large and small news about language

What is the most ubiquitous human social activity?  I vote for conversation (see my post from 3/30/14).  The ease with which we carry on conversing belies the complexity of the matter:  listening and understanding is complex, formulating and uttering our next contribution is complex, taking conversational turns is not simple,  and keeping it all on topic and relevant seems more than some can manage.  We rely on social formulas, e.g., how’s the weather & how’s the family, to facilitate quick exchanges and we give more thought to our serious discussions.   Highlighting the skill needed to participate is the rapidity of our exchanges; a conversational turn may take less than a second and even long-winded turns generally take only a few seconds.  Yes, some people go on for sometime, but their listeners generally remember something else they have to do and move on.  Conversational turn-taking is so natural we have to learn to inhibit it in order to become listeners.  I learned this watching preschool story time where the initiates kept speaking up in response, that is only natural to them, but they eventually with the help of good teacher learn to just listen and save their participation for later, a very interesting process to observe.

To lose the ability to participate is really difficult and frustrating, as I learned working with stroke patients.  Many others lose the ability due to nervous diseases that impair motor control.  They listen and think of responding but the words won’t come, so it is a large report that scientists have developed a way to translate the brain’s motor speech impulses that are blocked from enactment directly into computerized speech.  I marvel at the complexity of translating the specific nerve impulses for the speech organs, i.e., lips, tongue, jaw, pharynx, larynx, etc., into the phonemes and then assembling those phonemes into coherent speech.  This study shows that this can be accomplished in principle and now the hard slog to make this augmentative communication practical begins.  I saw this large story at:

The small story is from the 3/30/19 Science News about singing mice and duets. Who knew?  (Well, maybe Frans de Waal did—I just read in his new book about how mice communicate through high-pitched squeaks outside of our hearing range.  They ‘laugh’ when their tummies are tickled. That Frans de Waal is a tickling fanatic, see my post 4/8/16). Scientists found out that a species in Central America sing to each other and then they studied their brains as they did so.  They found that one neural area produces the song and another controls it for turn taking (hmm.  Sort of like our left hemisphere controls speech and the right manages the pragmatics of turn taking?)  They discovered this by using either cold or drugs to inhibit one area or the other. These ‘duets’ are better termed conversations, I think, and they are “carried out with split-second precision”. Oh, and if the turn-taking area is numbed, the songs grow longer.  Tell me about it.  Anyway, a small report of a finding that contributes to our understanding of the brains, the mice’s and ours, on the way to helping with communication difficulties.

With a large and small news report now posted, I will travel on.

I think I see the problem here

It has come to my attention yet again that my society and culture are operating with less than optimal intelligence.  This would be a meta-level of analysis derived from several different data domains, including our dysfunctional government (as measured by the pragmatic goals of caring for social needs, maintaining our infrastructure, and proper stewardship of our planet), a loss of civility, what is called the polarization of politics and other issues of divisiveness such as dishonest efforts to win elections and accrue wealth/power, fair and equal justice for all, worsening inequality of wealth, falling science IQs, and rabid rise of conspiracy theories.  Some blame this on our electronic mediums, and surely, I think, these accentuate our faults more than our virtues, but are not the actual source of the problem. Some blame human nature and its legacy of aggression and greed, but, as it turns out, our nature is much more cooperative, egalitarian, curious and honest.  It seems more apt to say that our cultural and social developments have gone down a road into a future now where our intelligence has become polluted, i.e., compromised.  We have wandered into some perverse La Brea tar pits of our own inept creation.  Will we escape them?  I personally doubt it, but in the spirit of spitting into the wind joyfully, let explicate my vision.

My complaint is not that we have become simpletons; simple people actually display a good deal of common sense, honesty, humility, compassion and humor. Nor is that we have become shallow, though many more today seem hardly able to get their feet wet in the intellectual pool. My complaint is more that our intelligence suffers from several depressing Ds: dilapidated, derelict, delusional and decrepit.  While we are not simpletons, we have great difficulty dealing with the slightest complexity, i.e., we talk and think in simple sound bites and think we have covered the topic.  Oops! We have a thought, which is really a cognitive figure emerging into consciousness from a subconscious ground, and forget that the figure-ground relationship is definitive.  This deficit degrades much of the due diligence required for clear thinking.  We accept statements and stories without considering their wider context, a context which can amplify or reduce their importance and which can provide much fodder for further cogitation necessary for critical thinking.  Yes, we have lost some ability to think critically but that, I assert, is due to more primary deficits.

I have recently run across several instances where someone asserted that one’s perception is what matters.  Well, perception does matter.  I only wish that they had been talking about perception at the time, but what they really expounded upon was someone’s narrative.  Now this is tricky, in the sense that it requires some patience with complexity.  Let me use a fairly simple and neutral example (as opposed to one involving racial or gender issues), science theory and practice.

In recent posts I have mentioned how many scientists, including Einstein and Susan Oyama especially in detail, understand that theory, i.e., narrative, largely determines how facts are interpreted and what facts are looked for/found empirically.  The usual example here is from Thomas Kuhn’s idea on scientific paradigms; the observations of the sky was ‘explained’ by Ptolemaic ideas.  We perceive the sun arcing across the sky.  The ancient narrative was that the sun went round the earth; now we moderns have a more accurate narrative.  Einstein conducted only thought experiments, yet his theories have led to practical findings of light bending around galaxies and time dilation affecting GPS satellites that require mathematical accommodations to stay accurate.

The point here is that our minds perceive according to our accepted narratives, and changing narratives is not simple or easy, nor do narratives extend into the future with failsafe adequacy.  Even though many of us now carry forward with narratives recognizing the pervasive racism and gender discrimination of our culture, contrary to what might have been the orthodox views taught us growing up, perceiving actual incidents is not straightforward—we sometimes see racism and discrimination where a fuller narrative would reveal other factors. For example, a person might be fired for discriminatory reasons or for performance ones.  Sometimes our narratives are prejudicial against such facts and subtleties.

How do our electronic mediums affect this?  In the 1950s/1960s thinkers like Norbert Weiner and Gregory Bateson developed cybernetics and that theoretical framework allowed us to study how systems function.  One key construct was the notion of positive and negative feedback controls.  Negative feedback works to keep the system functioning around a mean; think about your house’s thermostat working to keep your house at a certain temperature.  Positive feedback, however, works to amplify.  Sometimes this serves to elevate helpful concepts and messages, e.g., the pay it forward movement, but at other times it produces a vicious circle wherein some crank idea goes viral, e.g., conspiracy theories like pizzagate or Obama born in Africa.  In my youth I heard a good deal about the Golden Mean and the value of keeping steady, not too high or low.  Is that still taught, and if so, what does it mean in our electronic age?  Cultural waves rise and subside, some grow appropriately, ecologically through reasoned considerations but others become tsunamis, all too destructive of coherent, rational discourse.  I think our electronics usage exacerbates the latter phenomena.

A further point comes to mind here.  Many media types, e.g., news and sports publicists, play on a burgeoning cultural tendency to amplify whatever they are talking about.  I hear this in many musical performances, e.g., compare the strained emotionality of country pop to the more authentic classical country or Americana.  I watch sporting events and news shows that frame everything by hype.  Every sporting event is a gladiatorial thunder dome (“two teams enter, one team leaves”) and every political debate is a “circular firing squad”.  I would mention how every news story is, no matter how stale or moldy, “breaking” (and yes, we all know the news is broken) or how they hype a single story for hours without providing anything new or, the horror of it, more context, but I think this is not just a lost cause, but a leading cause of our intellectual decrepitude.  To be clear, it is not fake news, just news very poorly done and quite incomplete.

Again I think all of this highlights our failure to appreciate the importance of the story-context relationships.  We construct reality through a figure-ground process.  We rely on orthodox narratives and other heuristics to facilitate this process.  Still we should understand by now (indeed, since Aristotle and Plato) that the figures we resolve are not final and are un-interpretable absent contextual considerations.  This prevents us from responding in measured ways.  An old colleague who was an expert in treating sex offenders worked mightily to train judges, attorneys, law enforcement, legislators and the public that “one size does not fit all”.  Some sex offenders are more, indeed some few much more, dangerous than others, and some pose little (but not zero) threat at all to re-offend.  Differentiating legal consequences and treatment options is only rational.  The ‘one size does not fit all’ applies to many all too common incidents of racism and sexual harassment and abuse.  Marching in Charlottesville, chanting white supremacist slogans and instigating violence is different (though still racist) from the governor having a black face person in his yearbook from over 30 years ago.  How may we deal with the differences?  Consider the contexts of the actions.  Similarly, Al Franken was hounded from the Senate because of a puerile photograph from some years back despite having no history of abusive behavior and plenty of history otherwise, while others (and you know who they are) with an extended history of abuse/harassment are excused to carry on. We currently have very limited options, e.g., courts for legal matters, for understanding the differences and implementing measured actions.  Why? Because we don’t even understand that these are in some serious sense false equivalencies, that there is at least a continuum of egregiousness, and that we need a reasoned method for their evaluation.  One size does not fit all.

My list of our intellectual derelictions goes on to cloudier areas. We moderns often lose sight of the complexity of life, of how Gaia is a whole organism that provides a nurturant ecology for life’s continuance.  Yes, many of us hold this narrative close to our hearts, but how is it that Americans, who once led the scientific community and whose educational system was exemplary, now have the highest percentage of climate change deniers?  How is it that diseases that were once well managed are re-emerging now due to the anti-vaccine delusion which itself seems contagious?  How is it that fewer Americans seek STEM careers while other peoples sacrifice much to order to gain them?  (Oh, let me not forget how many of us denigrate scientists and others as nerds.)  How can we tolerate the political appointments of people who are woefully ignorant and anti-science to head up agencies that demand a high level of scientific and technical expertise?  Because we think a thought about a scientific finding and then think that the complexity behind such findings is irrelevant to our firmly held figure of belief.

But wait, there’s more:  We seem uninterested in discriminating between actual/authentic and virtual/façade. We seem unconcerned about the effects of population growth on obvious matters like water and land usage and unaware of the understanding that population density leads to increased anonymity and that anonymity permits egregious behaviors, e.g., political and economic malfeasance, to flourish.  When humans lived together in a community where individual contact happened more widely and readily, many social constraints acted to mitigate selfishness.  Make the one per-centers live with those they exploit on a daily basis (take the kings out of their castles) and watch their shame rise just like in other primate societies, or have their asses handed to them in a sling.  (Thanks to Frans de Waal in his interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air for this keen observation of us primates).

Finally and what I have mentioned here many times over the years, we fail to appreciate our ignorance.  Our addiction to simplification and hyperbole, our tunnel vision focused on one figure exclusive of contextual ground, and our impatience with complexity really only hide our failure to appreciate our ignorance.  That scientists deal constructively with ignorance as a matter of course many choose to forget (Choose, you may ask?  Why yes, all of this is willful albeit cultural ignorance). When at their best both science and religion appreciate our ignorance before the mystery of the universe and understand the consequent necessity of cherishing the fragility of knowing and the importance of a process for establishing a consensual and adequate basis of fact for action.  (Science is better than religion at this because, as I have again written about many times before, science sees mistakes as opportunities for learning and not sins).

In a recent post I said that the sine qua non of intelligence is appreciation of one’s ignorance.  We only understand so far and so well at any one moment.  That we do not move through life more mindful of the issues inherent in our search for understanding and the shaping of our actions self-creates our own intellectual tar pits wherein our minds are trapped and stultified so that death comes to our culture.  Can we escape?  Sure. Will we here in America? Doubtful.  Hopefully some other people will rise to the challenge we seem to have abdicated and nurture healthy intellectual and social traditions.  What people and what culture will understand anew what true intellect requires and instigate a renaissance for the information age?  ?  ? ?  I hope they step up soon.

And so having spit once again into the wind, I happily travel on.


I have considered your idea and found it lacks contextual ties to reality. What now?

A belated happy Natural Noumenalist Day

I will copy below a post from 4/13/18 about that old iconoclast Christopher Hitchens and his wish that we would segregate the noumenal (think realm of ideas and forms, especially those without tangible or material presence opposed to its opposite the phenomenal) from the supernatural.  (See post 11/17/14 for more on the origins of this idea).  His suggestion struck me as wise and important—think of it:  every noumenal experience is natural—it may not be phenomenal, but neither is it supernatural.  And if it is natural, we can work towards understanding it, not as religious or spooky thing, but as something in the natural world.  I have taken to saying “If it is, it is natural; if it is not natural, it is not”.  And to be clear, this is different from positivism or a reductive materialism, because we acknowledge that something noumenal, e.g., spirit, is naturally present even if we cannot understand it in positivistic or scientific terms.  As I mention in the piece copied below, I appreciate any acknowledgement that we are ignorant about a topic and especially that maybe we will always be in the dark about it.  I think this very acknowledgement is the sine qua non of intelligence.  So to place a landmark in my mind (and yours?  well, maybe not–no one noticed I was late with this post) I designated Hitch’s birthday, April 13, as Natural Noumenalist Day to honor him and his seemingly small, very overlooked and remarkably important idea.

I meant to post a remembrance last Saturday, 4/13/19, but I had to travel away for a funeral.  My aunt Ferebee was one of the kindest people (who died at age 99, or as she said ‘almost 100’) I knew growing up, yet still took care of business and the details involved in doing things right.  As I sat through the visitation and service, I had the very noumenal experience that her children (my cousins) and grandchildren and others who knew her were all laughing with her remembrance.  Even the pastors praising her ‘life well lived’ were quite witty (and that is oh so unusual for Baptists).  Ferebee’s spirit ‘infected’ us with the delight of knowing her even as we cried knowing she had passed from our world.

I had still planned on re-posting my old Natural Noumenalist Day but was not sure when given my fatigue with travel, spring allergies and garden work and the fun celebrating a family birthday with plenty of food.  (Did I mention that Ferebee insisted on feeding her family and friends? Sunday dinners were very important to her.)

I write today because I have just read about another thinker who cherished the idea that our phenomenal world is so extraordinarily complex and that the noumenal minds, aesthetics and the sacred are all quite natural.  I am very pleased to be reading Noel Charlton’s intellectual biography Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earth.  I will post later more generally about this book but I was happy to read a bit earlier that Bateson wondered if there was ‘a sane and valid place’ for an atheistic form of religion between the two nightmares of nonsense:  ‘established materialism’ and ‘romantic supernaturalism’.  He wondered diligently “whether . . . . there might be found in knowledge and in art the basis to support an affirmation of the sacred that would celebrate natural unity.”


Gregory Bateson

I think that Bateson was another early natural noumenalist and that I will enjoy reading this book.  More later on that and now the post from a year ago:

On April 13, 1949, Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England. He was a brilliant essayist and exercised a keen intellect. I recently looked him up on Wikipedia and marveled at the number of people listed as his influences; that he took in so deeply from so many, I think, was critical to the quality of his writing and thinking. Today on this April 13th I want to remember him for something he said in a Youtube video of a conversation with his buddies, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (evangelical atheists the lot of them popularly known as the 4 horsemen of atheism). In response to a question from Sam Harris, he diverged from the rest a bit to their surprise when he said that he would not re-write history to purge religion in part because of the art inspired therefrom (this from a man who wrote a book God is Not Great, to which his friend Salman Rushdie whom he had protected from the fatwa replied that the title was too long by a word). He followed up with the statement, and this shows the independence of his intellectual mettle, that if he could change history, he would separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see my post on 11/17/2014). He maybe did not manage to achieve this in his lifetime but did plant a seed in my mind. Now consider in this light my 3/25/17 post on Jacques Monod who did do just that when he defined the soul not in terms of an supernatural immanence but in scientific terms: “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” We have only to make it so.

Wandering the wilds of Wikipedia I came across the ‘Brights’ vs. the ‘Supers’. Evidently some people of the atheist persuasion have banded together to call themselves the ‘brights’ and the believers the ‘supers’ (for supernatural), in the effort, I think, to be defined by what they believe and not by what they don’t. Commendable except they chose a term that implies the ‘supers’ are dim. They say, oh no, just like not being gay means you are straight and not somber, being bright does not connote others being dim. A couple of the 4 horsemen endorse this position, but not Chris Hitchens who said that for athiests to”conceitedly” self proclaim they are ‘brights’ is “cringeworthy”. I have to agree with Hitch on this one, but still to be defined by what you don’t believe does not make sense—it is a falsely constructed category, like someone who believes in the right to life, as some term themselves, could still be pro-choice for women. Being pro-choice does not entail being against one’s right to live.

As I read about our efforts to understand our world and universe, I always value those who acknowledge, even appreciate, our ignorance and these are mostly scientists because after all, science is based on the objective, i.e., not directly knowable, nature of the cosmos, so that even our most rigorous empirical efforts result in knowledge that is in some real sense conditional and therefore limited. I recently read in James Gleick’s interesting book on information that Curt Godels theorem essentially demonstrates that even our mathematical understanding is messy and incomplete and will always be so (again with contextual conditions). Remember Richard Feynman’s assertion that no one understands quantum theory and that saying you do understand it is proof you don’t—the half joke of a certified genius. I continue to follow efforts to understand dark matter and energy, efforts that seem to meet much frustration as we know ‘bright’ and not dark matter constitutes only 7-10% of the universe. We are ignorant of the other 90% even though many have good ideas. Still we don’t define scientists by what they don’t know or believe.

So back to those who hold, like Hitchens and Monod, that everything is natural, that even noumenal terms like ‘spirit’, ‘soul,’ and other ‘things in themselves’ that are unavailable to objective examination, and that, in short, what we call supernatural, when properly understood, is that facet of nature that we can apprehend but understand objectively only with great difficulty. What can we call ourselves? I propose the catchy term, ‘natural noumenalists’. I think that is a properly constructed category. And I further propose that today, April 13, be known as Natural Noumenalist Day. I will go now and enjoy our day. No need to travel on, just meditate on the quantum realm and get in touch with your ‘spooky’ entangled self. And say thanks to Hitch when you meet him.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

And now say ‘hi’ to Gregory Bateson.

Sun bears are us

One of the reasons I like Frans der Waal books so much is that he leads us to consider how we animals, especially us mammals, are alike in our talents.  One of the great lessons taught by Einstein and Susan Oyama is that theory constrains what we look for empirically, so we had better pay attention to our theoretical lackings.  Most people today understand that humans and other primates are really quite similar in our makeup and functioning.  Some understand that we also share a good deal with cetaceans, elephants and dogs. Some scientists study social animals for critical behaviors.  And a couple of assiduous scientists studied hours of video of sun bears who are rarely social and found, lo and behold, mirroring where we might least expect it given current theoretical leanings.  Oh boy!

Sun bears live in southeast Asia and are known to prefer to live in solitude except for mating and parenting.  I am not sure how they find each other wandering the jungle all alone, but sometimes they do and mate, then go their own way again.  The females bear cubs and they stay together for a couple of years and then they also seek their sweet solitude.  In Malaysia they have a refuge for sun bears that have been injured or are somehow unable to survive in the wild.  They keep them in a large reserve but they still meet each other more in captivity than would otherwise be the case.  And they videotape their encounters.  Yes, they are not real sociable creatures and yes, they prefer solitude, but they still play around with each other and their play involves mimicking one another. Yes, that’s right, they mirror one another just like so many other more sociable animals do.

Remember that mirroring is an incredible social action (or if you don’t remember, read some past posts here like from 7/19/18 & 7/31/18).  I see the theoretical difference between imitation and mirroring this way:  imitation is a behavioral replication of an observed action with little mentation attached and mirroring is so much more because mirroring allows the empathic understanding of another’s mood and intent.  At some point I wrote that the difference between imitation and mirroring is the difference between Skinner and Freud (although I prefer William James’ approach myself) or between surface behavior and inner dynamics.

To illustrate the difference, I long ago worked with a young autistic child who had virtually no expressive language and understood very, very little, like his name, the word ‘mama’ and maybe some foods.  But he imitated all the time.  If you pointed to something for him to look at, he would mimic your pointing while looking at you.  Most amazingly, he could repeat any sentence you said with very good articulation but without any sense that it was meaningful.  Pure and skillful echolalia, but not mirroring.  This ability to process phonemes auditorially and translate those sounds into motor patterns indicated that key areas of his left auditory and motor cortex were functional along with, and this is important, his arcuate fasciculus, the long fiber tract that normally enables mirroring of speech and, probably along with other fiber tracts, gestures and emotional expressions (on the right side—see post 4/24/14 & 5/30/18).

So sun bears have some neuropsychological capabilities to mirror conspecifics and they use these in play and almost certainly, parenting. (Mating I am not so sure about—hormonally driven and how much courtship/bonding do they engage in?)  Again, our mammalian heritage (see posts 11/2/18, 11/2/16) runs deep.  Travel on and check out the NYT article here:


Aww, play time is over?  or  Aww, do I have to play with others?

another thing we learned about life on earth

I always love reading about the discovery of a new species of plant or animal on earth.  As a kid I used to think we had catalogued most life forms but then I grew up. We continue to find new plants, insects and microbes all the time.  Recent reports have detailed life forms found deep underground, deep in the ocean, under glaciers and now existing on the surface of the space station, even though these environments seem decidedly unfriendly.  Now we have the unusual finding of a new whale.  The ocean assuredly contains much we do not know but how did we miss finding a large mammal that populates much of the tropical ocean?  Sure, this newly discovered species is similar to another so for a long, long time was probably seen and then assumed to be known, but some diligent scientists have discovered that these whales are quite distinctive. They sing at very low frequencies, have different bodies, coloring and skulls, and do not migrate.  This, to me, is science at its best, challenging the assumed orthodoxy and proving it wrong.  (Now if we can only get some people to understand their orthodox notions of racial and religious differences and their assumed superiority are wrong, we can get on with living in peace.)  Anyway, check out the whale story at the NYT and keep a sharp eye out for an Omura whale: