The Thinking Poet


Meaning as a Singularity 1997

by Ronald R Cretchley

‘It’s hard to see how mere physical systems could have consciousness. How could such a thing occur? How, for example, could this grey and white gook inside my skull be conscious?’

John Searle: 1984 Reith Lectures - Minds, Brains and Science.

In the last issue of the Philosophical Society Review Charles Brown, in his lecture review of the Gˆdel weekend held in October 1995, outlines the positions adopted in relation to consciousness by Roger Penrose and Daniel C. Dennett. Of Roger Penrose he says ‘he believes that human intelligence, understanding, etc. have arisen in accordance with comprehensible, though as yet undiscovered, scientific laws similar to those of physics, chemistry, biology and natural selection.’....but ‘the main philosophical outcome for the weekend was (his) use of mathematical incompleteness in his argument that human understanding could never be achieved by “any kind of computational process whatever”’. ‘Computation can supply an extremely valuable aid to understanding but it never supplies actual understanding itself.’(1)

On the other hand, Charles Brown quotes from Daniel Dennett: ‘If Darwin’s dangerous idea is right, an algorithmic process is powerful enough to design a nightingale and a tree. Should it be that much harder for an algorithmic process to write an ode to a nightingale or a poem as lovely as a tree?’. (2)

Searle asks how the material of our brains can be conscious. I should prefer to ask how it can be the vehicle of consciousness. We pre-empt the question by supposing that matter is conscious. By analogy the pursuit of such a question is like asking how a layer of iron oxide on a plastic ribbon can be music.

I can see no justification in assuming a semantic content solely based upon a syntactical system. An argument that attempts to make consciousness derivative of matter, however ingenious, is at root an attempt to ‘bootstrap the bootstrap’, i.e. it rests upon the assumption that meaning resides in matter to provide for subsequent manifestations of meaning.

I would like to suggest an alternative approach, and that is to recognise an end-stop to the causal procedure, i.e. recognition of meaning as a singularity - an axiom which is the starting-point of analytical enquiry. The postulate presented is that consciousness is a singularity for which the living brain is the unique vehicle. We cannot in any epistemological sense speak about consciousness since it is itself the source of knowledge.

In attempting to support this conjecture it is necessary to examine the nature of consciousness itself, the aspects of which are wide ranging. The psychologist Ernest G. Schachtel, in his book Metamorphosis,(3) describes two basic modes of perception: autocentric and allocentric; complex changes of consciousness which occur over an extended period of development and maturation and which finally leads to focal attention and objectification.

The autocentric (autos, Greek for ‘self’) mode of perception is centred about self: how and what a person feels.

The allocentric (allos, Greek for ‘other’) mode of perception is centred about something other than self: namely on what the object of perception is like.

Schachtel delineates 3 distinct phases:

(1) Primary autocentric perception which is subject-centred with little or no objectification. Emphasis is on how the person feels. There is fusion between sensory quality and pleasure or unpleasure feelings. This is undifferentiated sensory experience. The infant has not yet acquired the habit of attaching symbols to experience.

(2) Allocentric perception which is object-centred. The emphasis is on what the object is like, i.e. there is objectification. Related feelings are not primarily associated with sensory qualities or pleasure-unpleasure feelings. They are of a different quality. Schachtel links this opening of the perceiver towards the object receptively with what A. H. Maslow (4) terms: ‘peak experience’.

Such perception establishes a direct encounter with the object itself which transcends the confines of the labelled and familiar. We have immediate rather than reflective knowledge.

(3) Secondary autocentric perception

In the very process of the emergence of the world of objects (people and things) on the new and higher level of predominantly allocentric perception, a secondary autocentricity develops. When the object is perceived in this way the predominating feature of the perception is not the object in its own right, but those of its aspects which relate to the perceiver’s more or less conscious feelings of the need or purpose which the object is to serve, or of the fear which makes him want to avoid it.

Such perception parallels primary autocentric perception in that it is subject-centred, but now it is in terms of ‘objects-of-use’ and ‘objects-to-be-avoided’. In this secondary process we abstract conceptually from ‘immediate knowledge’ and reflect upon it discursively.

Looking at consciousness in the context of all three modes makes it apparent that mode (3), derivative thought, is a reflection upon that which precedes it ontologically, and from which it is derived. It follows that one should not expect to rationalise the consciousness of modes (1) and (2) in terms of reflective consciousness.

To be reflectively conscious of consciousness as a whole is therefore non-productive and invites an infinite regress of conscious selves when attempted. For as has been indicated, conscious modes (1) and (2) are immediate, intense, lack a conceptual sense of space-time and exclude an ‘observing self’.

Referring to reflective consciousness Schachtel says: ‘These afterthoughts may obliterate much or all of the experience’. In attempting to systematize the allocentric encounter we are in danger of ‘usurping the place of experience itself’.

Secondary autocentricity - perception in the service of pragmatic and scientific endeavour is essential. The danger is that it may lead to a closed autocentrically oriented world, and obscure our view of reality.

I would like to suggest that the step-function of insight is a singularity which spontaneously creates a symbolic idea or concept that stands for, or is a token of, some aspect of allocentric perception. In Russell Brain’s (5) terms these symbols are woven, neurally, into a ‘symbolic world’ which is utilised in the processes of discursive thought. We learn to live in our ‘symbolic world’ which is contained in the ‘physical world’. By this means we come to believe in the existence of objects even when we derive no sensory excitation from them, i.e. the symbolic object remains imprinted upon our neural map. From this neural map our notions of reality are derived.

But is this the whole of reality? Is it even the reality, or is it only a symbolic representation? If so, then modes (1) and (2) of consciousness, it may be argued, are states of awareness in which the reality is felt. The word ‘felt’ is used since thinking discursively arises in the final phase and is thinking about the percept. It cannot recapture it.

This approach argues that there is a primary mode of awareness which could be called ‘felt apprehension’. It is holistic and provides a direct sense of reality, i.e. it is non-symbolic. There is a ‘reality’ derived from the ‘mapped’ brain. There is a reality felt through the brain which, in the case of the infant, is unmapped; and which for the adult, arises when the mapped brain is inhibited.

To summarize, the hypothesis presented is:

(1) Secondary autocentric perception is a limited reality.

(2) Secondary autocentric perception is derivative of allocentric perception.

(3) Allocentric perception should be regarded as the progenitor of discursive thought. This therefore denies the possibility of an analytical explanation of consciousness. In other words a conceptually based explanation of consciousness is ruled out since it is dependent upon, or springs out of, allocentric objectivity.

Just as our evolving universe is considered to arise out of a singularity - the Big Bang - which is axiomatic for all subsequent analytical speculation, so, it is suggested, singularities of insight pertaining to allocentric perception spontaneously create symbolic ideas (concepts) by which we create a self-oriented symbolic world.

When Dennett refers to algorithms within the context of Darwinian selection he apparently takes for granted the process of selection and conceptualisation from which data would need to be derived in order to feed an algorithm.

The notion is therefore question-begging since it:

(1) glosses over the complex processes of perception and conception.

(2) glosses over the mechanism by which the algorithm might have been formulated.

(3) assumes that such notions as food and shelter-recognition can be quantified and made amenable to an algorithmic form.

(4) assumes criteria of selection (e.g. to determine ‘mathematical truth’) with no hint as to their source.

It seems that Dennett is faced with a series of questions raised by an insufficient understanding of the word ‘understanding’.

An algorithm is a symbolic specification of a mathematical procedure. It is not itself the understanding of the procedure that it specifies symbolically. It has no awareness. The symbols have to be translated by an ‘understander’. Syntax has to be translated into semantics.

When we say that we are aware we mean that we are performing as an ‘understander’, i.e. One who is able to understand the meaning behind the symbols. Syntax and semantics are inseparable. Meaning must precede the symbolic encapsulation of meaning. Put another way; an ‘understander’ is required to specify meaning in symbolic form in order to produce a program.

Programs do not write themselves. Specification is not a property of evolution which, we are led to believe, is the outcome of blind forces and accidents. An ‘accident’ is at the opposite pole to ‘specification’. One might define ‘accident’ as a phenomenon devoid of specification.


The idea presented is that the brain - specifically the cerebral cortex - maps its internal environment (physical body) first, and then its external environment. In so doing the mapping process assumes a meaning of identity which we term ‘self’. The self acquires meaning of things in terms of their conceptual constitution. Specifically this process includes the brain itself: ‘brain’ is incorporated in the symbolic world which assumes mathematical significance and which is subject to physical law.

But this conceptual meaning is a consequence of that which ‘preceded’ it, though the word ‘time’ as implied by the phrase ‘preceded it’ is in this context irrelevant, just as time before the Big Bang has no meaning. The singularity of meaning begets ‘time’, though it is not itself of time. The singularity begets ‘identity’ though it has no identity itself.

Some people attribute to a specific part of their symbolic world - the mapped brain - the cause of the consciousness of which it is a product. This is to misunderstand the nature of mapping. A map of London, possessing as it does certain similarities of form of the city’s lay-out, is, despite its topographical usefulness, not London. Neither could the map have been created by any other than a person or persons who know the city as an experiential reality. The analogy suggests that the neural mapping that takes place is in fact the translation of a reality into a symbolic form; the ‘ghost in the machine’ has been replaced by a cartographer! The work of a cartographer is invaluable for the map-reader. We are both cartographer and map-reader in a world once intimately known, yet increasingly we become strangers to the reality that prompted the map.

People of Dennett’s persuasion withdraw into their map as though the reality it signifies does not exist. The map becomes their world, and their convictions are solely the product of secondary autocentric thinking.

Penrose, unlike Dennett, holds that understanding transcends computation. Even so he believes that understanding has arisen in accordance with, as yet, undiscovered scientific laws. He rejects the idea that it has arisen ‘metaphysically’, i.e. by something transcendental, beyond the laws of science. Such a belief is rooted in secondary autocentric thought since it insists effectively that the map is solely the source of meaning.


1. Philosophical Society Review 1996 - Lecture Review: Weekend on Gˆdel’s Theorem and it’s Philosophical Implications - Charles Brown pages 32 and 36.

2. Philosophical Society Review 1996 - Lecture Review: Weekend on Gˆdel’s Theorem and it’s Philosophical Implications - Charles Brown page 40.

3. Ernest G. Schachtel: Metamorphasis, Da Capo Press N.Y. 1984

4. A. H. Maslow: Cognition of Being in the Peak Experiences, Convention of the American Psychological Association paper 1956.

5. W. Russell Brain: Mind, Perception and Science, Blackwell Scientific Publications Oxford, 1951.