50 words for snow 3: what are phenomena?

If experienced observers are trained to observe natural phenomena in their environment, pace the “interference” of cultural accidents, what is it they observe?

As I mentioned before, we are not born into a world of ready made phenomena. William James referred to the sensory world of a newborn baby as a “blooming, buzzing confusion”:

Experience, from the very first, presents us with concerted objects, vaguely continuous with the rest of the world which envelops them in space and time, and potentially divisible into inward elements and parts. These objects we break asunder and unite. … The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced into one and the same space. [James 1890, 487–488; see John Hawks’ commentary for a critique]

But if the world is divisible in so many ways, why do we divide our experiences in the ways we do? What makes some aspects of our immediate environment salient? That is, why do some stimuli have more importance than others for us? That there are phenomena in the objective world is not at issue. But there are an indefinitely large number of possible ways to carve the world up in our categories. We must be able to make a start. What James did not know, in 1890, is that there is a prior set of what you might think of as neurological guidelines for making sense of the world. Mach, and Lorenz following him, referred to this as the “evolutionary a posterioria”. These are what Kant called the synthetic a prioria, that which we “know” to begin with, but which we cannot have derived from logical truths.

Consider vision. We do not learn to see, we learn to interpret what we see. Assuming normal development, the visual system functions at birth. However, control of the system, focusing and the like, and the neural pathways necessary to process the inputs, are not developed, and they need to kick off by individual adaptation, or neural plasticity. But what to attend to in the beginning, if there is such a plurality of alternatives? Evolution has provided a number of dispositions to attend to edges, motion, and tonal variation. James’ “objects” are the outcome of these discriminatory dispositions we have at birth.

So our dispositions in a way “make” the phenomena we observe. This veers too closely to the “constructed reality” version of our first post, though. It is better to say, though, that a phenomenon P exists as a relation between the observer O, and the environment being observed E. O has a set of prior dispositions that make some aspects of E salient. Some of these are biological dispositions, inherited through reproduction of the organisms. Some of these are sociological dispositions, based upon, yes, language, folk taxonomy, and social institutions like (for example) scientific social practices. And some are simply categories that we are disposed by our cultural biases to slot observations into. We do not construct our natural categories so much as negotiate them with the external world at varying degrees of distance from our individual dispositions. We could do a pseudo equation:

where the observer’s dispositions of biology (b), society (s) and culture (c) modulate with the local environment (based on the distance d) to produce a phenomenon. The “weight” of each variable determines how “natural” the phenomenon is. Visualised as a continuum, when the variables of s and c are low, and the stimuli are very local, the phenomenon is something more likely to be objective, vis a vis our perceptual apparatus, and hence “natural” or “real”. When s and c are high value, the phenomenon is more likely to be a constructed (sociocultural) one. Assuming that the selection process tends to make phenomena more accurate as representations of the environment, we can represent phenomena like this (where “facts” are statements of phenomena; i.e., categories). When selective pressure on the categories is low for s and c, we have a more purely constructed category, like when I come up with a fake category for philosophical illustrative purposes, or when a politician appeals to some ideal that makes no sense (like the unregulated market as a way to achieve the most rational distribution of resources), although once such a category is in play, acceptance of it tracks the signalling aspect of categories, if not the factuality of the content of the ideas they purport to represent.

Illustration taken from my 2016

The Karam category which includes humans and cassowaries, but not other birds, is one example. It is constructed in opposition to natural facts, but adherence to it signals commitment to the sociocultural order of the tribe. Another example is the “uncleanness” of pigs among Jews and Muslims. In fact, the notion of clean and unclean in most cultures serves not as a categorisation of the facts about these food sources, although that is the rationale for them, but as an honest signal you are tracking cultural norms.

When seen like this (admittedly a gross oversimplification) we can now ask, at last, how it is that science can claim to be approaching, delineating, and explaining, natural phenomena. That’s the next, and final, post on this.

Coffee in italian
Il Caffe in Italia, by Giza Pizzatto [click image to see the artist’s site].

Oh, and incidentally, Italian has 50 words (or phrases) for coffee:

Now we know why…


Wilkins, J. S. (2016). Is Religion or Science Debunked by the Evolution of Cognitive Faculties? Advances in Religion, Cognitive Science, and Experimental Philosophy. H. d. Cruz and R. Nichols. London, NY, Continuum: 19–38.

8 thoughts on “50 words for snow 3: what are phenomena?

  1. I’ve got two questions, one a routine point of information and the other more basic.

    First, I have trouble understanding how you distinguish the s and the c in your pseudo equation. You mention folk taxonomic as an example of sociological distinctions, but if such taxonomies aren’t part of culture, what’s left to put under c Maybe distinguishing s and c just don’t matter much to you. A line or two later you’re talking about sociocultural phenomena.

    Second, You wrote in earlier installments about how some scientific practices and concepts are largely inherited traditions that have little to do with external reality, but isn’t the nature/culture distinction the greatest example of this sort of thing? In a profoundly social species like homo sapiens isn’t it rather arbitrary to act as if culture weren’t as much part of our nature as the biochemistry of nucleic acids? Even Levi-Strauss, the guy who famously made such a big deal out of the distinction (Raw and the Cooked and all that) eventually admitted that the the contrast shouldn’t be absolutized. I guess you can isolate biological dispositions from sociocultural ones for practical purposes when you’re talking about newborn babies, but you better be quick about it because even very young infants begin to perceive the world in accord with their social niche—working class babies in England were found to babble differently than middle class babies almost from the get go. Anyhow, culture is just as material as brain cells—almost everybody is born into a carpentered world, for example, so our perceptual machinery develops in a context of parallel lies and right angles. That makes a lasting difference, even for cats, if I remember some very old research rightly.

    You write “Visualised as a continuum, when the variables of s and c are low, and the stimuli are very local, the phenomenon is something more likely to be objective.” Really? I assume that objectivity, however you construe it, is an adjective of merit, so that objective knowledge is realer, or better, or more authentic or…whatever. But it’s my impression that the best understanding of things is actually the most highly mediated. Reliable knowledge is a social product. Individuals obviously have something to do with its production, but the psychology of individual units of the hive mind doesn’t get you very far.

    By the way, when you write about “external reality,”I have to wonder what this reality could be external to.


    1. You make a good point, but I do not absolutize that distinction. For my money, social realities are institutions, while cultural realities are beliefs, rituals and practices, and I do not make a sharp distinction between them. Nor do I make a sharp distinction between sociocultural and biological dispositions – all are developmental resources and conditions. The point of the “equation” is that we can see distributions of things adapted to.

      As to “external” realities, I take it as a given that we are not all there is to the world (no post structural narrativium is used here). What I am interested in here is how our categories converge, if they do, on facts about the world as it is without us. Pure categorical realism is an asymptote – it cannot be approached simply because we are in any equation that might describe the world, but we surely know a lot more about the world now than, say, 500 years ago.


  2. “But it’s my impression that the best understanding of things is actually the most highly mediated.”

    I think ‘folk’ classification is highly mediated and an intensely social activity.

    “We do not construct our natural categories so much as negotiate”

    First sight of objects often seems to kick in a threat response, “its the devil of…..” that is followed by mediation and negotiation (often between differing social classes).

    The sight of something new does tend to draw people together. Defining collective moment


  3. p.s “Reliable knowledge is a social product”

    Reminds me of Lord Monboddo, his horse and its medicine. An early late test case for what is known in contract law as ‘implied authority.’

    It allows, when it comes to possession of a skill for “reasonable latitude” to be taken. Discussion would only be required in the case of an “extraordinary measure”

    Skill and authority in Lord Monboddo’s example is experienced based rather than a social form of learning.

    Experience allows for discretion when it comes to social consultation. Practical aspect of mediation and negotiation that allows for speed.


  4. Perhaps you didn’t know…. “Unclean” is a real description of pigs as food. They, the pork, is prone to parasites, and more likely to be full of germs or other biological contaminants. The food restriction for ancient Jews was based on that knowledge.


    1. No, actually. Pork is no more unclean than any other meat in that region, and in fact the neighbouring cultures used pork just fine. This is a standard bit of retconning by rationalists. The reason why pork was foregone by Jews is to demonstrate tribal loyalty by giving up a useful source of protein.


  5. “No, actually. Pork is no more unclean than any other meat in that region..”

    You can reject this as a rational argument pigs were however thought to be evil and do have an association with disease in folk belief. The belief may relate to the pig being able to take illness into itself and protect other livestock. i.e. in Egypt until recently pigs were kept with horses as they were thought to protect the horse from ill health.

    Its not rational or scientific but an association with disease and evil forces is present and ancient.

    I think you have a wider pattern of reinforcement with these beliefs. Single explanations don’t really work. Range of factors at play perhaps?

    “useful source of protein”

    Pastoral nomads in a desert environment don’t extensively herd pigs. Supernatural sanction here may have been very low cost.


    1. p.s Magpie shooting and culling is still popular in the uk on occasion. Traditional its a bird of evil omen but two excuses are general given (its traditional association notable absent in modern description).

      (1) It kills song birds. An early modern elite belief has taken over the traditional folk explanation i.e. it has an antipathy to song birds based on envy as its own song is coarse and common.

      (2) It has disgusting eating habits and is a filthy bird.

      Having a range of emotive hit points seems to help propel the belief with force.

      Killing of song birds is given as an ‘observed fact’, that it eats shit gives a strong emotional hit, occurring generally at the end of explanation. It strongly reinforces the belief its a killer, no other conclusion is possible, what else could it be but bad to the bone?


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