Hasta la vista

Oh my, I seem to have wandered into some untoward mystic terrain.  From my vantage point in this valley I look up to see several hills surrounding this place with their waters running down to the lake I stand beside.  From the summit to the east comes the waters of Zen and Taoism and a hearty respect for the mystic beyond.  From the west comes Monod and the marvelous biological mysticism I have gleaned from him.  From the north comes the cold, clear waters of Oyama, Thompson, Varela, and others running swiftly over rocky intellect and eroding past mechanistic paradigms.  From the south the warm waters of feeling, communality and art flow down from the springs of Langer, Damasio, Panksepp, de Waal and many others.  Looking down into the clear waters of this lake I am mindful of ancient beginnings, the transformation of planet Earth into Gaia with the upwellng from the spring of life over the past 5 billion years.  At this moment I hold fast to a thread of the Tao.

Consider this Zen koan from The Gateless Gate:  What is your primal face before your parents were born?  As I understand this, there is no understanding this.  The ‘answer’ must be experienced so that enlightenment washes away the categories of this world.  I seem to be, however, too literal minded for such an experience, and instead I am lost in the mystic details Monod laid bare in Chance and Necessity:   “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.”

What was my primal face before my parents were born?  They were born in 1919 and 1922, so that my grandparents were born say in the late 1800s.  I have no real answer to the koan but it would seem my primal face was inherent in Monod’s “vast reservoir of fortuitous variability” composed from the genetic, developmental and cultural streams flowing through my ancestors.  Also from the fact that these people would meet while engaging in their everyday lives and decide to marry and bear children and that the biological processes carrying their lives forward were of unimaginable detail, e.g., just consider the metabolic processes alone and then add their brains’ carrying forth their minds in time within the world and human culture plus the connectomes of all those people with whom they interact.  Fortuitous? Yes.  Chaotic contingency? Yes. And this is the simplified version.  Better to fall back upon James Joyce’s phrase, “accidental music providentially arranged” and let my primal face rest somewhere in ALL that welter of life.

Evan Thompson characterizes a life as a path created by walking, each step contingent upon all that has come before and current conditions in the surround.  For humans this includes the fluctuating appearance in the human condition.  Thompson, Oyama and the rest of this group argue quite that focusing on the flow of genetic information is inept.  This particular scientific abstraction of gene-centricity loses validity because it misses context.  Focusing on the figure forgetting the ground is a modern vice; it is at the basis of the loss of factual validity in our social discourse and the uncritical acceptance of ugly, mis-shaped and excremental thinking for keen intellect.

Maybe Gregory Bateson’s idea that mind is everywhere in the universe is more than a useful heuristic.  Maybe the Gaia hypothesis should be a guiding light.  We feel and that is the basis of our thinking.  We are the most astonishing herd creatures on our planet; our communality based upon empathy of the highest order (that we know of) and symbolization enables the wealth of individual experience and the ubiquitous social world in which we live.  Still we carry on with the basics of life, and that means exploiting chance possibilities and mitigating the exigencies of the human condition.  50 years ago I read Susanne Langer’s challenge to develop a conception of mind adequate to the reality.  We have made some progress despite the general relegation of her thinking to the background.  We will make deeper progress when more understand the place of art and aesthetics in our lives and minds (or mind).  Non-discursive or presentational symbols, as Langer explicated from the 1940s onward, are a key to understanding how and what we experience and who we are as humans in the herd.

I stand in my valley watching appreciatively the light playing on these summits.  I look down into the waters and feel the ancient past.  Fed by mountain streams and life’s springs this lake overflows with wonder and creates new streams that will flow to the ocean’s shores, creating estuaries where new life abounds.  I usually close by saying travel on, and I know you will do so, but I am going to camp here for awhile.  “On to where?” seems a meaningless question.  The waters here are clear and invigorating and the view spectacular.  I must grow old and seek other figures with their grounds while I may, “a unique and irrefutable witness” to myself.

Penultimate post (approximately)

Some readers may have noticed that I have slowed down in presenting new posts (also maybe that they are getting a bit longer and more arcane).  I am starting the 7th year of keeping this blog. For the record, I have had over 3800 visitors from many countries reading 362 posts comprising many thousands of words.  My most read post is ‘Arcuate Fasciculus, mirror neurons and memes’ from 4/24/14 that has been viewed over 900 times and continues to be read several times a week. It is a good one but I have several that are better but not so popular—go figure.

I write today to say that after one more post I am going to focus on other projects.  I am sure I will still post here again, now and then, but I have grown older and so have less energy and less ability to manage diverse tasks.  Most of all I want to focus on one or two larger projects and that means paring away some of the many things I do.  So I will post once more and then follow a different path.  Take care and travel on.


The word for today: eudaemonia

I have started reading Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin’s book, The Philosophy of Susanne Langer: Embodied Meaning in Logic, Art and Feeling.  Chaplin’s stated purpose is to help us understand the roots of Langer’s philosophical work, both historically and more importantly her mentors and sources(Henry Sheffer, Ernst Cassirer, Alfred N. Whitehead, & Ludwig Wittgenstein) and the intellectual springs from which she imbibed.  I have worked my way up to Cassirer but I want to present some of the historical reasons, according Chaplin, Langer’s work has not been ‘foregrounded’, as the philosophers of today are wont to say, by those who seek to understand the human mind.

Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently bemoan the lack of recognition and follow-up for Langer’s ideas.  Part of that I have attributed to the rise of information sciences and its inept metaphor of the mind as machine, and the rise of genetic sciences and its inept metaphor of life as machine, both of which seem inimical to Langer’s project. Chaplin gives a much more knowledgeable view of what happened.  First and foremost, she was a woman.  She went to Radcliffe in 1916 because Harvard did not admit women (and would not fully until the late 70s).  Though her intellectual abilities were recognized by her mentors, Sheffer and Whitehead, and she went on to write 3 early books that received much acclaim, and she co-founded the Society for Symbolic Logic and edited its journal for awhile, and other prestigious journals published her work and asked her to review works in German, French and Italian, because so few other philosophers were multi-lingual , and she was instrumental in arranging several world conferences of various philosophic matters, she did not obtain a tenured professorship for several decades later in 1954 at age 59, and so she had little opportunity to mentor her own graduate students through their dissertations.  Her first book, The Practice of Philosophy (that is, alas, out of print and hard to find), was recognized as substantial and praised especially by European philosophers.  Her second book, An Introduction to Symbolic Logic, was regarded as an excellent text and the first one of logic in its modern form.  Her third, Philosophy in a New Key, was enormously popular for its genre, selling the most copies of its kind for a long time, and eventually selling over 500,000 copies.  Chaplin quotes a reviewer for New Key, who wrote the publisher, “I am prejudiced against book on philosophy by women; according to this prejudice no woman could write as good a book as she has written”.  That the reviewer mentions his prejudice in his praise highlights the general low regard Langer met for being female.

Another reason, as if another were needed, is that she was continuing, and enlivening a great deal, a tradition emanating primarily from Europe, many proponents of which were Jewish, so that many of her basic ideas were called into question based upon the twin American prejudices against Europe and Jews.  Langer read Cassirer and Wittgenstein very early and interpreted them somewhat differently and now it seems more accurately than other Americans.  Wittgenstein came out of the Vienna Circle, many of whom escaped from fascist Germany to America, only later to be questioned as socialists. Some in the 1950s fell under McCartney’s evil eye. Earlier Harvard denied a visiting professorship to Bertrand Russell because he had opposed WWI (and maybe had socialist tendencies?).  So Langer’s company was suspect by some.

Finally, Langer worked on subjects not generally regarded as mainstream academic philosophy.  She was in some sense, I guess, a reformer.  Logic for her, following her mentor Sheffer, was not a syllogistic proof of a truth, but a method for elucidating forms. Philosophy for her, following early her mentor Whitehead, Wittengenstein and others, was not a footnote on Aristotle and Plato, but a study of symbols and meaning, specifically what it is and how it is made.  Thus she said we understand when we grasp the symbol’s form.

Susanne Knauth married William Langer who became a noted Harvard historian (and who left Langer for a younger woman some years later).  In his autobiography he mentions Susanne as his wife but not that she was an intellectual in her own right.  She was, as were most women, invisible as a mind (and that continues some today, as does the younger woman bit).  Susanne Langer had two children while teaching and writing; she also wrote a book of fairytales for her children, published as The Cruise of Little Dipper and other Fairy Tales, now a rare book. By now you get the idea of how her ideas did not generate the excitement despite their brilliance.


Susanne Langer

Susanne Langer worked then quietly, more behind the scenes than on stage (though she was a popular lecturer), and followed her own path.  Remarkably, her life’s work in philosophy developed along the same course over her career.  Late in life she received an ongoing grant that enabled her to focus exclusively on research and writing.  Reading her work in the past, and now reading books about her and her work, I have come to think of her even more as a scholar who followed her own path to greater understanding and that she enjoyed the journey.  Reading her books (and this is reinforced by reports of her popularity as a lecturer) offers a grand view into her profound and rigorous mind and a delightful glimpse into the joy she experienced in bringing her ideas to fruition.

And that brings us to today’s word: eudaemonia—the joy of flourishing that brings wisdom.  Surely Ms. Langer felt such as that.  Travel on.

MEMBRAIN, mirroring and the god within

Writing about the MEMBRAIN and reading various works brought about some relevant or new associations.  Remember that the MEMBRAIN functions by gating material and information or not.  I use the word ‘information’ now somewhat guardedly.  Basically I use the word to mean as defined by Gregory Bateson, ‘the difference that makes a difference’.  Our eyes take in information by transmuting energy from the visual spectrum into nervous transmission.  That sounds very simple.  The question some ask is what information is preserved from the eyes and what is added by the brain & its MEMBRAIN in processing.  However, the common understanding of genetic transmission is that the genes encode ‘information’ which specifies the construction of the organism’s soma, and this many now regard as a quite inept conceptualization.  Our genome does not constitute a blueprint but rather is a component in the inherited developmental system that also comprises complex environmental and epigenetic factors along with the amazing constituents of somatic cells, especially, I guess, the first one at the inception of a new soma.  So the genome is not a blueprint but is more aptly conceptualized as potentially instigating a series of chemical events that can and does go in many different directions depending upon the context of the whole developmental system.  As Evan Thompson phrases it: the developmental system, including the genes, lays down a path by walking—no blueprint, just structured contingencies.  So information in biology has become a more complicated, even problematic, issue that should be approached, at least it seems so to me, humbly.

I say that the MEMBRAIN functions to help form and contain the unity of a mind which has also arisen in an embodied fashion from the soma and its brain and that then structures the interaction with other minds and organisms, especially one’s conspecifics.  Now consider mirroring (see posts 7/29/18 & 7/31/18).  Remember that mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s or so, are cells that upon seeing an action convey information to motor cells that enables them enact that very action (mirror neurons are probably the motor cells but really they are a component of a mirror system, aren’t they?).  Thus, I see you pick up a coffee mug and my motor cells that enable me to pick up a mug light up, even though I am not doing any such motion.  Here the MEMBRAIN gates in a perceived action and is prepared to emit the same action.  The mirror system works even if the cup is not actually present and the action is only mimed. This gating occurs more with conspecifics, I assume, and wait, there is more.

Some research has shown that different cells light up depending upon the purpose with which the mug was lifted, e.g., to drink from or to wash, so that the perceptual process figures out (from contextual clues or from how the mug is gripped or ?) the other’s purpose.  This is a great example of the MEMBRAIN as it functions to connect minds, i.e., not just the actions for imitation but for the subjective processes mobilizing those actions.  The important feature here is that we use the surface structures, to adapt a linguistic term, of behaviors to empathize with the other’s deeper structures of feelings, emotions, and intents.  For example, right hemisphere led processing focuses on facial, vocal and postural features to glean kinesic information about the other’s internal subjective and private cognitions (just as the other person is doing with our kinesic behaviors).  Part of this processing includes identification of our own emotional states as analogous to theirs, and a component of this process would sometimes rely on mirroring the other’s expressions for ourselves.  Maybe a bit complicated but essentially we know another through knowing ourselves both in specific processes and in relationships generally.

I first posted about this some years ago on 4/24/14, ‘Arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons and memes’.  Recall that the arcuate fasciculus (AF for short) conveys information about words heard from temporal lobe processing to frontal lobe processes for speaking those words.  This can happen irrespective of any meaning, and indeed, sometimes we can repeat what we did not understand and that helps us recover the sense of what was said.  I was reminded recently that this mirroring is a bit more complex than simple reflection. Consider the speech signal as it arrives at the ear; it is a continuous stream of sound without word or sound boundaries, as shown in this sound recording:


speech signal showing no pauses or gaps between words or phonemes

In carrying out its mirroring function, the auditory cortex automatically parses the stream into sounds, words, and phrases for comprehension; the AF can also then transmit that linguistic surface structure, i.e., the phonemic string, to the motor cortex for potential replication, i.e., mirroring.  What is even more complex is that any individual phoneme can and does vary quite a bit phonetically (phonetics refers to the actual acoustic properties of the sound emitted while phonemics refers to discrete, well defined sounds as linguistic categories) and still be identified as that phoneme.  For example, both ‘p’ and ‘b’ are made with the lips closing and then releasing the air stream (they are both plosives).  They differ in VOT or voice onset time, i.e., that moment when the larynx begins to sound the next vowel.  In general, VOT for ‘p’ comes some 10s or 100s of milliseconds after the lips open and release and VOT for ‘b’ comes just before, during, and just slightly after the lips release.  Our brains recognize the phonemes despite some natural variations in VOT within and even beyond (using context) these parameters.  One reason computer speech sounds artificial is because these variations are absent—VOT is the same every time.  To add another level of complexity, the way Americans and French folks say ‘b’ is different enough that we can tell which is which and this is due to some small differences in VOT.  One more example here is that ‘p’ is said differently at the beginning versus the end of a word; ‘p’ at the beginning is followed with breathy noise (aspiration) while at the end the sound stops more abruptly.  Try saying ‘push’ and then ‘stop’ to notice this difference.

The point of this may be arcane but it is that perception is very active and constructive, not a passive copying; our brains construct and add to any received sensory stimulus, not just with linguistic communication, but with many sensory inputs.  Many scientists and philosophers over the past 70 years or so have emphasized that our symbolic capabilities begin to operate early on in neural processing; they do not just appear as our intellectual musings rise to consciousness but are present in our perceptual processing.  Indeed, Langer, enlarging on the gestalt psychologists and philosophers of phenomenology, went even further, saying that humans are ‘driven’ to make meaning, i.e., to make more of what we perceive, feel, think, etc. than what is initially given.

So mirroring involves the MEMBRAIN gating information in while at the same time enacting the neural reconstruction for the surface features of the perceived behaviors.  Mirroring occurs automatically and incidental to whatever other neural processing is proceeding. Generally, however, mirroring is just that; it does not result in the behavioral enactment of the mirrored action (except in some neurological conditions that are marked by echolalia—see that same post 4/24/14).  I have been thinking, though, that maybe we mirror internally what we haven’t seen or heard, i.e., we are prepared to gate out some surface features without having actually gated them in.  This would be the basis for projections of a particular sort wherein we see or hear aspects or features of our humanity, its vitality, agency, intentionality, etc.  These sorts of projections would underly animism and anthropomorphism.

I am reading Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion by Stewart Guthrie.  His thesis is that humans anthropomorphize a great deal; we do it automatically, mostly incidentally, sometimes though quite intentionally and metaphorically.  We anthropomorphize in pursuit of meaning and Guthrie presents a great deal of evidence from philosophy, psychology, religious theory, perception and the arts to support his thesis, and he takes the further step to assert that this proclivity lies behind the religious impulse.  We see human agency, feelings, vitality, intentionality in all sorts of things, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically and many times religiously.  Humans ancient and modern interfacing with nature, and reality in general, imbue features that we encounter with our own sense of vitality, life, emotions, etc. and that, asserts Guthrie, has given rise to our finding a spiritual reality behind or inherent within natural events and objects, e.g., we see faces in clouds.

As I read his explication of anthropomorphism, I kept thinking of mirroring.  What we mirror, to some large extent, is also what we project when we anthropomorphize.  To be clear, this is not the same anthropomorphism that scientists guard against, i.e., attributing human motives etc. to other animals, though Guthrie and others would say that science is also an effort to understand the world through and on our own terms, but a more basic psychological process, one more akin to the metaphorical basis of our intellectual constructs as described by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (see post 12/26/17 among others—I just realized that I have never focused on this important book in a post.  In short they argue that metaphorical thinking is the basis for most, if not all, of our intellectual constructs and the language for discussing them).  Not so clearly, I think de Waals’ anthropodenial (see post 10/26/17) might apply to those who would deny Guthrie’s thesis.

We naturally think of mirroring as a reflective process, but the power and fecundity of our symbolic capabilities could also make mirroring a projective process.  This seems to be what Guthrie is exploring. Indeed, the confirmation bias articulated by Tversky and Kahneman and seen so prevalently in our political culture would also seem related to this.  That does not make it bad or good; it does mean that we should be mindful of our mind’s limits and not mistake our own projections for god or any other sort of primal truth or privileged reality within, and with that I will travel on.