Sunday, April 18, 2010
The Great Unreasoning
"Woof!"—"Meow!"—"Moo!"—"Baah!"—"Tweet!"—"How about them Red Sox!"
And, naturally, we find ourselves wondering, What are they all saying? What does it all mean? Does it mean anything at all, or is it just a lot of meaningless background noise?
To be sure, sometimes it is just noise. But it seems that while animals use just one or two utterances (bark, growl, whimper) to convey an entire range of meanings, humans use a vast, seemingly infinite array of utterances to convey just one meaning: "Me! Me! Look at me! I am important! My opinions matter!" How is it that animals, with their restricted vocal repertoire, nevertheless manage to convey thoughts such as "Let's all fly south now!" or "Tiger on the prowl! Form an orderly stampede!" while we, with our virtual symphony orchestra of linguistic means at our disposal, never seem to manage anything better than the weak and ineffectual "What I think we should all do is... baah!"
Recently, science has started to shed light on the phenomenon. In one experiment, dogs were given bones to gnaw while two different kinds of prerecorded growls were played to them: playful growls and defensive growls. To the human ear, the growls are almost indistinguishable. However, it was observed that a statistically significant number of dogs would leave the bone alone whenever a defensive growl was played to them. In another experiment, human infants were instrumented with electrodes and two types of prerecorded human voices were played to them: calm, soothing voices and angry voices. The infants were observed to remain calm when hearing calm, soothing voices and to become agitated when hearing angry ones. "It is uncanny!" said Doctor Obvious, a Behavioral Scientist at Johns Hopkins University (no relation to the famous Captain Obvious). "It is as if there exists some innate, private channel of communication that we cannot directly observe." How is it that a mere infant, incapable of even parsing the sentence "I am feeling very angry right now!" is nevertheless able to sense anger? To an Asperger Syndrome sufferer such as Doctor Obvious, this appears as a great mystery.
It appears that animals, human infants and, to a lesser extent, adult humans have the uncanny ability to read minds. It is not a pure sort of telepathy; for instance, it is of no use when trying to figure out what random number your dog or someone happens to be thinking of. (If a mind is sufficiently simple, it is sometimes possible to sense what dollar amount it is thinking of.) It is also not a pure sort of telepathy because it generally doesn't work over distance. A lot of it depends on physical proximity, and on synesthetic perception, which combines sight, sound, smell, touch and other senses into a single perceptual bundle. It is a sort of communication that arises spontaneously out of shared experience, and cannot be simulated or reconstituted in its absence.
Animals can be taught to make all sorts of noises, but they can rarely be taught to associate them with specific meanings. For instance, I taught our cat to whisper when meowing, to avoid waking up my wife. Now I can say "Shhh!" and the cat will meow silently. She will only do this in my wife's is absence. It doesn't matter whether my wife is sleeping or out for a walk or in France: the cat doesn't distinguish between different kinds of absence. She doesn't mean anything specific by her silent meowing, except "Fine, I'll be quiet if I must." I know this because, after years of study, I have learned to read her simple cat mind.
It is rather similar with us humans. We can learn to say all sorts of things and sound quite educated and intelligent, but of course it all still boils down to one thing: "Me! I am well-spoken, well-read and well-informed! My opinion matters! Listen to meeeeee!" To which I say, "Shhh!" Just as songbirds learn their specific birdsong to fit into bird society, we try to learn the dominant dialect—be it posh or jargon-laden or bad-ass or pseudo-folksy or crazy mumbling—so that we can say what those around us want to hear. Just as with birdsong, human speech is mostly not about communication but about demonstrating one's fitness. The actual communication happens along other channels: subtleties of voice, body language, sight, touch, smell and other sense-data, which I hesitate to call data since they cannot be usefully observed and recorded.
To be sure, we humans do have some communication strategies up our sleeves that give us a major advantage over other animals. These boil down to our ability to use what linguists call "wh" words (what, when, where and so on) along with their corresponding "th" words (that, then, there, etc.) which linguists call deictic terms, from the Greek δεῖξις (point of reference). We also have ways of indicating entities that aren't immediately present or visible ("the big rock on the other side of that hill") or not even directly observable (electrons, black holes) or that are never actually observable (angels, elves, pixies, etc.) This is all either useful or entertaining, or both, but we also have the strange ability to play a sort of mental puppet theater with entities that we can't directly observe, or can only observe under special, staged circumstances ("Behold, the Wizard of Oz!" or "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States!") and it is here that we tend to get into an awful lot of mental difficulty that other animals seem to be able to avoid.
Our species' hypertrophied linguistic abilities have allowed us to create entire systems composed of elements that we either cannot directly observe or cannot observe at all: mathematics, physics, ideologies, theologies, economies, democracies, technocracies and the like, which manipulate abstractions—symbols and relationships between symbols—rather than the concrete, messy, non-atomistic entities that have specific spacial and temporal extents and that constitute reality for all species. There is a continuum between products of pure thought, such as chess or mathematics, sciences which produce theories that can be tested by repeatable direct experiment, such as physics and chemistry, and the rest—political science, economics, sociology and the like—which are a hodgepodge of iffy assumptions and similarly iffy statistical techniques. Perfectly formal systems of thought, such as logic and mathematics, seem the most rigorous, and have served as the guiding light for all other forms of thinking. But there's a problem.
The problem is that formal systems don't work. They have internal consistency, to be sure, and they can do all sorts of amusing tricks, but they don't map onto reality in a way that isn't essentially an act of violence. When mapped onto real life, formal systems of thought self-destruct, destroy nature, or, most commonly, both. Wherever we look, we see systems that we have contrived run against limits of their own making: burning fossil fuels causes global warming, plastics decay and produce endocrine disruptors, industrial agriculture depletes aquifers and destroys topsoil, and so on. We are already sitting on a mountain of guaranteed negative outcomes—political, environmental, ecological, economic—and every day those of us who still have a job go to work to pile that mountain a little bit higher.
Although this phenomenon can be observed by anyone who cares to see it, those who have observed it have always laid blame for it on the limitations and the flaws of the systems, never on the limitations and the flaws of the human ability to think and to reason. For some un-reason, we feel that our ability to reason is limitless and infinitely perfectable. Nobody has voiced the idea that the exercise of our ability to think can reach the point of diminishing, then negative, returns. It is yet to be persuasively argued that the human propensity for abstract reasoning is a defect of breeding that leads to collective insanity. Perhaps the argument would have to be made recursively: the faculty in question is so flawed that it is incapable of seeing its own flaws.
Or we can argue that argument itself is perhaps not the right approach, and instead rely on direct observation. Formal systems and languages can be taught to machines, but natural human languages cannot. Observe that there aren't any robots that can speak a language—any non-formal language—with any degree of mental adequacy. This is not for lack of trying: there have been many large, ambitious efforts to capture all aspects of human language, including semantic models of the "real world"—all to no avail. As far as robotic technology, artificial intelligence and the like, all we can do is breed autistic savants. Lock some high-functioning autistic people in a room with some expensive computer equipment, and eventually they manage to reproduce, electronically if not biologically.
Humans lack the ability to make machines human, but they certainly do have the ability to make themselves machine-like, and some of us have formed a subspecies that mostly interacts with machines, and with other machine-like humans. There are now hordes of humans running around compulsively diddling their electronic life support units. Why do we need to design and manufacture robots when we can just breed them? When it comes to making machines that work and play well with other species, our record is no better. Yes, there are documented cases of cats that ride around on Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners, but we are decades away from engineering a Roomba that could successfully fetch a ride on a cat. Yes, it certainly is possible to condition animals to behave in a machine-like fashion, but people who do so stand to be accused of cruelty to animals. They should stick to experimenting on humans.
Another approach to take toward dislodging the strange notion that human ability to think knows no bounds is to put it down to an innate fault of human language (well, almost every human language): the arbitrary distinction it draws between being and doing, or between state and action. For no adequately explored reason, being is grammatically more often a state than an act. Is it easy to be you, or is it hard work? If so, how do you do it—be, that is? If you not so much act as happen or occur, then everything you do is the result of everything that you've done and that's happened to you over your entire life. If you speak a language, it is just your being acting itself out. There is, then, no language that can be abstracted away from your entire existence, any more than a meow can be meaningfully abstracted away from a given physical cat: you have to be there to hear it, or it's just not the same. Those who are interested in this train of thought should look up Phenomenology. Maurice Merleau-Ponty is my particular favorite.
If making machines into humans runs into difficulties with how well humans are able to think about machines, then what about the converse? How well can we fashion humans into machines, and where does that begin to break down? Making humans into machines (aside from direct human-machine interaction) commonly goes under the names of politics, political science and social engineering. The most advanced model of social organization we have attained is known as representative democracy, where all sorts of different people can make their opinions heard by voting, and their elected representatives then see to it that the majority opinion prevails on a wide array of public policy decisions.
Modern society is highly specialized, and so there are all sorts of different people, who know a whole lot about certain things and next to nothing about everything else. Suppose we have a society that consists of dogs, cats and sheep. You wouldn't want to take a sheep hunting with you, dogs are useless at trimming a lawn or rodent control, and cats... well, you get the picture. But they can still form opinions on all these things that they know nothing about, can't they? And then they can periodically go and cast a vote, to give voice to their opinions. Usually the "Baahs" carry the vote. When their elected representatives can't tell their constituents' opinions from their votes alone (this is the part that always makes me laugh) they have to look to opinion polls to find out what the populace is thinking at the moment; that is, what the sheep think of duck hunting and rodent control, and what sort of grass dogs and cats should have to eat. Alternatively, the different animals can form special interest groups, to lobby the government and to counter the prevailing majority opinion. But the politicians don't like to be seen as "caving in" to the special interests. And so either you have a corruption of the democratic process by the undue influence of special interests, or the "Baahs" prevail. And that is the best the world of politics has to offer, because alternative political arrangements are commonly viewed as being even worse.
Doesn't it seem laughable that the entire edifice of modern political science rests on mere opinion? Some mornings I entertain up to a dozen mutually contradictory opinions, and that's before even getting off the toilet! It is a flaw of the English language that when someone is convinced of something, the result is said to be a change of opinion. If one is indeed convinced, wouldn't that change one's convictions? But it's easy to see why nobody bothers to conduct "conviction surveys," because the results would be quite boring. Convictions hardly ever change, because they are generally not amenable to persuasion or argument. Convictions tend to form as a result of actual experiences, not from listening to pundits or experts or from reading the popular press. They form part of who we are, not what we might be thinking at any given moment.
It is almost impossible to change someone's convictions through persuasion or argument, and it is equally difficult to cause someone to form convictions through these same means. That is why the most difficult subjects of our time—ones involving hard issues such as overpopulation, natural resource use and depletion, global climate destabilization, looming national bankruptcy and the like—are more or less left out of public discourse. They are of no consequence as matters of opinion, while as matters of conviction they are political dynamite. Plus, just how many people are there whose lives have provided them with the experiences they would need to form convictions on these subjects? These subjects are avoided for the same reason one doesn't leave coiled hoses lying around a slaughterhouse: the sheep might think that they are seeing snakes, stampede and ruin your whole work-shift. It is much better to just let them move smoothly along and cast their vote for "Baah!"
The relatively few people who do have firm convictions are often regarded as "unreasonable" because their convictions cannot be reasoned away as mere opinions can. That to me seems exactly as it should be. Humanity is in the process of demonstrating that it can successfully reason its way into a cul de sac. But is there any reason to believe that it can also reason its way out of it? Perhaps it is high time to start being unreasonable, to decide for ourselves that we do not like the cul de sac into which our reason has steered us, and to refuse to go into it any deeper. Perhaps we could even find a way out of it. And perhaps a few of those people whose minds you can sometimes almost read will almost be able to read our minds as well, and will choose to follow us out. And the rest will just stand around and argue about it: "Baah!"