What Does the Mind Tell Us About Mind-Independent Reality?

Immanuel Kant famously turned the empiricism-rationalism debate on its head by proposing that, instead of our mental representations of reality having to conform to objective reality, it is objective reality that must conform to our mental representations (if such objects are to be represented at all). Kant, of course, was steeped in ideas that the categories of understanding, which shape our experience of the external world, issue from some transcendental apperception – essentially a soul, or unique human rationality.

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Semantics and the Phenomenology of Meaning

When someone utters a word that reaches your ear, the sound gets broken down into component waves via Fourier transform which vibrate within cochlear fluid and cause the movement of mechanoreceptor hair cells at the organ of Corti to produce electrochemical signals in the form of neurotransmitter release whereby the movement of the fluid stimulates the filaments of individual cells receptor cells to become open to receive the potassium-rich endolymph, causing the cell to produce an action potential which is transmitted through the spiral ganglion to the auditory portion of the vestibulo-cochlear nerve to the the brain, which signals to the cortex with new information that is then compared to predictions based on prior experience in a Bayesian fashion to produce the phenomenology of the experience of hearing, interpreting, and understanding the word. But where (and how), in all this, does the phenomenology of meaning arise?

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Transcendental Apperception and the Phenomenology of Significance

When we perceive something, what is the phenomenological experience of that perception? Do we experience it, as Edmund Husserl would have said, as a series of objects in space? Or do we experience it in a doxastic way, as an immediate sense of there is particular thing X – a sort of proposition that happens without words? Or do we experience it as a web of significance as Martin Heidegger thought? Here I will explore some of these ideas.

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Categories of Understanding, Qualia, and the Operations of Intuition

Understanding how consciousness and the mind is generated is best done using the bottom-up approach of neuroscience, but if the consciousness/mind is performing recursive, downwardly causal actions on the Lockean Ideas – the content of thinking/cognition – then what are the mental mechanisms being utilized? Here I present some nascent ideas for your consideration.

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Structure of the Mind

Consciousness and qualia are problems that are still unsolved by philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. My way of viewing consciousness and qualia is that consciousness is the process by which our brains organize the world into working models and qualia is the ‘stuff’ that consciousness uses to generate those models. For better or worse, both of these exist due to evolutionary forces. That means they’re fine tuned to a very specific sort of survival, not for any pure understanding of the world or ourselves. In order to understand the limitations of our own minds, we need to know the inner workings of how the world is organized in our minds on a fundamental level. That requires knowing the structure of our minds.

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Esoteric Philosophical Ramblings

How is it that we understand the world around us? I don’t just mean perceive it and react to it, but to understand reality, to have it mean something to us – what is understanding?

According to Kant, understanding has to come from a priori intuitions and categories of understanding. By an a priori intuition he basically means space and time. When one talks about an object that exists, it’s taken a priori that they mean something that extends into space and persists (no matter how transiently) through time. Kant says that spaciotemporal representations is merely the way we understand the world around us, but it may not be how reality exists in-itself. The form that our experience of reality takes is “imposed” onto reality, while the content of reality is supplied to us through our senses.

The 12 categories of understanding are what Kant deduced as our a priori conceptual structure for how we experience reality.


Whether you agree or disagree with the details of Kant’s list, it’s an interesting notion that there may only be a few simple inherent (a priori) ways that we are able to experience reality.

I think evolutionary psychology could explain why certain a priori categories of understanding exist – because they were required to survive. But, I’m interested in what people would see as being categories of understanding. Do you agree with Kant (and Eyedea) that the way we experience reality has to coincide with the way our mind organizes it? Could it be possible that the spaciality/temporality of existence is merely imposed on reality by ourselves as a way of organizing and understanding our experience of reality? If there are only a few a priori categories of understanding, what are they – do you agree with Kant’s list?

Our a priori way of understanding existence would seem to limit the way we can experience reality. The conditions in which we evolved are incredibly narrow and limited, and there would have been no evolutionary advantage to understanding reality in a way that took us outside this limited world view. This obviously creates some biases in our general assumptions about reality. For instance, it’s assumed that reality behaves in a cause-and-effect manner. Is it possible that causality is simply the way we experience reality? It’s also assumed in the scientific community that materialism is the metaphysical structure of existence. What do we really know about the metaphysical structure of material (mass/energy)?

Measuring and describing the change in material is not necessarily understanding it, but merely giving an empirical description of what is happening. How do we understand motion? It’s required that we have a fraction of memory for us to perceive motion – remembering where something was and seeing where it is now and experiencing this as motion, but how do we know that our experience of motion is the way it actually occurs?

Kant defended free will by concluding that nothing about our experience of reality can logically necessitate any ontological control over how reality is as a thing-in-itself. If we experience reality as being deterministic and materialistic, it does not logically follow that this is how reality exists in-itself. He said that the self exists on the level of thing-in-itself, and therefore does not necessarily have to follow the phenomenological laws of causality.

I wonder, though – is it possible for us to experience and/or know the thing-in-itself? Or are we forever trapped in the cave (or cubicle as Eyedea says in the song linked above) of our own a priori categories of understanding? Would it ever be possible for us to expand on the categories of understanding, or even add/create new ones? Is it possible that there are categories of understanding that geniuses have that other people do not have? Could the categories of understanding ever encapsulate the thing-in-itself? If we cannot perceive the thing-in-itself empirically, would it ever be possible to understand it rationally?