5 Jun 2009

Bateson, Sensing Difference and Sensing Nothing, in Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity

by Corry Shores
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Sensing Difference and Sensing Nothing

Gregory Bateson

Mind and Nature:

A Necessary Unity

Ch. IV

Criteria of Mental Process

Criterion 2. The Interaction between Parts of Mind is Triggered by Difference

The sense of touch is one of the most primitive and simple of the senses, and what sensory information is can easily be illustrated by using touch as an example. In lecturing, I commonly make a heavy dot with chalk on the surface of the blackboard, crushing the chalk a little against the board to achieve some thickness in the patch. I now have on the board something rather like the bump in the road. If I lower my fingertip – a touch-sensitive area – vertically onto the white spot, I shall not feel it. but if I move my finger across the spot, the difference in levels is very conspicuous. I know exactly where the edge of the dot is, how steep it is, and so on. (All this assumes that I have correct opinions about the localization and sensitivity of my fingertip, for many ancillary sorts of information are also needed.)

What happens is that a static, unchanging state of affairs, existing, supposedly, in the outside universe quite regardless of whether we sense it or not, becomes the cause of an event, a step function, a sharp change in the state of the relationship between my fingertip and the surface of the blackboard. My finger goes smoothly over the unchanged surface until I encounter the edge of the white spot. At that moment in time, there is a discontinuity, a step; and soon after, there is a reverse step as my finger leaves the spot behind.

This example, which is typical of all sensory experience, shows how our sensory system – and surely the sensory systems of all other creatures (even plants?) and the mental systems behind the senses (i.e., those parts of the mental systems inside the creatures) – can only operate with events, which we can call changes.

The unchanging is imperceptible unless we are willing to move relative to it.

In the case of vision, it is true that we think we can see the unchanging. We see what looks like the stationary, unmarked blackboard, not just the outlines of the spot. But the truth of the matter is that we continuously do with the eye what I was doing with my finger-tip. The eyeball has a continual tremor, called micronystagmus. The eyeball vibrates through a few seconds of arc and thereby causes the optical image on the retina to move relative to the rods and cones which are the sensitive end organs. The end organs are thus in continual receipt of events that correspond to outlines in the visible world. We draw distinctions; that is, we pull them out. Those distinctions that remain undrawn are not. They are lost forever with the sound of the falling tree which Bishop Berkeley did not hear. They are part of William Blake’s ‘corporeal’: ‘Nobody knows of its Dwelling Place: it is in Fallacy, and its Existence an Imposture.’

Notoriously it is very difficult to detect gradual change because along with our high sensitivity to rapid change goes also the phenomenon of accommodation. Organisms become habituated. To distinct between slow change and the (imperceptible) unchanging, we require information of a different sort; we need a clock.

The matter becomes even worse when we try to judge the trending of phenomena that are characteristically changeable. The weather, for example, is continually changing – from hour to hour, from day to day, from week to week. But is it changing from year to year? Some years are wetter and some hotter, but is there a trend in this continual zigzag? Only statistical study over periods longer than human memory, can tell us. In such cases we need information about classes of years. (106d-108c, major emphases mine)

Similarly, it is very difficult for us to perceive changes in our own social affairs, in the ecology around us, and so on. How many people are conscious of the astonishing decrease in the number of butterflies in our gardens? Or of birds? These things undergo drastic change, but we become accustomed to the new state of affairs before our senses can tell us that it is new. (108)

The feinting of the boxer, who makes moves as if to hit with his left hand without hitting, deceives us into believing that that left hand is not going to hit – until it does hit, and we are unpleasantly surprised.

It is a nontrivial matter that we are almost always unaware of trends in our changes of state. There is a quasi-scientific fable that if you can get a frog to sit quietly in a saucepan of cold water, and if you then raise the temperature of the water very slowly and smoothly so that there is no moment marked to be the moment at which the frog should jump, he will never jump. He will get boiled. Is the human species changing its own environment with slowly increasing pollution and rotting its mind with slowly deteriorating religion and education in such a saucepan?

But I am concerned at this moment only with understanding how mind and mental process must necessarily work. What are their limitations? And, precisely because the mind can receive news only of difference, there is a difficulty in discriminating between a slow change and a state. There is necessarily a threshold of gradient below which gradient cannot be perceived. (109)

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. London: Wildwood House, 1979.

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