Understanding Regularities 5: Inner Space and Outer Space

The Inner-Outer dyad is a regularity that shows its trace in many domains of human thought and action. Many fields of inquiry base themselves on a cognitive core involving a mapping between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Consider mystical traditions: despite their different emphases, the unitive experiences of Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist provenance involve a mapping from the mystic on to an overarching non-sensory reality. A secular counterpart of the mystical micro-macro mapping is Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. The micro-macro mapping is not restricted to visual or mystical representations, it also appears in language. The Tolkappiyam (the earliest work on grammar and poetics in Tamil) makes the distinction between akam and puram. Akam is the exterior aspect of language/poetry while puram is the interior aspect of language/poetry.

For the cognitive scientist, the inner-outer mapping is at the core of a cognitive study of space, for it uses human capacities for mapping present in other cognitive domains, such as language, suggesting that the mapping might be an innate capacity of the human species. We can understand the inner-outer mapping as a universal cognitive regularity. In ordinary language and conception, the mapping from the person to the outer world is done from body parameters on to attributes of objects in the immediate environment. This is most evident in the semantics of prepositions, such as “IN FRONT OF”. By trying to map the body on to the entire cosmos, and not just individual objects, artistic and contemplative experience pushes the human capacity for mapping to its limits. As work in philosophy and logic has shown, attempts to say the ineffable or know the unknowable are not incoherent — the apparent contradictions reveal structures that lie at the limits of thought. Mysticism or art, in trying to experience the ineffable, might give us an important window into the limits of cognition itself.

The analogy with mathematics is useful; ordinary language abstracts away from particulars, but mathematics takes that abstraction to an extreme, removing all traces of concrete existence from its formal structure. By pushing abstraction to its limits, mathematicians and logicians taught us much about the limits of abstraction such as the difference between provability and truth. The study of artistic and contemplative experience is likely to uncover limitations of cognition along other dimensions. The scientist’s focus is on the structural aspects of the inner-outer mapping that makes such a map possible in the first place, and there is no better place to start than with our early childhood experiences, since our adult beliefs are based on our childhood experiences.

To be continued.

Leave a Reply