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!"
Well, this is very interesting. Trying to explain phenomenology to most of those educated in the western traditions is a challenging task. Perhaps it is not strict Husserl/Merleau-Ponty phenomenology, but it captures the flavor of it, as much as I understand it, which is not very much at all.
But I was trained as a linguist, back when Chomsky was all in vogue; the sixties. It occurred to me recently that the formal linguist is very like an economist, at least in mode of thought. Things such as pragmatics and extra-verbal communication cannot trouble the formalistically-inclined linguist, because they cannot be expressed algorithmically. Just as the economist must have mathematical models, because otherwise he would have to deal with real-life.
Of course there are now said to be "behavioral economists", whose theories are perhaps less rigid, though perhaps, from the little I read of it, they apparently are simply recycling the cognitive psychology of the 1970s. Perhaps it is deeper than that.
And there are linguists such as George Lakoff, but he's too far out to get respect (except from his acolytes).
The human paradox will probably never be understood fully, and of course it can never be resolved. When you read history, you realize that we have not changed very much. We have, of course, evolved a magical technology. No, I am truly not being sarcastic, it is wonderful and magical. Enchanting. But we do not progress in any sense that would help us understand who we are. To do that, we would have to step outside of human-ness.
But the magic entrances us, thrills us, comforts us. It is of course helping us dig our grave, but it cannot be denied. Political suicide.
Anyhow, Dmitri, very interesting ruminations.
In "Talking with Horses", (c 1975, Trafalgar Square Publishing), H.N. Blake posits some limited number of sounds that horses make, and signs that signal message content.
Blake contends that there are 47 distinct messages, with sub-messages and variation upon that 47, that horses typically convey.
Each herd, though, expresses these messages in different terms. Some are common between groups of horses (that is, horses within sight of each other), while others tend to vary more in how they are expressed. Blake explains the process of adapting "language" contributes to the fighting and mayhem when adding a new horse to a herd.
But I think you overlook the way American society is turning, embracing violence and chaos in reaction to aberrant convictions of the President and Congress. The rise of mixed martial arts as a public venue, recent movies returning to the violence of early cartoons - Knocked Up, Kick Ass, Iron Man, Hellboy, Wanted - the graphic violence seems almost like teenagers rebelling against restrictive parents.
What you term convictions and changing convictions takes on a more ominous overtone, when you factor in differing levels of authority - and perceptions of authority being capricious and in violation of accepted protocols.
The majority in America tend to be convinced that the majority - be it opinion, be it conviction, be it understanding of what is best, be it popular rhetoric - should be in control of general direction of the nation, a perception that the government is not adhering to the majority will becomes a rapidly escalating progression of hostilities between government and governed.
Where you are examining signals of sound, and sight, and behavior, I look to messages. A message includes conveying information to another, and identifying a response. "Send a message to Congress" has distinct political and communicational meaning.
Your posts seem to come at times when I am dealing with similar dilemmas. Currently I am attempting to enlighten a "dinosaur" (my ex-gf's father), who is my former employer, whose daughter remarked to me that she "doesn't want to think about these things" and wants to "enjoy [her] life." I would often remind her that reality is going to happen whether it is ignored or not. She listens closely to what her father has to say, so I presented him with the Guardian's article covering the US military's recent Joint Operating Environment report, in hopes it would open his eyes and perhaps his daughter's. His responses? I'm sure you can guess, they rhyme with "Waah!"
fantastic piece. Thank you.
You have come the closest to explaining why some get it, some can look it in the eye, and why some simply never will.
For me, I must maintain the courage of my convictions.
Thank you for sharing your deep wisdom Mr. Orlov. Perhaps scientifically grounded insights such yours will help avert the destruction of our curious species.
Thanks for the great article! It hit me in many ways. First of I'm an animator, and all the great animators I have learned from has viewed the subtle language of the body and the millions of small twitches and variations in the face as the true language. The spoken language is either a lie, or a confirmation of what your body said. And that's what alot of us animators devote our lives to study.
Secondly, I plan to give up on animating, and buy a farm on an island of the coast of Norway. It's funny, how accurately you tend to put words to what I feel, but can't always explain.
Thanks for sharing!
Wonderful essay. Thanks.
Isn't language, the human version anyway, a formal system in the way of mathematics? As far down that path as we are, attention to meta-communication (tics, eye movements, posture, so on) has atrophied, as has the ability to understand meanings of them. Once, I suppose, we knew the meaning of how a lion walked (hungry, vs. merely avoiding flies), where a bird was headed, the silence in the forest, but no more.
As long as we fill our silences with this synthetic noise, these language-y thoughts, we won't be
listening to the sounds of the climate changing.
You hit this one out of the park. Great summary of the dilemma facing us, and a nice pointer towards the solution(s).
Here's to escaping pointless mental traps constructed by deluded fundamentalist type rationalist thinking masquerading at 'critical thinking'.
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.
Couldn't have said it better, this is my plan.....
Of course, the topic of today's fine posting isn't news, Heraclitus said this some millenia ago:
Human nature is not rational; there is intelligence only in what encompasses him.
Others have noted the problem as well. That translation is probably not quite right, there's a new version that's supposed to be more accurate, but the idea gets across ok I think. And this problem has also been looked at in Buddhist work, and Taoist, but for reason people have a hard time of it. My guess is we've made a genuine religion out of our fancy thinking, and won't let it go, no matter how much evidence we pile up that it's not working out quite as planned, or not planned to be more accurate.
My guess is once we actually get this notion, well... things can change.
There is an even more basic problem having to do with language, namely reification, an extreme form of Fregean reference. I refer to confusing a wordk with an object related to it. This leads directly to magical thinking, not a good thing, at least for adults.
For example "the recovery" does not refer to anything, there is no corresponding object to it (as there isn't in general, if you get deep enough into it). Yet it is mentioned thousands of times a day in print and over the air, and it is saluted as something even though it is just sound.
Your cat is certainly more honest, and probably a lot smarter. He won't confuse the word "treat" with an actual treat unless there is a treat...
We raise chickens using mothers rather than incubators. When a baby chick hatches out of an incubator and sees food it eats - no problem. When a baby chick hatches under a mother momma tells it what to eat and what not to eat. The chick immediately knows which sound means eat and which means don't. Due to domestication perhaps some mother hens fail to "cluck" the food. In that case the chicks also fail to eat. They look at the food in a very interested but confused way. I think we have only ever had this happen with first time mother (of course in the future we don't set eggs under any who do this the first time so we have no data on a second try) Eventually these mothering challenged hens start clucking the food before the chicks starve. It is hard for us human caretakers to watch and wait while her chicks are not eating.
I have no idea exactly how to relate this to your post. I am sure if I try to think about it long enough I could try to tie it in somehow. But I am relying on my intuitive feel that somehow it does.... At any rate Dmitry if it is of any use to you in illustrating anything you are welcome to it. :)
I have expressed more fundamental views on the place of human society in the operation of the ecosystem. It is an eco-centric rather than an anthropocentric view. The essay "The Homo sapiens dream in stark reality" can be found at http://www.articlesbase.com/myhome/articles/view
great essay- had my laughing all the way through- but I have one point to pick on with you and that is about autistics being more robotic then human- I have found it to be quite the opposite. The autistics I know are the pure communicators. They don't know how to lie and are in many ways- more like your cat then robots. Logical thinking has no root in their emotional state.
Excessive thinking is perhaps the worst affliction of civilization – humans can live quite happily without any cerebral distractions by acting instinctively and in the moment. In fact our survival may demand that we jettison this bad habit of mental masturbation rather soon and start channeling our inner hominids.
In that spirit, my survival plan for the coming die off is rather simple, and derives from the following equation: longage of people + shortage of food + spear = one well fed cannibal! They say human flesh is quite a delicacy -- veteran long-pig eaters prefer it to any other game. The biggest treat is of course the brain, which is cooked by tossing the skull into the fire and letting it bake for a while. Crack that charred cranium open with a stone axe and slurp out the steaming strands of bloody gray matter – absolutely delicious! And don’t forget the eyeballs!
I think "free will" is choosing to explore, exposing both your hidden opportunities and lines of conflict before you cross them.
It means thinking of there possibly being a real world to discover, of course, but I seem able to explore that question too.
Excellent observation about human behavior.
Just stand near any office water cooler and close your eyes.
Pay close attention.
You will hear people engaged in bird like mimicry of each other's noises.
Typically it is a common laughter pattern.
What is said before the lagh or chuckle is not really important. What is important is that each burst of communication noise ends with a giggle or chuckle that closely mimics those of the others in the group.
Peep, peep! Look at you, Dmitri!
(wasn't that clever?)
Great fun to read your yawpings, as usual.
Wow. Your piece just scuttled my dissertation in progress. I would agree that convictions can't easily be changed through discourse. But perhaps if the huge number of self-censorers out there began to speak out, cumulatively that might begin to have an impact. That is, if time were available for that process to play out. Or....my dissertation might be toast.
I think there is something else at work that impedes Americans from being able to even discuss such subjects (overpopulation, the disaster of suburbia, the car economy, the corn economy, etc.), namely, that many people do believe that the world is going to end soon. Jim Kunstler has made this observation and I think he is right on target.
If people are already thinking of the Beyond because they have the conviction (!) that the end of the world is preordained and is near, they probably want to enjoy the little time they have, have a good time, and so on. It's irresponsible, of course.
As I was reading what you had to say about people's innate need to show off how smart they are by talking, I was thinking "That applies to people who comment on blogs." Including those on this thread.
Aren't I smart for observing that?
The migration and stampeding instinct were accurately characterized, but perhaps another animal--the beaver--could demonstrate why we humans behave as we do. In fact, there was an interview with a beaver in The Onion a couple of years ago, with the notable quote, "Must work! Must work! Build, build, build!"
Damn straight, Mr. Orlov. It is high time to be unreasonable.
I recently gave a talk on the subject of global warming, and pointed out that any reasonable person, presented with all the evidence, would declare "we're screwed." I then said, to my rather small but attentive audience, "that means we must be unreasonable."
“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet."
Phenomenal piece, Mr. Orlov! I definitely consider this one of the best, if not the best I have seen on your blog.
I could never help myself thinking how different our thought, speech and behavioral patterns are based on the culture.
In the West, for example, a person who talks the most in business meetings is deemed to be a prime decision maker. In many Eastern cultures it is the reverse – the more you talk in those meeting, the less of a decision maker you come across as; if you talk too much, you may come across as a non-entity at all (I am only talking of business negotiations here, not personal exchanges).
I have seen some put the similar point across about different herds exhibiting different behaviors – our communication is based upon many factors, such as history, cultural background, sometimes even tribal or national peculiarities. Our attempts to systemize the results of our experiences and behavior, be it economic, social or linguistic ones, are based, I think, on our innate drive to compartmentalize the data and simplify it down to a manageable state (mental illnesses may be caused by mind’s inability to discard some of the data and thus, becoming overwhelmed with the inputs, result in some forms of schizophrenia – definitely a limitation we have).
Is it not possible that we are all trying to find the simplest interpretation of the reality we live in? This reality can be enormously complex with many streams feeding in and affecting one another; could it not be that because of this complexity we have decided to specialize and have nearly eliminated ‘the generalist’, an individual who is able to ‘connect the links’. Our education is also – unfortunately – geared towards this narrow specialization, whereby we learn just one aspect of our experience and knowledge and forgo directly or indirectly related or affected systems in our environment (the origins of ‘unintended consequences’?). Would this not lead to the very ‘Baah’ type democracies you have so graphically described (don’t get me started on this, I tend to think that any political structure has to be dependent on the current situation and, if for instance, feudalism warrants it, the system should be flexible enough to adopt some aspects of it to accommodate current requirements of a given society).
All in all, a great article, and on the other note, have you ever considered putting this type of a discourse in the book?
Damn, I've spent too much time on Facebook and I can't read anything over 50 words. OK, not really, but the point is made.
We live in a world of assumptions, terrorist threat, economic recovery, capitalism, etc. that cannot be challenged because the average person cannot read your post. Probably even the average college graduate in the US couldn't.
In the meantime the separation between reality and common consensual language is growing by leaps and bounds. Reality always wins; the snap felt when language loses will take heads off.
What kind of an animal am I? I thoroughly enjoyed all these words on a screen and laughed quite often. Now I am wondering about Kathy's chickens. How unreasonable so I need to get?
Wonderfully engaging. The depth at which you think is almost intimidating but it does make me challenge the perceptions I have amassed over my life as convictions. As another poster indicated; perhaps your talent as a thinker may help us avoid becoming extinct by our own hand.
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