The Elusive Thing-In-Of-Itself

One fine morning, Willy and Philly visit the art museum together. On a tour through one of the exhibits, they come across this experimental work of art:


Fig 1. A snapshot of The Thinker, by visual designer Charis Tsevis.

“What am I supposed to make out of this?” Philly inquires with a puzzled look on his face.

“Well, it is what it is. Whatever you perceive something to be is distinct from and in fact never captures the totality of what it is,” Willy replies.

Philly is not having any of Willy’s quasi-philosophical nonsense. “Enough of your edgy attempts at being a New-Ager, Willy. What am I supposed to see when I look at this mosaic? All I see are lots of circles, half-circles, and three-quarter circles, if the last one’s even a word,” Philly observes.

Willy won’t give an outright answer to Philly’s question. “Are you really seeing the whole thing?” he hints.

“Of course I’m seeing the whole thing, simply by virtue of the fact that I’m able to see the entire painting from where I’m standing,” Philly says.

Willy furls his eyebrows and strokes his beard, trying to see if he can derive some deep insight out of this dialogue about art. “Are you seeing the parts that comprise the whole or the whole that is comprised of the parts?”

“I’m seeing a lot of parts that don’t seem to come together into a unity. It’s like a string of sentences that doesn’t really classify as a narrative, since you can’t make any sense out of it.”

“Any set of elements will always form a greater whole. Your mind just doesn’t choose to construct them in that way because it hasn’t found a context in which to relate them to each other,” Willy thoughtfully muses. “You just need to adjust your perspective.”

“That’s a bold claim. But you’re probably right, at least in this case. Let’s see what happens if I do this.” Philly takes a couple of steps back and tilts his head, trying to see what Willy is evidently seeing. Finally, his air of confusion turns into a look of understanding. “It’s a man’s face, isn’t it?”

“Well, you’re raising an interesting question. Is it a man’s face or merely a collection of circles?” Willy asks, deepening the puzzle.

“I thought you had been trying to get me to see that the painting was something other than just a mere collection of circles!” Philly exclaims, frustrated by Willy’s ambiguous line of questioning.

“No. You’re right that it’s not a mere collection of circles, since it can be seen as a man’s face; yet it’s also not a man’s face either, since it can be seen as a collection of circles. And furthermore, it can’t be both a collection of circles and a man’s face; the whole (the face) cannot be the parts (the circles) since it is the sum that is greater than the parts.”

An exasperated Philly presses on. “So what is it, damn it?”

“It is what it is,” Willy responds, circling back to his original statement.

“And what is that?”

But before Willy can answer, the tour moves onto the next exhibit at the museum. And besides, Philly realizes, their conversation can only go in circles at this point.

In a recent essay on the website Aeon, the astronomer Adam Frank recounts an exchange that he had with his physics professor in college. “What’s an electron?” Frank asked. He was stunned by the answer he received. “An electron,” the professor replied, “is that to which we attribute the properties of an electron.”

The professor’s comment, while seemingly blithe and unhelpful, actually sheds deep insight on metaphysics. Whenever we describe something, we tend to describe it in terms of its composite properties and parts, which may complement each other to give the thing a function. Think, for example, of how you would characterize a chair to a child. It has four legs; it has a seat and a frame above the floor; it will support you when you are sitting. The entity that you understand to be “chair,” therefore, is the aggregate of whatever properties you typically categorize as “chair-like.” And furthermore, if you recognize a sufficient number of properties within a certain thing to be “chair-like,” then you will classify the thing as chair. How a thing is, therefore, determines what the thing is.

This tendency to attribute characteristic properties to the commonplace things in our world and then to discern objects in relation to those qualities is a critical part of human evolution. The brain receives approximately 400 billion bits of information per second, but consciously processes only about 60 to 120 of those bits, which is nothing more than a minuscule fraction. As the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin notes, this attentional filter is one of the greatest achievements of human evolution. Without the brain’s remarkable ability to categorize features of the natural world in relation to their utility for our survival and reproductive capacity, we would be so overwhelmed by information that we could not rapidly differentiate between predator and prey, between ally and enemy tribe, between resources for tools and useless waste in the environment.

Indeed, the biological machinery of our brains affirms the saying that “we perceive only what we have learned to look for” (Albert C. Barnes). Once we set a goal for ourselves, or more broadly determine some sort of desire that we wish to fulfill, systems within the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex form mental representations of the state of the world, highlighting certain objects within a “feasible spatio-temporal range” that are relevant to our attainment of the objective. Obviously, your eyes perceive all of the spatio-temporal reality that is available for other humans to see – or so we think, but the question of whether or not that’s true is mostly an epistemological issue. However, if your intention is to, say, extract nutrients from the environment, then your awareness will primarily be limited to the things within your local surroundings that your brain recognizes as “food-like.” Neurobiologists at Mount Sinai discovered that the neuronal populations of rats who are randomly foraging for food will exhibit a lower firing rate than when they are food-deprived or water-deprived. Therefore, the relative importance of information, which is reflected in the disparity between firing rates, facilitates memory discrimination in order to conduct future behavior. In other words, much like the rat’s hippocampus does not encode environmental features that are not directly pertinent to its survival, insignificant details of the world do not make their way into our memories. You may, for instance, pass the same street corner every day on your way to work but somehow fail to remember the color of the building on the other side.

In fact, “goal sites” – scenes and landscapes in the environment that contain an object that is important to us – are rendered with greater spatial resolution and density in the hippocampus. What does that mean? A reconstruction of someone’s position from the firing patterns of his hippocampus (and another part of the brain known as the ventral striatum) would be more accurate when a “goal site” is present in the nearby environment than when it is not. Our mental depiction of reality is, then, far different from reality as it actually is. The super-sensible world of the mind, as Hegel would have it, is a dimension beyond the spatiotemporal boundaries of the natural world that we perceive imminently with our senses. Indeed, earlier this year, scientists at the University of Lyon found that the spatial memory of the hippocampus not only encodes the proximity of the agent to various elements in his environment, but also maps a trajectory via which the agent can reach his goals. Thus, the brain encodes space as a combination of “visually derived information” and “task-related knowledge.” Experiments performed on macaques revealed that “state-space-selective” cells successfully differentiated between two identical sensory inputs when they were placed in different contexts. Whatever our brains consider to be the “task” at hand, and more generally the context in which we are perceiving a particular object, is inextricably intertwined with our perception of that object.

Due to the naturally goal-oriented behavior of the mind, the brain cannot, without utterly overwhelming itself with the totality of existence, perceive things in the natural world as they truly are, so it instead constructs them as constitutive means to an end. Or maybe that notion doesn’t seem entirely plausible; if you are, like Philly and Willy, taking a tour of an art exhibit, you may not think of the painting in front of you as a means to an end or as a “task.” However, the painting can be considered a task in the sense that your brain is tasked with the goal of understanding what exactly it signifies. If you have the same interpretation of it as Philly does, the outcome of your contemplation may be that the painting is just a random scattering of circles. Or you might, like Willy, recognize it as a man’s face.

The contrast between these two perspectives exemplifies a phenomenon known as Gestalt psychology, which many of you readers may already be familiar with. The crux of the Gestalt school of thought is that the brain can assemble a unified whole out of a series of parts. There’s a strong chance that you’ve seen examples of the Gestalt in the past, such as the image of the lady that is simultaneously young and old. The concept of the Gestalt has received criticism lately for its poor empirical basis, which is partially attributable to the incompatible Gestalt theories that have been developed over the years. Nonetheless, it is clear that humans process information through emergent features of the environment – that is, qualities, such as proximity, that arise from the relationship between individual, disparate parts and not from the parts themselves. For instance, when the vertical distance is larger than the horizontal distance between a series of dots, the dots are then perceived as a horizontally-organized lattice.

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 12.41.23 AM

Fig 2. In image (a), the vertical distance between dots is larger than the horizontal distance, so you will probably see a horizontal arrangement. In image (b), the opposite is true. From Kubovy and Gephstein’s 2003 study on perceptual grouping in space and spacetime.

Obviously, there’s an evolutionary advantage afforded to organisms who are capable of discerning emergent properties; otherwise, animals would fail to differentiate between predators and prey. (Unsurprisingly, we feel rewarded when we are able to derive meaning from a collection of elements that appear to be totally independent of each other, as when we have a stroke of insight about what a seemingly jumbled and confusing work of art actually symbolizes.) As a Stanford PhD student named Robert Hawkins recently discovered, the brain naturally selects the most efficient mode of perception, regardless of whether or not it accurately represents reality. Rather than evaluating the brain’s response to complex arrangements of objects in the environment, Hawkins studied perception at its most fundamental level: two simple dots in the visual field. Examining a metric known as the capacity coefficient, which essentially measures the change in the brain’s processing efficiency as it decodes more information (i.e. more dots), Hawkins found that the brain experiences gains in efficiency when emergent properties like orientation and proximity are present in the environment. Because we perceive the world in such a way that maximizes efficiency and therefore evolutionary fitness, there is no reason to think that our senses are shaped by the forces of natural selection any less than our other traits.

And so, due to evolution, our brain conceives of a building rather than a compound of adjacent rooms stacked atop each other, of a forest rather than an arbitrary arrangement of trees, and of a world rather than a multitudinous sea of electrons (or, in Hawkins’ terms, dots). There is, once again, great truth revealed in the notion that “the electron is that to which we attribute the properties of an electron.” Though you may be looking at an electron (technically this isn’t possible), you fail to perceive the electron for everything that it is, since your mind interprets and defines it instead as a set of “meaningful” features like charge, density, and size so that it can establish its relation to other elements of matter. The matter you perceive is separate from the matter itself. 

This conclusion is very much aligned with Kant’s philosophy of transcendental idealism, which he declared in the Critique of Pure Reason as the doctrine that all appearances are “mere representations” and not the things in of themselves. The true substance of the thing – the thing that it is independent of any relational context, of any goal or aspiration that the mind sets out to achieve – fundamentally lies beyond the limits of our knowledge. The painting in the art museum is not the collection of circles that Philly construes it to be, nor is it a human face that some others may perceive. Rather, the painting is both of these things. Yet though the thing is in equal parts the elements that constitute it and the whole that contains the elements, it seems impossible to describe the thing as both one and many, since the one, simply by virtue of being one, cannot be many. What exactly is the painting, then?

Personally, I believe that the essence of the thing is a transcendental that, which unites the whole and the multiplicity of parts that emerge out of the whole into an undifferentiated totality. The transcendental that, which is somewhat analogous to Aristotle’s conception of form, lies in a world beyond the confines of the rational mind; it is accessible only through the realm of the aesthetic, which gives birth to all sublime experiences whose exalted glory cannot find expression through mere language (more on that when I talk about Beethoven’s 9th in a later blogpost). I’m not sure if Kant has exactly the same view; I only have a very general knowledge of him. However, he does subscribe to this notion that there is a “transcendental X,” which can be thought of as “the concept of an object which makes experience possible.” Underlying all appearances is the “transcendental X” that gives rise to the perception or representation of the appearances to begin with. But whatever the “transcendental X” is remains totally unknowable to us because it is that by which we come to know anything at all. If we start contemplating it, we immediately form a mental representation of it due to the nature of the mind, so it is impossible for us to understand the transcendental thing out of which the representation was formed. Imagine Sisyphus chasing his own tail, and you will get an idea of the baffling paradox of finding the true essence of things.


In a Huffington Post article that came out five months ago, the neuroscience professor and experienced meditator Marjorie Woollacott suggested not only that the evolutionary constraints of the brain preclude a wider field of awareness, but also that it is possible for us to gain access to that awareness. She discusses the work of another neuroanatomist who experienced a stroke that paralyzed the left side of her brain and significantly damaged the attentional filters in her brain. Though she found it very difficult to focus on conversation, she experienced an “expanded consciousness,” a profound recognition of the present moment, and a feeling of being “ethereal.” Anyone who has ever been in a deep meditative state – when the brain was truly operating at minimal levels of activity – can probably testify that he extended his awareness to new levels.

I can recall one such moment that I experienced last December, when I was walking on the beach outside my home. I was listening to the audiobook of The Power of Now. At one point, the author, Eckhart Tolle, spoke of the present moment as a “razor’s edge,” since it so thinly divides the infinities of the past and the future. Contemplating the exceeding brevity of this moment amplified my appreciation of its cherished beauty. I suddenly noticed so many details that I had never recognized in my entire life.

I could now see the profuse patterns etched across the sand, the overwhelming number of faces, shapes, and miniature landscapes that could be drawn out in the sediment.

I turned my head to the craggy hills that stood towering above the waves and took a moment to absorb its limitless protrusions, all the layers of trapped rock that no humans would ever set their eyes on, the millions of waves, interspersed over an equivalent number of years, that pummeled into the shore to shape the cliffs into precisely the sculpted masterwork that stood before me.

I observed in sheer awe the uncountable trillions of particles that vibrated in the earth, producing this massive energy that was trembling right beneath my two feet. I pondered the imponderable quantity of light, of atoms, of dark matter, of stuff that lay pregnant in the womb of the heavens. If a single modicum of dust could house an entire universe of things, then I could not possibly fathom the scale of life stretched out beneath the stardust in one breathtaking canopy, the totality of everything that was, is, and ever will be…

what it is.


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