Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Three pearl milkweed flowers

with 31 comments


From May 1st in Schroeter Neighborhood Park come these three pearl milkweed vine flowers (Matelea reticulata), several buds, one leaf, and one ant. In the universe of flowers, not that many are green, a color normally associated with foliage and photosynthesis. Also unusual is the little pearly structure at the center, inside of which lie each flower’s reproductive elements.


And speaking of pearls, I’ve been reading Julian Baggini‘s The Ego Trick. This passage sets forth probably the book’s most important point:

It would be claiming too much to say that neuroscience has fully explained what selves are and how they can exist. Nevertheless, real progress has been made in recent decades and we are now in a position to at least sketch out how the self is constructed.

The most important finding, which seems to be universally accepted by all researchers into the self and the brain, is that brain research has given up on the search for the pearl of self. As the clinical neuropsychologist Paul Broks put it to me, ‘We have this deep intuition that there is a core, an essence there, and it’s hard to shake off, probably impossible to shake off, I suspect. But it’s true that neuroscience shows that there is no centre in the brain where things do all come together.’ The unity of the self is not to be explained in terms of a single, unified brain region, which acts as the master controller.

This is not what common sense would expect, but philosophers have anticipated it. For some time now, they have been wary of explanations which commit what is known as the homunculus fallacy. This is best explained through the example of vision. Armed with an elementary knowledge of how the eye works, it is tempting to think that light shines on the retina and then the brain creates from this a single, three-dimensional image. But who sees this image? The temptation is to think (or perhaps more usually assume) that there is a kind of mind’s eye which inspects the image in the brain. But then how does this ‘mind’s eye’ see this image? It cannot be that there is a little person — a homunculus — in our brains which watches mental images. If that were the case, we’d have to ask what was going on inside the head of that homunculus. Would there be another mental image, and if so, what would be seeing that? An even smaller homunculus? If we continued to explain each stage in the same way, we’d end up with an infinite number of ever smaller homunculi, each packed Russian-doll-like into our brains. Such an infinite regress could never explain how any seeing actually went on at all.

What is true of vision is true of the mental in general. Daniel Dennett uses the term ‘Cartesian theater’ to label this misguided way of thinking. The idea here is that it is easily assumed that in order to explain consciousness, we have to think of there being a single, unified centre of consciousness somewhere ‘inside’ us, whether we think this is an immaterial soul or a special part of the physical brain. But this cannot explain the unity of consciousness at all. You cannot explain the unity of experience by simply positing an inner, unified experiencer. That simply begs the question: how is unity of experience possible in the first place?

So even before neuroscience shone a light on how experience is unified in the brain, philosophers had a theoretical reason to think that, whatever the answer was, it couldn’t be that there was a kind of ‘inner self’ doing the work. Neuroscience has in effect discovered through experiment and observation what philosophers had concluded just by thinking.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 11, 2022 at 4:32 AM

31 Responses

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  1. Every time you post these flowers, I sigh and think, “I wish I could see them!” Thank goodness we have you to capture their beauty. I smiled to see three flowers in this photo. Two flowers suggest earrings, but three could be a matching set: earrings and a necklace.


    May 11, 2022 at 7:28 AM

    • I was one of three people hosting a trail walk—the first since the pandemic—in Great Hills Park this past Saturday. Fortunately the timing was right for me to point out pearl milkweed flowers to people. The USDA map shows pearl milkweed in a bunch of the counties you visited last weekend, so it was only bad luck that kept you from finally seeing one of these flowers.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 11, 2022 at 8:28 AM

  2. They look so unreal and yet they are 🙂


    May 11, 2022 at 8:34 AM

  3. Those are astonishingly beautiful – not seen anything quite like them. My brain is hurting a bit from the neuroscience! Must be my little homunculus protesting 😉.

    • Yes, pearl milkweed flowers are unique. I suspect that even most people who live here, as opposed to Scotland or other faraway places, don’t know about them. That’s because only a small part of the population knows about more than a tiny portion of our native flora. In the woods in my hilly northwest section of Austin, pearl milkweed is common. I pointed it out to people who participated in a trail walk in our neighborhood nature park this past Saturday.

      The comment about your little homunculus protesting a hurting brain is funny.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 11, 2022 at 12:37 PM

  4. A very attractive flower!

    Eliza Waters

    May 11, 2022 at 5:14 PM

  5. They look like jewels!


    May 11, 2022 at 6:59 PM

  6. Never having seen this flowers anywhere but on your blog, they have always struck me as very unusual. I’m sure that Matelea reticulata would take issue with being told that there is no “pearl of self.” They might contend that the pearl is the essence of their being. 😊


    May 11, 2022 at 7:28 PM

    • Perhaps you’re right that the “pearl” at the center of each of these flowers is its long-conceived homunculus, inside of which perhaps resides another, and then another—even as “essence of their being” begins a chain, given that “essence” means literally “being-ness.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 11, 2022 at 8:49 PM

  7. Matelea reticulata is very reticulated, and pretty. As for the musings about consciousness, I guess the approaching bed time has made it difficult for me to follow. Or maybe the fact that I have just finished Watching Russian Doll on Netflix ? Too confusing. I’m at a point in my life that I tend to agree with the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa “nāo procures nem creias/tudo é oculto”.

    Alessandra Chaves

    May 11, 2022 at 10:47 PM

    • Approaching bed time isn’t the only culprit; the passage about consciousness would probably be easier to understand as a summary of the parts of the book preceding it.

      From what I’ve heard, Pessoa was quite a person—or rather persons, given his many literary aliases. Though much in the physical and psychological world remains hidden, scientists have made great progress. How much is ultimately unknowable may itself be unknowable.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2022 at 6:52 AM

  8. Excellent photo! Love the triangle.


    May 12, 2022 at 1:36 AM

    • Thanks. A triangle of five-pointed stars, and the first two odd prime numbers. It’s all quite arithmetical and geometrical.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2022 at 6:55 AM

  9. Lovely to see these beautiful flowers again.


    May 12, 2022 at 5:28 AM

    • This is their season, and so it became mine to show them again. I was glad to be able to point several out to people who participated in a trail walk in our neighborhood nature park this past Saturday.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2022 at 6:58 AM

  10. These lovely flowers look almost as if they’ve been embroidered, with a pearl in each centre. (I should think they’d make an excellent subject for embroidery.)

    Ann Mackay

    May 12, 2022 at 7:16 AM

    • Now that’s a change from the previous suggestions of jewelry. If you have the embroidery know-how, you’re welcome to go for it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2022 at 7:50 AM

  11. Wow, those are beauts!

    Steve Gingold

    May 13, 2022 at 3:36 AM

    • I’ve been telling other commenters that last Saturday three of us in the neighborhood hosted the first trail walk in Great Hills Park since the pandemic. When we’d set the date a month earlier, not a lot was happening florally in the park. By the time last weekend came, things had fortunately improved, and in particular I could point out several of these strange little pearl milkweed vines to people who came along on the walk.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 13, 2022 at 5:22 AM

  12. These vine flowers are lovely ..


    May 17, 2022 at 6:14 PM

  13. […] (Another passage appeared in a post two weeks ago.) […]

  14. This trio is beautiful! On another note, the subject of ‘self’ is something that has both intrigued and confused me since childhood.


    May 27, 2022 at 10:54 AM

    • You’re not alone. Philosophers have been pondering the question of the self for millennia, and now cognitive scientists have joined in, thanks to the discoveries recent technology has facilitated.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 27, 2022 at 11:26 AM

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