into memory, but number does not budge and there is no explanation why.

What I see in the chart above is a potentially endless layering of ever mounting numbers of complex concepts over these three basic problems. Where do you stop? Is there a finite set of accurate concepts that will finally solve the 3 problems and make everything “make sense”?

I don’t think so. At a certain point way, way, back before these concepts began to breed like bunnies, they simply came loose from the world which they are supposed to organize, and began to merely interact with each other and between themselves. It reminds me of some contrary old coot who planted a patch of honeysuckle so invasive that it now threatens to take over the entire county.

I can really see only one way out of this, but I’ll have to bring a little [just a very little] Buddhism back in:

“Who is the Buddha?” “Three measures of flax.”

Complexity and simplicity

David Chapman 2011-03-27
Is there a finite set of accurate concepts that will finally solve the 3 problems and make everything "make sense"? I don't think so.

Neither do I! That would be eternalistic, I think.

A very simple summary of this book would be: Don’t fixate meaningness; don’t deny it, either.

But, we do carry all this conceptual baggage around. Confused ideas about meaning cause big problems for us. Buddhist meditation may be the most powerful way of dissolving them. But even in Buddhism, it’s said that the meditation doesn’t work unless it is coupled with a reasonably accurate conceptual understanding (“view”).

A View with a Room

Karmakshanti 2011-03-28

But even in Buddhism, it’s said that the meditation doesn’t work unless it is coupled with a reasonably accurate conceptual understanding (“view”).

The real difficulty, however, is determining what needs to be understood. It is not so much finding the solution as defining the problem. So far I have stayed on the pages here where some sense of this philosophical work as a whole is attempted, because the parts are so incredibly complex. Upon examination as a whole, what you have here is a taxonomic classification of erronious views. Is this what is really needed for a correct view to emerge?

When I look at the definitions of “fixation”, “denial”, and “confusion” in your summary above, the core motifs throughout are those of “pattern” and “nebulosity”. These are qualities of the world which we perceive and the first three definitions are responses to that world, or the “psychology” of the perceiver. Now it seems to me that the really interesting question is about what the world is like, not about the innumerable psychological “stances” we might take toward it. These “stances” make sense only in relation to a world which is already known and a question which is already answered.

Psychological research shows that people frequently perceive patterns that are not actually there. The brain automatically interprets even completely random events as meaningful. This tendency is called “patternicity” or “apophenia”....The brain, however, seems to be wired to give patterns the benefit of the doubt. It would rather make the mistake of seeing non-existent patterns than of rejecting real ones. (Maybe this is because, during evolution, missing real, dangerous patterns was worse than overreacting to imaginary ones.)

When I read this quotation from your page on Pattern, I am struck by the fact that you already have a very precise and detailed a priori set of ideas about what the world is like. Your question is already answered and your “view” is already established. You know that certain things “are actually not there”. You know that certain things are “random” and not “meaningful” and you can distinguish between “real” patterns and “false” ones.

Therefore, you must already know what actually is there. If you know this, what more is there to be added to your “view” by examining the “stances”? Given the a priori presence of the view, the stances amount to little more than a list of the various possible types of “apophenia”, interesting to the psychologist, but redundant to the philosopher, whether religious or secular.

So, in Buddhist terms, the question is: if you bring this “view” to the meditation, what do you get?

Getting clear about the goals

David Chapman 2011-03-28

Thanks, this is useful in helping to clarify what the nature of the project is.

My goal here is not philosophical in the usual sense. I use philosophy only as a tool. I don’t mean for the book to be read by professional philosophers.

The aim instead is pragmatic. It’s more like a [gag] self-help book. I hope to help unwind some conceptual confusions that cause unnecessary problems for most people.

I know of no project that is very similar to it. (Which is probably part of why it’s hard to see where I’m going with it. Another part is that I still haven’t even outlined some major aspects of it.) (Robert Ellis’ work is probably the most nearly similar thing.)

Since this hasn’t been done before, it’s unclear how useful it can be. I’m giving it a go because my intuition is that it will be helpful for many people—but I could be completely wrong.

Now it seems to me that the really interesting question is about what the world is like, not about the innumerable psychological "stances" we might take toward it. These "stances" make sense only in relation to a world which is already known and a question which is already answered.

Your first sentence here seems to assume self/other dualism. I will suggest that many confusions can be resolved by looking at self/other interactivity instead. That is, “what the world is like” is not altogether separate from the stances we take to it. The stances help constitute “the world” for the self.

You already have a very precise and detailed a priori set of ideas about what the world is like... You know that certain things "are actually not there". You know that certain things are "random" and not "meaningful" and you can distinguish between "real" patterns and "false" ones.

Hmm. I can’t find anything about a precise and detailed set of ideas about what the world is like on the pattern page?

I do think some things are meaningful and some aren’t. I argued for that here. It would be interesting if you disagreed with that.

In terms of details, the only thing on the pattern page is the grilled cheese sandwich. The challenge might be “how do you know that isn’t meaningful?” That’s a complex question of epistemology that I’m unlikely to address in detail (because I’m not doing philosophy). I chose the example because I assumed that pretty much everyone in my audience would agree that the sandwich does not have any significance (beyond the fact that some people mistakenly attribute significance to it). I do have a page coming up soon on “being mistaken about meaningness”, explaining examples of believing things to be meaningful that aren’t and vice versa.

Importantly, I don’t think I (or anyone else) can always distinguish between what is meaningful and what isn’t—between real and imaginary patterns. This inability is a big part of what I mean by “nebulosity”.

The Nebulousness of Nebluosity

Karmakshanti 2011-03-28


That’s it. Right there. Just like my Zen Koan above. From Zen Master Homer Simpson.

Let’s consider pattern and nebulosity a little more. Pattern and nebulosity are opposites of one another in this discussion. Pattern is “reliable, distinct, enduring, clear, and definite.” Nebulosity is not.

Really? Think of two objects. My companion loves turquoise and purple paisley wraps and shawls. Without my glasses the color of her shawl remains recognizably turquoise and purple, but the pattern is no longer reliable, distinct, enduring, clear, and definite. The same thing occurs with my glasses on if she is twenty yards away. The definiteness of pattern seems to be as much a function of the perceiver as the perceived. So people not only “perceive patterns that are not really there” they also fail to perceive patterns that are “really there”.

Under these circumstances what objective standpoint can we take to assert that a pattern is “really there”? I can see none except personal agreement between two parties, but you can only sustain this with some two parties and not others. Two parties with their glasses off [at least if their astigmatism is as bad as mine] could easily come to an agreement that a pattern is not really there. Madge and Homer Simpson could easily agree that the pattern of a “rabbit” in the clouds is “really there”. And when I next ask how do we know which of these 3 sets of two to believe, it should be clear that we have boarded the train of infinite regress.

And when we consider the cloud as object number two, don’t sell Homer and Madge too short. Saying that the pattern of a “rabbit” is really there in the clouds is not the same thing as expecting the cloud to hop away shaking its tail. And even Homer and Madge are very unlikely expect this. So seeing the “pattern of a rabbit” anywhere is not the same thing as seeing a rabbit anywhere.

And the mere fact that a “pattern of a rabbit” was there then and no longer is there now, because the clouds have shifted, in no way means that the pattern was not “really there” any more than that a paisley pattern was “really there” when the purple and turquoise threads were on the loom, but unwoven. And the shawl itself was not really there then either, just like the cloud is not really here now.

Now Homer is clueless about art and design and has no notion of what “paisley” is. [Did you know that it is not correct to call one of the curved shapes “a paisley”? The proper term for it is a “pine”.]

So when Homer sees my companion’s shawl there is a good chance that he would call it a random arrangement of threads since the pattern is so complicated. But Madge cares enough about clothes to know what paisley is and recognizes the pattern immediately. Now they are no longer in agreement.

So depending on the circumstances of the perceiver, any pattern may be reliable, distinct, enduring, clear, and definite, or it might be unreliable, indistinct, fleeting, unclear, and indefinite. It might, in other words, be nebulous.

Neither pattern nor nebuloisty can be reified and transformed into the opposite of the other. The dichotomy is false. And despite “psychological research” it turns out that neither you nor I can legitimately claim to know what’s “really there” based on such a dichotomy.

Now a while back on the Buddhist site, I asserted that Nagarjuna’s Madyamika was an argumentative method and not a “view” of reality. I’ve just used the method here. Exactly in the way I’ve been taught to use it by the Buddhist Khenpos who are the experts in it.

And I have not once used the words “emptness”, “shunyata”, or any of the “Four Extremes”.

The method is really very simple. Assume the opponent’s conclusion and show that it leads to a logical fallacy, either tautology, contradiction, or infinite regress. And Nagarjuna’s dialectic, back in the Buddhist context, leads inevitably to the result no that stable “view” or conceptual understanding of the world is possible, so he asserted no view himself. “Shunyata” or “emptiness” is merely a shorthand label for this result, and not a view of anything.

To meditate you have to free yourself of the clinging vines of “conceptual understanding” and just do it.

I don't want to belabor the

Karmakshanti 2011-03-28

I don’t want to belabor the issue, but while you yourself may not take such an a priori view, I think the specific passage I quoted fairly strongly implies one, that of Scientific Positivism:

Psychological research shows that people frequently perceive patterns that are not actually there. The brain automatically interprets even completely random events as meaningful. This tendency is called “patternicity” or “apophenia”....The brain, however, seems to be wired to give patterns the benefit of the doubt. It would rather make the mistake of seeing non-existent patterns than of rejecting real ones. (Maybe this is because, during evolution, missing real, dangerous patterns was worse than overreacting to imaginary ones.)

It is to this passage that the comment of mine immediately above is addressed.

As far as a slippage into subject/object dualism goes, I probably should have amplified the passage you cite. Whether there really is one or not, there clearly appears to be such a dualism in the fashion that I described it in the comment You Know This Is An Awful… You can start with either the subject or the object, but since you’re trying to analyse the appearance of separateness, you do have to start with one or the other.

Meaning Redux

Karmakshanti 2011-03-28

At your suggestion, I took a look at your Extreme Examples page. To respond I think we need to revisit my first post here and it’s assertion that “meaning”, as it is used in this book, is actually a metaphor. Symbol systems, like language, literally “mean” things because they actually “say” things. Most of the rest of the universe doesn’t do either.

Insofar as I can see, “having meaning” in this context is a metaphor for “being important”. It’s a metaphor that I find highly suspect because it disguises the relational character of being important.

If I say, “This means something, Watson!” Watson’s obvious question is, “What does it mean, Holmes?” If I say, “This is important, Watson!” Watson’s will then ask, “Why is it important, Holmes?”


That is the key to the relational character of most of what you have been talking about. Meaning literally is “inherent” in language as an exercise of a speaker’s intention to say something. It may need clarifying, but it needs no explanation of why it is there. It is there because the speaker put it there.

Importance is not inherent in anything. It only exists in relation to a reason, and is thus always a matter of judgment to be mooted between Holmes and Watson, or you and I.

Moreover “importance” is always relational to someone–important to me, important to you, important to God, important to us all–or relational for something–important for the growth of next year’s corn crop.

Using the metaphor of “meaning” about something which is not language implies a false inherancy in the object of the metaphor, and illegitimately disguises the fact that “importance” is a relation and not a “message”, and requires a judgment and not a revelation.

Take any of the questions you have been addressing, “What is the meaning of life?” and rephrase it as “Why is life important?” and most of the problem of “stances” about the matter simply evaporates. All you have left are good or bad reasons, which have to be argued and judged on a case-by-case basis.

The rock falling to the ground on Alpha Centauri III has nothing that is an inherent “meaning”. Neither does the rock falling to the ground on Sol III. But either or both of them might be “important” , if we can determine to whom, for what, and why. It is important to me, because it fell on my foot, but it isn’t important to you because it didn’t fall on your foot. Why is it important? Because I didn’t want my foot painfully smashed. What is it important for? For explaining to the 911 operator why I need an ambulance where it happened.

Now there are more stances and permutations of stances delineated here than anyone in their right mind ever wants to address one by one, so I can’t say conclusively that most of them are in error because of the false inherancy implied by the illegitimate use of “meaning” as a metaphor for importance.

But I strongly suspect that they are, and the matter is emminently testable in any given case. If you can sensibly convert any statement of “Y means X” to “Y is important because of X” then you are looking at an error of false inherancy. And this is so for any and every stance that asserts Y means X. So no differentiation between the stances is required.

Replies to several

David Chapman 2011-03-29

Hi, following up on your last three comments:

The first is based on a misunderstanding, unfortunately. You refuted the idea that “pattern and nebulosity are opposites of one another”; but the pattern page says “nebulosity and pattern might seem to contradict each other, but almost always they come together.” This is pretty much the essence of the book, so it appears we are in strong agreement.

Regarding the psychological point, the experiments I have in mind are ones in which people attribute pattern and meaning to a series of events that are actually controlled by coin flips. Would you disagree that they are simply mistaken?

Apropos your last comment, and the one titled “the nebulosity of nebulosity”: We agree that there is no inherent (objective) meaningfulness. The question is, what is meaningfulness if not that? One answer is that it is purely subjective. I think that is equally wrong (and will explain why eventually). If it is neither subjective nor objective, then what? I’ll explain that too.

Meanwhile, if you dislike the complexity, then the project here might simply not be to your taste.

Specialness and Victim-think

Tim 2015-01-27

Hello David, first let me say I am very much enjoying this book so far. I stumbled upon it through one of those internet rabbit-holes that pop up every once in awhile. This one’s origin was the ‘rationalist’ region of the blogosphere.

One thing that really sticks out at me as missing here, is a link between Specialness and Victim-think stances.

Specialness easily moves to, or forms a symbiosis with, Victim-think when it buts up against reality, and they can feed off each other incredibly easily.

I have personal experience with this, as I think most people who were the ‘smart kid’ in school have. When the ‘specialness’, the belief that you are the most clever, most intelligent person in the world, and ought to be rewarded, buts up against social ostracism, one of ways to rationalize your Specialness is Victim-think. “The world is stacked against people like me”, “people don’t understand me”, “they’re jealous and want to see me fail”. These not only protect Specialness, but feed it.

This may be a relatively new thing. I went to school in the 90’s and early 00’s and have heard much about the ‘self-esteem culture’ taking hold of child-rearing around that time (at least in the States). I can imagine that without some buttressing, Specialness would be more likely shattered in to some stances other than Victim-think under pressure, with the thinking of “I deserve this bad thing” rising up instead.

Still digesting so perhaps I’m not characterizing them correctly, but this stuck in my mind and I had to comment.

Specialness and Victim-think

David Chapman 2015-02-04

Thank you very much for the comment! And sorry to be slow to follow up.

I think you are absolutely right about that connection. It also seems likely that recent cultural changes reinforce it strongly. However, I certainly experienced it personally, growing up several decades earlier, so it’s probably a fundamental pattern.

Add new comment:

You can use some Markdown and/or HTML formatting here.

Optional, but required if you want follow-up notifications. Used to show your Gravatar if you have one. Address will not be shown publicly.

If you check this box, you will get an email whenever there’s a new comment on this page. The emails include a link to unsubscribe.