Ambiguons, and other Entities of Interest:
A Case Study in Pragmatic Constructivism
Jerry L. Sherman
Not too many philosophers need convincing of this, for when James wrote his famous words about the “trail of the human serpent” being everywhere, he was carrying on Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” of thought and voicing a discovery that has made itself almost as much at home in western philosophy as heliocentrism is in natural science. But not everyone pays attention to Kant, and it could be that this was just a theory that caught on because of certain attractions it had, but that will someday be discarded in favor of object realism again. If that is not a possibility, I suggest that it is because we can actually see our minds constructing reality.
Introspective evidence of constructivism may not be needed for most philosophers, but it will be useful in teaching about the Kantian turn in modern thought. A good explanation of what it means that our minds give order to reality can be supplemented by descriptions of phenomena that illustrate it; students can sometimes see it for themselves, if told what to look for.
But can we see the mind ordering reality, when what we see is always the reality that has already been ordered? Can we see the instrument? Not exactly. But there are conditions in which we can catch the instrument at work, especially when it does not do its work perfectly. The words “case study” have a medical tone, as if something were wrong here. Indeed, abnormal experience often tests a theory in a way that normal experience cannot. And this is what I offer here, some slightly abnormal experience that illuminates the claim that mind actively orders reality, and that it orders it according to its interests.
The subject of this case study is myself, and the abnormality is that I have been seeing things, things that do not quite exist. These are cases in which sense data give a wrong impression that would normally be ignored or screened out so quickly as to be unnoticed or barely noticed. But these have become entities of interest to me; I have developed an interest in things that “almost exist,” so I grant them reality, and I see them. They are entities--a new class of things, called ambiguons rather than discarded sensory data, given reality by my interest in them. These special things are evidence that the mind orders reality according to its interests.
The title promises other entities of interest, besides ambiguons. This does not refer to other sorts of abnormal experience, but rather to normal experience itself. The ambiguon, by standing apart slightly from normal experience, while yet being known in exactly the same way that real things are known, clearly marks out the process by which reality is known, highlighting the activity of mind and banishing the illusion that knowledge is just a passively received representation of what is “out there.”
The experience of seeing ambiguons especially illustrates the conceptualistic pragmatism of Lewis, for he makes a great deal out of the idea of a thing, an entity. It is because we can see things that we can know that the world has order and thus is knowable, overcoming Hume’s problem of induction. A thing is a predictable sequence of experience.<2> The not-quite-things that appear in the experiences I will be telling you about are predictions that were quickly disconfirmed. But the manner in which they come to life bears witness to the claim that this is how all reality comes to life.
The first ambiguon I remember seeing, about twenty years ago, was a red truck about ten blocks down a sloping city street that appeared for a moment to be a small red car just a few blocks away. Or I might say it was an apparent car that turned out to be a truck at a greater distance. In fact, the entity I am calling an “ambiguon” was neither the apparent car nor the actual truck; it misses the point of pragmatic constructivism to juggle this experience between the modes of appearance and actuality; if it is an entity, then it has an actuality of its own. But the description given, of course, makes it clear what actually happened, making use of a realistic point of reference: the car was not real, just an appearance.
I will say more about what the ambiguon actually is or what we ought to call it, but the important thing, what struck me when this happened, is that a red car changed into a red truck, and their distances changed. I saw both of them, and I saw both distances. But the real world does not change like that. So if my mind is simply a screen being impinged upon by representations of the real world, this could not have happened. In other words, representative realism was giving way to a Kantian view in which reality is a construct of mind, which means that I can, by changing my interpretation of the given, switch from one discrete construct to another, from the car to the truck.
That was the significance of the experience at the time. I do not recall my intellectual environment, except that I was an undergraduate student taking a lot of philosophy. Most likely I had been introduced to Kantian thought or led somehow to challenge naive realism or the Lockean view of perception, and the experience caught my attention because it demonstrated the new view.
I have no reason why that particular mental event occurred when it did. I was not on the lookout for such events, as I am now. It was probably just an especially ambiguous set of data that was presented, so that my mind tried to construct the data as a car a few blocks away and was able to do so for a fair interval, before switching to the correct reading of it. As a visually oriented and introspective person, I noticed the switch. It made a big impression on me, because suddenly reality was not “out there” and I was not just a camera; reality was within me, a construct of my mind, and thus it could change from one thing to another.
I did not go from there into an extreme of idealism, nor would such experience suggest that. Once the identification of the truck was made, it became a stable perception, one that could continue to this moment had I followed that truck for the next twenty years. In a sense, it does continue, since I believe that it was really a truck. I could not make it a car by any act of mind. The given comes from an objective reality. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which I had to construct both the car and the truck out of the given. And as constructs of my mind both were equally real; it is only the short life of the car judgment that makes it less real, and only in hindsight.
Common sense realism wants to say that the first judgment ---that there was a car--- was an illusion, while the second ---that there was a truck--- was a perception. But if the two were of the same quality and brought about in the same way, that is, if both were interpretations or judgments of the given, even though the earlier one had to be abandoned, then there is no “perception” that is of a higher epistemological status than the “illusion.” It is simply a matter of which one lasts. And if this is the case, then this must be the stuff of which known reality is made. All my perceptions are judgments, constructs of mind. This whole world of appearances before me has been put together by me as I seek out the interpretations of the given sense data that will hold together and allow me to function intelligently.
None of the above is new to anyone versed in Kant or the Pragmatists. But it is worth knowing that such theory can sometimes be seen, not just thought. If perceptions of reality were always correct in the normal sense, we would have few windows into the process by which we know reality. It is when something ---a thing--- appears and then disappears that we actually see what an appearance is. Otherwise, we only compare perceptions with dreams and other illusions, and this one-sided comparison leaves us believing that perceptions are a direct hookup of the mental machinery with the objective forms of reality. That view is corrected when we see that wrong judgments produce appearances as real as correct ones, but not for as long. In their brief stay, these manifest the fact that to have judged a thing to exist is to have granted it reality.
Some may think that this is a case study in rampant idealism. To moderate the feeling, I should make it clear that Lewis sees the given as an objective reality. “There are in experience these two elements, something given and the interpretation or construction put upon it.” And, “There is, in all experience, that element which we are aware that we do not create by thinking and cannot, in general, displace or alter.”<3> Yet he reserves the word “reality” for man’s arena, that which we have categorized. “Reality is more orderly than experience, because reality is experience categorized. Lack of certain type of anticipated order leads to a repudiation of the given content as ‘unreal.”<4> So a judgment of what exists, by predicting a continued, orderly experience, does grant reality to that thing, for as long as it lasts. We normally limit the word “real” to judgments that last for much longer, but an important thing is shown in the moment when we have granted reality to, say, a car-ambiguon that is about to change into a truck.
The ontological status of a thing that is really turning out to not be a thing, or to be a different thing, requires more attention, but I am beginning to look foolish making broad statements about a single experience that I had twenty years ago. I need more ambiguons for the discussion, and there have in fact been many more. There were not many in the years following the car-ambiguon, though there were a few, but when I reentered the field of philosophy and began to think about metaphysics and theories of mind they became quite common. I then gave them their name, ambiguons. Conceptualism suggest that the naming itself might be essential to their existence, but that seems not to be true, for I observed them for some time without that label. What made them become more common was my interest in observing them. They were of interest to me, and this gave them reality.
The frequency of ambiguons varies. At the time this paper was first written, I was seeing them sometimes two or three times in a day, but sometimes a week or so might go by without one. This frequency is not under my control, which is evidence that I do not control the given, nor does my interest have full liberty to produce what it likes out of the given. These are real things, sets of experience that cross my path only sometimes; yet they are things I would not have constructed out of the given if I had not been interested, as a student of philosophical psychology, in meaningful introspective data of this sort. The normal thing to do is to screen them out.
Most ambiguons are not appearances of one thing that turns into another, but appearances of a thing that does not exist at all, except as a set of sensory inputs that give rise to a temporary experience. For instance, I saw a horse at the back of my property, where we have had horses, but it disappeared, and I saw that the painted metal fence, peeling and rusted, has produced a shape that can be interpreted as a horse. This ambiguon is different from many others in that it was repeated once or twice, and in that I can go look at the pattern that produced it any time I please. But I cannot go on repeating the appearance; my brain has duly recorded that this is no horse, and it will not play games with me. Thus my mind cannot construct just anything out of the given, and even given favorable material it cannot produce a reality experience that it knows already is inaccurate. Pragmatic constructions are not done by conscious choices, but because the brain is trying out interpretations of the sense data at hand.
Another ambiguon was the appearance of a man kneeling at the corner of my desk at home, as if he needed to quickly sketch something and did not have a chair at hand. These interpretive details were part of the glimpsed concept; that is, I did not glimpse a man praying. The cause of the ambiguon was a pile of laundry, but no obvious spatial form of a person was in it.
Many other ambiguons are simpler. I glance over my shoulder while driving, and a suction cup on the rear side window appears briefly as the moon in the sky; a chance pattern of leaves and trash near the sidewalk appears to be a cat, especially if some motion is appropriate for a cat. These are all cognitive moves toward the assimilation of data into a judgment about a predictable pattern in the real world, which is Lewis’s definition of a thing; but they are all aborted when more information enters the system and invalidates the prediction.
At one time it occurred to me that if ambiguons are fleeting misrecognitions, then there are probably even more fleeting ones, slight possibilities of interpretation that exist in large number in any complex arrangement of sensory data. So if my interest in introspective research had lowered the standard of reality judgments and allowed me to see things I previously would have ignored, then it might be possible to lower my standard even further and be surrounded with hinted entities. There was some confirmation if this: I did see a lot of faint ambiguons over the next day or two. Then habit took over, and I returned to seeing only the better developed ones. Although my interest in such things has made a permanent difference in my treatment of the sensory world, my brain is trained and habituated in a certain way, and I cannot by my experimental zeal overcome its training altogether. The experiment did work, but I had no genuine motive that would cause a permanent change in my manner of processing beyond the ones I have been telling you about.
Are these ambiguons really entities? What is their ontological status? I have called them “fleeting misrecognitions” and “appearances” and “invalidated predictions,” because in the framework of realism they are not real. In terms of object realism, they are appearances that did not connect to an object “out there.” But even the “real things” are appearances that do not connect absolutely to an external world (or else modern philosophy would have had no problem of epistemology). Thus what actual test is there of reality but the pragmatic one, the endurance in time, the effectiveness of the prediction? Judged in that way, these ambiguous sets of data are not real, but by the same token they are real for a moment, because they do not appear unless the mind has judged them to be interpretable as things, with lastingness. They are brief manifestations of the very same conditions under which we judge as real all the things of the world. Their brevity allows us to see how our minds are constructing things.
It may not be important to decide that the ambiguon is a thing. But since we have anti-realism, and we have views like that of C.I. Lewis, that reality is the conceptual associations—the things or events—that human interest constructs out of the given, it is significant that certain patterns of experience that would normally be ignored can become of interest to someone and then begin to appear as fleeting things. It bears out the theory, for these things appear to those who are interested in their appearing. At the same time, the theory explicitly grants reality to these strange things I have been seeing, for they are the constructs of my interests.
Clearly the ambiguon is an odd animal. It is an event, more than a thing, but that is not an ontological difference, just a distinction that often fades in the real world. If a rock is a thing and a rainbow an event, what about a delicate flower or ripe tomato? Some things do not last too long and are still called things. All things can be understood as events, with certain expectations about lastingness. But if I briefly see a child-ambiguon in the clean laundry stacked on the couch, is this too brief an experience to be a thing or event?<5> Or is this disqualified because it can only be seen from a certain angle? Meteors and the paths of electrons in cloud chambers have the same limitations.
The ambiguon concept is parasitic upon other concepts; I need the idea of child to have the idea of child-ambiguon. But note that once I have misrecognized the data as a child, very briefly, I then begin to think not of the child, nor of the laundry, but of the child-ambiguon. I apply a higher-order concept to the experience of having briefly believed a child was there. Thus an ambiguon comes into existence. In the case I am remembering I even walked back into the room a little later to see if it was still there. It was not. It was un-thing-like of it to disappear so quickly, but ambiguons are elusive things, like bubbles. In presenting itself as something else and then disappearing, this child-ambiguon did exactly what ambiguons do.
Despite its novel qualities, the ambiguon is a definable slice of reality: a set of data that invites interpretation as a certain kind of thing but turns out not to be that. It is a presentation of sensory data that leaves the brain some choice about what reality judgment to make. The definition produces a strange assortment of class members, for these parasitic concepts have little in common except their counterfeiting tendency. But this does give them an essence. And it is not such a strange essence if we consider that essences are a function of a subject’s interests. The essence of the ambiguon is that it reveals, as a negative example, how mind normally grasps the predictable regularities of the given.
Since it can be defined, and since it is of value to some people (introspective philosophical psychologists) and can be looked for (but don’t ask where), the ambiguon is real in the same way that others things are real. It is one of the things that can be drawn out of the given by human subjectivity.
If the ambiguons are real, this is support for the view that human subjectivity plays a creative role in the formation of reality; naive realism seems less viable if experiences of this sort are possible. Of course, there is a circularity here: the ambiguons support the theory, and the theory grant reality to the ambiguons. But even if we should choose not call them “real,” reserving that word for more pragmatically respectable sorts of things, they do appear for those who are on the lookout for them, and I think I have shown that there is no fundamental difference between these fleeting appearances and the more durable ones that make up our known world. The ambiguons are real because they appear, and in their fleetingness they give us insight into what all appearances are: mental constructions.
If we are all agreed on some sort of constructivism, then the ambiguons are significant mainly as a teaching device. Whether some students would start to see them if encouraged to start looking, I do not know, but they are one of the ways appearances can be held up for inspection as appearances, dispelling the habit of naive realism. They are useful in the way that the optical illusion of the moon's hugeness on the horizon is useful, to show that our eyes do not just respond as a camera to the stimuli of light rays, but construct something.<6>.
In fact we are not all agreed on constructivism, for some pretty much ignore it, and then there is a one-sided anti-realism, which downplays the role of the given. The experience of the ambiguons seems to require both that our minds construct reality and that they operate within limits as they do so. We are unable to stretch things beyond what the given has provided, and although our interests affect what we see, we cannot consciously choose to interpret given data just any old way, but are constrained by a more fundamental level of decision-making within our psyches.
The ambiguons are may also be significant to our discussions about whether or not “mind” and “inner experience” are needed ideas. Like optical illusions, these seem to be difficult to reduce to behavior. On the other hand, they are “reports” that we make to ourselves. Reality judgments are decisions that something does or does not exist; the moon in the sky changes to a suction cup on my window when I decide that that the latter is the correct (stable) interpretation. It is significant that appearances correspond to such reality decisions or reports to oneself, but they do appear, and the question of whether appearances should be reduced to reports is too difficult to address here.<7>
The most important thing, I think, is that the ambiguons demonstrate both constructivism and its limits, its constraints. We cannot make a lot of different things happen in the world by the way that we interpret it, for we seem to be up against a force greater than ourselves. But there is also the intriguing possibility that the limits have to do with nature and technology, while in other areas of experience we may be able to explore our creativity much further. The ambiguons are little stumps of aborted judgments about reality, but they illustrate that in the right conditions reality could sprout many unexpected branches. I am thinking of the child who can spread a net of fantasy and meaning across practically any field of given experiences, and of the artist, whose bread and butter is to explore novel aspects of reality. There are also religious possibilities, for believing in God is really a way of interpreting the given. If in the future the engineering work of the world is largely done, needing only minor maintenance, we may find ourselves granting reality to whole new avenues of experience.
1. Clarence Irving Lewis, Mind and the World-Order (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929).
2. Lewis writes: “This assumption of the existence of things, that is, of certain recurrent correlations in the sequence of possible experience, is all that is required for the validity, as probable, of empirical generalizations, or ‘laws,’ and of the argument from past to future with respect to these.” (p.373)
3. Ibid. p. 48.
4. Ibid., p. 365.
5. Lewis makes it a key point of his theory of knowledge that a concept and the object of it, the thing, have a “time-span”; they do not exist in the “specious present.” (p. 61) Thus if an ambiguon had no time span it could not be a thing. But the ambiguon does exist in time, just not for very long. If it were not in time at all, it would not appear in the phenomenal world.
6. Various optical illusion can be used to illustrate the role of mind in ordering reality. One that I have observed is that a large airplane and a small airplane, traversing visual space at the same rate, have different apparent speeds. I judge the larger one to be further away and moving faster, just as I judge the moon on the horizon to be farther away and larger. Another illusion I have noticed and just saw in Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols) is that sounds from the real world that we could not anticipate fit into dreams as anticipated, so that we must have constructed time in our dream “after” hearing them in the given world. Nietzsche generalizes the point to waking experience, too, though that would require some argument. In various ways, these sorts of things demonstrate the ordering role of subjectivity.
7. I am thinking of the materialists in the mind-body debate for whom experiences seem to reduce to reports that we make to ourselves. The ambiguons support that view, because when more information enters my mental system and I change my decision about reality, then the experience changes. But as a neo-dualist I find the appearances themselves interesting, regardless of their basis in some sort of mental report or decision.