Does a universe, or a meaning space, begin vaguely and become more definite or more determinate by developing ‘habits’ (i.e. by self-organization)? Or does it begin with a perfectly orderly state which is gradually eroded by entropy, falling into chaos? As he usually did with metaphysical questions, Peirce based his answer on logical principles, and argued against the ‘prejudice’
that in thought, in being, and in development the indefinite is due to a degeneration from a primary state of perfect definiteness. The truth is rather on the side of the scholastic realists that the unsettled is the primal state, and that definiteness and determinateness, the two poles of settledness, are, in the large, approximations, developmentally, epistemologically, and metaphysically.
CP 6.348, c. 1909)
This pattern also appears in studies of how a meaning space is embodied in a developing brain (Chapter 13). In Walter Freeman’s ‘circular causality’ model, ‘the patterns of neural activity are self-organized by chaotic dynamics’ (Freeman 1995). But the circularity of the process implies that as meaning spaces and habits take on form, they tend to impose a more definite and determinate order on the chaotic dynamics of brain activity. Thomas Metzinger (2003) offers a model which places more emphasis on the ‘top-down’ aspects of the process.
As a matter of fact some of the best current work in neuroscience … suggests a view of the human brain as a system that constantly simulates possible realities, generates internal expectations and hypotheses in a top-down fashion, while being constrained in this activity by what I have called mental presentation, constituting a constant stimulus-correlated bottom-up stream of information, which then finally helps the system to select one of an almost infinitely large number of internal possibilities and turning it into phenomenal reality, now explicitly expressed as the content of a conscious representation.… Recent evidence points to the fact that background fluctuations in the gamma frequency range are not only chaotic fluctuations but contain information – philosophically speaking, information about what is possible. This information – for example, certain grouping rules, residing in fixed network properties like the functional architecture of corticocortical connections – is structurally laid-down information about what was possible and likely in the past of the system and its ancestors. Certain types of ongoing background activity could therefore just be the continuous process of hypothesis generation mentioned above. Not being chaotic at all, it might be an important step in translating structurally laid-down information about what was possible in the past history of the organism into those transient, dynamical elements of the processing that are right now actually contributing to the content of conscious experience.… Not only fixed network properties could in this indirect way shape what in the end we actually see and consciously experience, but if the autonomous background process of thousands of hypotheses continuously chattering away can be modulated by true top-down processing, then even specific expectations and focal attention could generate precise correlational patterns in peripheral processing structures, patterns serving to compare and match actually incoming sensory signals. That is, in the terminology here proposed, not only unconscious mental simulation but also deliberately intended high-level phenomenal simulations, conscious thoughts, personal-level memories, and so on can modulate unconscious, subpersonal matching processes.
— Metzinger (2003, 51-2)
This model translates easily into the Kabbalistic idiom, where the primary process of divine emanation is depicted as top-down in the standard ‘Tree of Life’ diagram. In Zohar 1:183a-b (Matt 1983, 80-83), for instance, dreams, visions and prophecy represent various levels of what Metzinger calls simulations. They are governed by the divine language but corrupted to various degrees (hence the ‘levels’) by the influence of ‘the body,’ i.e. the personal history, anxieties and limitations which darken the imagination. It is the interaction of the influences from above and below – from superpersonal and subpersonal levels, you might say – that generates phenomenal reality. Freeing the divine component from the corrupt requires interpretation, which then allows the creative power of ‘Speech’ to assume the prophetic guidance function:
every dream is from that lower level,
and Speech commands that level;
that is why every dream follows the interpretation.
— Matt (1983, 81)
It is the realization (or ‘fulfillment’) of the dream which ‘follows’ interpretation in the temporal order, and this happens because conscious experience is governed by (and thus ‘follows’) the meaning process. ‘Human interpretation is effective because its words activate the divine realm of Speech [Shekhinah], who then translates the dream into reality’ (Matt 1983, 230). Language (i.e. the symbolic order) thus acts as final cause of perception.
In the meaning cycle, of course, this ‘reality’ is followed by a new interpretation, which in turn modulates expectations and modifies practice, and so on. The top-down and bottom-up streams take turns modulating each other (though it’s all happening simultaneously in the time that is real to the system as a whole). What Metzinger (above) calls ‘fixed network properties like the functional architecture of corticocortical connections’ could be the biological substrate of meaning space, the essential structure whose finer details are determined in ‘real time’ by the incoming stream of sensory information. The structure itself has of course evolved over a much longer time scale.
We are hunters and gatherers of meaning, to the extent that we can attend to significant objects. In any given moment of perception, the significance of an object appears before the finer details of its appearance, and guides the selection of details for special attention. Hurford (2007, §4.3) argues that the way attention works is a powerful constraint on semiotic (and linguistic) structures. Specifically, he asserts the primacy of global attention over attention for details in the human cognitive process.
The general idea of the distinction between global and local attention is given by Treisman (2004, p. 541): ‘An initial rapid pass through the visual hierarchy provides the global framework and gist of the scene and primes competing identities through the features that are detected. Attention is then focused back to early areas to allow a serial check of the initial rough bindings and to form the representations of objects and events that are consciously experienced.’ The theory was pioneered by Navon (1977), whose title, ‘Forest before the trees,’ expresses the phenomenon vividly. He summarizes: ‘global structuring of a visual scene precedes analysis of local features’ (p. 353) and ‘global processing is a necessary stage of perception prior to more fine-grained analysis’ (p. 371).
— Hurford (2007, 104)