Saturday, February 28, 2009

Phenomena versus Things

"Real things" do not exist. Phenomena exist. It may seem merely substituting one word for the other. But it's not. Things are a subset of mental phenomena. What is the difference between a phenomenon and a thing (or object)? One is a blurb without clear boundaries and the other is a discrete phenomenon with clearly distinguishable attributes. Jean-Paul Sartre describes the instance of this realization in his book Nausea. Once we free ourselves from the preconceived notions of our mind, reality melts into hazy blurbs in constant motion, melting in and out of each other without distinct beginnings and ends.

It is the mind, or the realm of mental phenomena, in which things arise. At first, what we have before us are the confusing noise of sensory phenomena, which are transferred into our remembered world where they become mental phenomena that, through the act of making them discrete, can turn them into separate things with distinct attributes. Through the act of remembrance, we can juxtapose these things onto other sensory phenomena in our immediate world, forming a complete and meaningful lifeworld. Phenomena have no thingness in-and-of-themselves. As many optical experiments can prove, nothing in the world has "redness". Nor do they have "softness" or any of the other imaginable qualia. As for more "objective" aspects of "things", they are still relative judgments. A "knife" may be sharp against the naked skin of a human but not the shell of a tortoise. The "knife" does not in-and-of-itself have "sharpness".

All phenomena can only be attributed specific traits in relationship to perceived angles. It does not mean humans do not have an inter-subjective realm. They have evolved to have similar viewing angles and processes for turning phenomena into specific and discrete things. But some perception is still a process of education, pushing someone to a specific desired angle. As an example I take my 4 year old youngest son Pascal. He knows, after our training, all his letters and some words. But most words and sentences are still illegible despite that knowledge. I can only imagine what they appear to him like. My guess is....blurbs just like the blurbs we see when we encounter a new problem domain.

This is not to say that sensory phenomena do not exhibit discernible behaviours, flowing in and out of each others hazy boundaries with some form of relationships. They do. Which is why we can objectify reality. But if we consider them things, we run the risk of thinking they are in-an-of-themselves anything remotely like the angle we choose to view them from.

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