art and cultural shifts

When I was 8 or 9 years old and judged mature enough to see some adultish movies my mother and sister took me to see South Pacific (two years later they refused me admission to Psycho which was probably just as well) and I loved it. Some of the romance was bit mushy for a boy my age but the cynicism of Ray Walston’s character, the spunkiness of Mitzi Gaynor playing Nellie Forbush modeled from, I just knew, my idol of Mary Martin (think Peter Pan) who had performed the role on Broadway, and the matchmaker with the name of Bloody Mary made me wonder what that was all about, as did the young lieutenant’s night sojourn on Bali-hai, but I figured it had something to do with love, magic and spirit, and all that made the mush bearable. Plus it was about war, sacrifice and victory. I can remember being upset when Nellie Forbush rejects marriage with the rich widower, Emile, because of his children with a Polynesian woman and very relieved that in the end she embraced everyone’s humanity. A few years later I became aware that not everyone accepted the humanity of different races. I was a military brat and saw different races work together and went to school with everyone’s kids; that let me maintain my naivete for awhile but then, being dispositionally oriented to reality, I figured it out.

So it is 60 years later now and I read about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein making of that movie in a fine article in Vanity Fair. The general theme is that their frank treatment of racial prejudice posed a challenge for them to render and for audiences to accept. One specific was that their song “You’ve got to be taught” was controversial and many critics rejected it:


You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—

You’ve got to be carefully taught.


You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a different shade

You’ve got to be carefully taught.


You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught.


Oscar Hammerstein’s original lyrics went on to praise love, but Rodgers thought it became too didactic or heavy-handed and so this was left out:


Love is quite different

It grows by itself

It will grow like a weed

On a mountain of stones

You don’t have to feed

Or put fat on its bones;

It can live on a smile

Or a note of a song

It may starve for awhile

But it stumbles along

Stumbles along with its banner unfurled

The joy and the beauty, the hope of the world.


The play opened in 1949. Rodgers and Hammerstein based this musical on James Michener’s Pulitzer winning book, Tales of the South Pacific, about his experiences there during WWII. Indeed, many Americans there developed loving relationships with Asians; they did as well in the European theater, as they did in Korea and in Viet Nam. Love will find a way (or not—many babies were war orphans abandoned by American fathers).

Some important cultural changes gathered momentum during this period. Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Brown vs the Board of Education was in 1954. The fight to extend civil rights to all humanity picked up steam. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Sidney Poitier would soon be the first Black actor to win an Academy Award. Muhammad Ali would soon show us how to be a just champion on his own terms, accentuated by his doggerel.  You can remember all this or you can get the idea pretty easily these days.

In thinking about art I have pondered about how an individual artwork reflects and encourages cultural change, and the enormous popularity of South Pacific on Broadway (“the Hamilton of its day” VF calls it) and at the cinema gave me pause. Of Jewish descent both Rodgers and Hammerstein faced prejudice and their children suffered from it as well. They relished their success in part because it helped their children face less rejection. When I was teaching 5th grade in a small North Carolina town all the kids, especially the African-American ones, loved Kid Dynamite from the tv show Good Times. They would come in the day after the new episode mimicking J. J. Evans lines from the night before, and “dy-no-mite!” was their own great exclamation. Remember what a lovely movie Brokeback Mountain was with its frank depiction of cowboys in love? Go even further back to consider the role Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in mobilizing the forces of emancipation. Examples of artworks contributing to the waves of progress go on and on. I will only mention in passing that some artworks asserted the status quo, like the movie Birth of a Nation. Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for the covers of The Saturday Evening Post were restricted to depicting minorities only in positions of servants, as in redcaps on a train; that was not his choice, it was the magazine’s.

We move forward bit by bit, waves rise and fall, tides ebb and flow. Hollywood is today seen as ‘liberal’ for its attention to diversity and gender justice. In my youth Hollywood was seen as quite conservative, even reactionary, as depicted in the movie Trumbo. One of my favorite movies from the last year or so is Wadja, about a Saudi Arabian girl who wants to ride a bike (oh, the horror!), made by a woman who had to direct from a van hidden from the world. And of course we now have the Black Panther showing the dignity of an African people. Fantasy? Why, yes it is, just like all the other artwork being mentioned. Truthful? Absolutely, just like the rest of artwork, though it happens to be more important than some of the other movies out there.

The interplay between art and culture is quite complex and to make sense of it while I pondered the biological roots of these features of our humanity I had a vision of culture and art arising in waves across the ocean of experience. Hmm, a wave theory of art and cultural shifts? Maybe another post is needed here.

The demands of the growing season are upon me and will soon ramp up. That affects my time and energy for writing so posts may become even more sporadic but I will still be writing as best I can. Travel on.

Let’s talk doxa, science, and humanity

Recall from my 6/7/17 post on Pierre Boudrieu’s writings that the doxa comprises the entire realm of possible discourse; anything outside the doxa is difficult to discuss—it is ineffable or inchoate. Within the doxa the dominant paradigm or pattern of beliefs and knowledge is orthodoxy, which mostly controls the domain of discourse, while deviant thinking would be heterodoxy. In religion heterodoxy may become heresy, e.g., the Pelagian heresy that one can attain salvation through good works. In science heterodoxy can fall by the wayside if it fails to account coherently and productively for the subject phenomena, or it can replace orthodoxy because it eventually is found to provide a more robust explanation. The classic example is Thomas Kuhn’s scientific revolution in the shift from the Ptolemaic earth-centric universe to the Copernican heliocentric one.

A more modern example comes from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt, about a small group of scientists who act to obscure the valid findings about hot issues, such as tobacco’s carcinogenic effects or the human contribution to global warming. The question they raise is how to tell a fraud from a crank, who may or may not be on to something wrong in the orthodox realm of discourse (see post 3/7/16). Oreskes has discussed the eventual acceptance of plate tectonic theory, 50 or more years after Alfred Wegener proposed it in his 1912 book. Evidently the theory was accepted in Europe long before it was accepted in the USA, where Wegener was seen as a bit of a crank; here in the USA they could not imagine a meteorologist like Wegener developing a valid theory about earth’s geology, so Wegener was seen then as a crank whom we now understand had a good idea. And the climate change deniers are still the same old frauds from the tobacco scam.

Now the study and understanding of our humanity has likewise undergone some great shifts; some of the most profound transformations from heterodoxy into orthodoxy came with the Enlightenment and science’s assertion that humans were a proper subject of study outside of religion, Darwin’s assertion that man was just an earth-bound animal, Freud’s assertion that conscious life is a construction of non-conscious processes, etc. More recently Norbert Weiner’s initiation of cybernetics revealed the structural similarity of control systems between biological man and machine, a gap that grows increasingly smaller as science progresses. I would also include Jacques Monod’s assertion that our biology in its foundation of molecular genetics can account for life without any recourse to supernatural creators, thank you very much, so that his understanding of spirit looks to the generations of life over the past 4 billion years on Gaia. That would be his mystic beyond, not Olympus or heaven or whatever (see post 3/25/17).

I would like to think that one particular heterodoxical idea is also usurping some of the orthodoxy in cognitive psychology, but alas, I do not see a tectonic shift happening here. I do remember when cognitive psychology was heterodox, back in the days of behaviorism’s puritanical orthodoxy, and then psychologists had the good sense to admit that we had minds, that we actually thought and that our thoughts had purpose and effect. Now cognitive psychology seems to exert its orthodoxy through control of the doxa, especially through its alliance with information science and focus on algorithms. Everything mental is thinking more or less logically, you know, in the cortex, while affect and emotion are lower. Thus the predominant and errant metaphor of ‘hard-wired’ as we neglect intuition, feelings and emotion.

But consider some seemingly disparate ideas. I first caught a glimpse of an alternative seeping into the doxa when I read Susanne Langer all these years ago. The title of her last work gives us a hint, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, in its last word, ‘feeling.’ She arrived at her examination of mind as biological through her study of art, understanding that art is a different kind of symbol, i.e., presentational, than language, i.e., discursive. Its structure is different because its elements of composition are different, and while both types of symbols have surface and deep structures, the latter for art is better termed aesthetic import in contrast to linguistic meaning (see post 11/10/17). Peruse some books addressing the evolution of our minds and see how often art is considered as an important phenomena in its own right of our humanity. Daniel Dennett’s recent one briefly addresses Bach and his music not so much as art but as an example of cognitive design. Patricia Churchland’s 1989 Neurophilosophy mentions music twice, art and symbols not at all. Trying to expand my own doxa is one big reason I read books like Kandel’s on art (see post 7/23/17) and plan on reading one by Ramachandran soon. This is why I think the development of an instrument to reliably study our emotional response to art, Aesthemos (see post 10/31/17), is an important step forward.

Consider also how maybe 50% of an important neurotransmitter, dopamine, is synthesized in the gut, how even more serotonin is found there, and how our gut microbiome affects mood and thinking. Consider the work by Tversky, Kahneman and others showing that our minds are not clean cognitive operations but filled with heuristics that generally satisfice in most circumstances but lead us astray in some important others and emotions play no small role in that. Consider Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear underlining the importance of paying attention of our feelings of danger. Consider how disrupted attachment, you know that basic emotional bond, affects thinking in the social realm, hindering social perspective and empathy, and in cognitive realm, hindering understanding of cause and effect, sequencing, etc. Consider how the Texas tower shooter, Charles Whitman, sought medical help repeatedly when he felt something was wrong with his mind because murderous thoughts were so prominent and intrusive, how doctors dismissed his concerns any number of ways, e.g., just depressive feelings, and how autopsy revealed a fast growing tumor on his amygdala, an emotional control center affecting thinking and behavior. All of this suggests that feeling is coequal with thinking, or at least, that both are important functions in the nervous system responsible for our mind. This idea is what Langer promoted at the end of her career.

I have just finished Michael Tomasello’s book, The Natural History of Human Cognition, following up on my reading of his book on human morality (see post 7/31/17). Both books compare simians and humans to see wherein we are different, i.e., what makes us human. This one hypothesizes how we developed more or less objective thinking over the past 100,000 years of our evolution. It is interesting and thought provoking, albeit written in an academic and somewhat tedious style. He focuses pretty exclusively on human cooperation, which is assuredly distinctive in the animal realm, and how our thinking developed “collective intentionality and agent-neutral thinking”, going from an individual perspective taking to group perspective taking to thinking objectively, i.e., valid from any perspective. (Yes, I have foreshortened his arguments terribly but I want to get on to another point).

Tomasello does not really address very directly the issue of human feeling, but he comes close several times. And to be sure at the end he makes a strong statement that our cognition is socially based and that our culture, including art, is based upon the development of human cognition with some semblance to his outlined hypothesis. Before that we read statements hinting at the importance of relationships (and feelings?).

  • As distinct from other great apes, early humans began mating via pair bonding, with the result that nuclear families became newly cooperating social units.
  • [Other great apes do not have] human-like joint goals; there is no cooperative communication for coordinating actions.
  • Great ape cognition and thinking are adapted to this social, but not very cooperative, way of life.

Tomasello argues that this cooperative way of life, developed in response to ecological variations, led to “Thinking for cooperating”.

To be clear, I think Tomasello’s arguments are quite robust as far as they go albeit with one caveat, and that is reflected in his statement, “Humans have thus constructed learning environments within which their own offspring develop”. That we have learning environments is true, to be sure, but that we ‘constructed’ them elevates our ability of rational control above rational limits. Even our modern child rearing arrangements are based upon cultural evolution by historical accident, and while we think we know what we are doing, we also know that unforeseen consequences are unavoidable and that much of our success in promoting child development comes from attending to the basics of emotional attachment, group relationships and play. Yes, cognitive skills are important there, both to develop and for developing, but the contextual process is not one of ‘construction’; our rationality is quite limited in its intentional power because so much is unconscious. (Consider Daniel Kahneman’s quote in Thinking Fast and Slow from Herbert Simon, “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition” of what rises for conscious presentation from subliminal processes and feelings play a larger role in those processes than some might expect or include in their discourse).

With that caveat expressed, I want to expand on what I think the context is, i.e., what lies beyond where Tomasello’s argument falters, or more to the point, what our current orthodoxy seems to neglect in its discourse. Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the early 20th century, before information theory and molecular biology transformed biological, including psychological, science, some intellectuals focused on symbols. As I hinted above, topics like feeling, art, and symbols are not well represented in more recent books, and there we have lost something. I came of age appreciating C. S. Pierce’s and Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of semiotics, Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and his notion of man as a symbolic animal, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Noam Chomsky’s theory of mind and linguistic structure, and of course, Susanne Langer’s keen and profound insights on presentational and discursive symbols.

When Tomasello writes that children and apes have “very similar cognitive skills for dealing with the physical world” but that even very young children already have “more sophisticated cognitive skills [than apes] for dealing with the social world,” the question arises why? How is it that humans have developed a more cooperative umvelt along with symbolization? I would argue that our empathic abilities motivated concerned, prosocial action, but the key issue for me here is how the powerful relationships between surface signals and deep structures, e.g., semantic meaning for discursive symbols and artistic import for presentational symbols, developed. My intuition over the years has repeatedly presented for my recognition the idea that human intimacy and symbolic forms are indeed related and that between the two, intimacy is primary. Here’s the deal:

To progress from signs and signals with their isomorphic referents to symbolic surface and deep structures requires a more powerful sense of what exists in another’s mind. Consider these distinctions:

  • between a raven’s caw when chasing a hawk and a person shouting fire
  • between the raven’s roosting at evening and a person watching the colors fading at dusk
  • between skipping a rock across a lake and cracking a nut with a rock
  • between a green light at an intersection and the green light on the dock at Daisy’s house Gatsby sees across the bay.

In each case the first example involves a signal with acutely circumscribed significance and the second involves a metaphorical vehicle with a tenor of deeper significance. (Consider that Lakoff and Johnson develop a useful epistemology through symbols and metaphors in their book, Metaphors We Live By.)

Consider now the ontogeny of human relations in the important basic development of attachment and emotional regulation that leads to adaptive prosocial relationships. This is primarily a function of the right side of the brain, as the research summarized by Alan Shore shows, and it is here that a sense of self initiates hopefully to become one of empathic cooperativeness. With further development a neural center serving the higher or extended functions empathy in the right hemisphere around the OTP (occipital-temporal-parietal) junction (what I call Empathy Central or EC and the orthodox call Theory of Mind or ToM—see post 10/31/16). This is analogous to the left sided OTP area known as Wernicke’s area that serves semantic meaning, so the right-sided OTP would analogously serve empathic or social-emotional significance. That would serve as the basis for aesthetic import that arises, I think, in a much more complicated manner through a more widely organized system. Humans have a highly developed sense of self and empathy with another self, and while this enables cognitive perspective taking, it remains a function based on feeling, just like the left sided grammatical functions are based upon grammatical feelings of fitness, e.g., this feels right and that doesn’t as in Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is grammatical but meaningless and Yoda’s “A jedi will you be never” is not grammatical but meaningful. (Compare also phenomena of handedness; cross your arms right over left and left over right and one will feel more comfortable or fit. Same with clasping fingers with right or left thumb on top or throwing a ball with right or left hand.)

The idea here is that human attachment paves the way for intimacy and a keen sense of another’s mind, that this is primarily a right sided function that matures before the left sided language and that the two sides communicate with each other in the coordination of communicative behaviors. Consider next the arcuate fasciculis, a long fiber tract that on the left side connects Wernicke’s and Broca’s area and is a part of the mirroring system. The arcuate fasciculus facilitates verbatim repetition of what was just heard, i.e., it helps connect the auditory signal constituting the surface structure to the motoric plans for saying that same surface structure (see post 4/24/14). No meaning is required, but here is the catch. Remember a time when you heard someone say something but did not quite catch the total message. You probably rehearsed silently using the arcuate fasciculus what you heard until you were able to decode and complete the surface structure and so glean its meaning using both your analysis of the communication signal and your composition of context, including knowledge of the other person and the situation.

This example demonstrates, I think, a basic insight into the development of human symbols. A signal, i.e., surface structure, carries its deep structure through our empathic apprehension of another’s mind and its presumed contents; we ‘know’ more is there and can even surmise what it might be through EC. Without that evolutionary step symbols could not develop. (Hey, what a perspicacious title for my blog, eh?) That deep structure may be conventionalized and carried by lexical items as in discursive language or not conventionalized, its formal or aesthetic import carried by the presentational art symbol. Without the active inclusion of both symbolization and empathy in our doxa, orthodox discourse will have difficulty bridging the gap between, as Tomasello quotes Donald Davidson, human evolution “from ‘no thought’ to thought’.” The heterodoxical statement, “No thought without feeling” may be heretical but should still be part of our discourse as we strive to bridge that gap.

And now travel on with feeling. Happy New Year.

4th Anniversary #4: Some of my basic lessons

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. Over the course of these past four years I have learned some wonderful basic lessons. Some have come directly from my reading. I re-read Langer’s Feeling and Form to gain more insight into art and presentational symbols. I re-read her Mind, vol. 3, and understood more about two important dialectics. The first is within the individual between the need for reality orientation and the pleasure of unbounded symbolic creativity. The second is within society between its need for each member to commit resources for group maintenance and to carry traditions forward for continuity and the need for individuals to be creative and innovate to maintain social vitality.

I understood from Chris Hitchens the possibility of the natural noumenal, i.e., a noumenal realm filled with the shadowy ideals and mystic forms not in some supernatural domain but in this positivistic one. And of course, this past year I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity to find that the ethic of knowledge directs us to the natural spirit inherent in the descent of genetic forms evolved through countless random events beginning with the appearance of life on Gaia. Along with that I read Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality that confirmed two ideas, that an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics and that our cultural values, while distinctive, are based upon some continuity with the rest of the animal world. Our humanity is indeed rooted in empathy and symbolization.

One of my evolving lessons comes from long efforts at understanding how our mind works. Since my first stint in graduate school in speech and language pathology in the mid 1970s, I had pondered the role of old and new information, beginning with hippocampal functioning but going on to how our brains define or create the categories and how they are transformed, i.e., old becomes new and new sometimes becomes old. Over the past four years I have realized that these processes are actually embedded in the larger functions producing variance and invariance. Remember William James’ characterization of consciousness as the “remembered present” or someone’s phrase the “specious present”. It takes some short passage of time before information from the retina or cochlea or skin reaches the brain and then is processed enough to be available for sentient awareness. (Another of my lessons is that I came to differentiate sentience as deriving from perceptual impact and consciousness as deriving from autogenic, i.e., self generated, information). Thus the information of which we are aware is necessarily old. New information comes about when we notice change; this is seen perhaps most importantly in hippocampal processing where change=new information (or sometimes no change violates expectations for change and that also equals new) which triggers theta processing, i.e., a new focus and situation is engendered. Along with this remember that recognition occurs when new information is ‘recognized’ as old and recall occurs when old information is ‘recalled’ as new, and that this is based on memory, i.e., past experience is held as an invariant form.

I have come to understand that variance/invariance is an extremely basic, even essential, concept for our understanding of life. I started down this trail upon reading a research article on the dual loop hypothesis of language. The loops are a dorsal one composed, I think, of cortical tracts that maintain primarily invariant information and a ventral one composed of cortical tracts involved in the processing of variant information. Consider the writing process or any example of verbal composition. Some invariant bits, e.g., words, are assembled according to syntactic rules to convey a new and variant message. This has always impressed me, that while we have formulaic speech for social purposes, e.g., “How about this weather?” most of our utterances are novel. While maybe the sentence’s propositional form follows an old/new pattern in subject/predicate or topic/comment, this serves the basic ongoing hippocampal processes of contextual generation of usefully defined situations, which for linguistic performances, must be a relatively rapid process in order to facilitate the intentional guidance of expression.

But variant/invariant can operate independently of temporal parameters, e.g., old/new, and so is important for our mental displacement of information divorced from current time and space. This seems to me now to be yet another manifestation of the basic biological processes underlying life. As we humans have extended our knowledge by understanding larger and smaller scales, e.g., cosmic and quantum, we again come around to Herodotus’ dictum that you can never step into the same river twice. Change and flux seems to be the basic order of the universe as it runs down to some entropic end. Life’s vital processes hold this procession in abeyance, the soma a protected environment where flux is background noise. We have come to understand that life is defined by our genes holding still as invariant forms, albeit with important random and rare mutations, replicating through generations. Thus Monod characterizes the forms of molecular biology as irregular crystals. That our minds operate to hold information in invariant forms, e.g., memory, is only another version of that tale.

Monod starts his book giving us the source of his title from Democritus, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” This from the man who around 400 BCE understood that atoms were a basic element of our universe. Monod found that evolution proceeds through chance or random events but that once a new gene passed two challenges, fitting into the coherent whole of the genome and then promoting adaptability of the organism, the new structure continues by necessity. Our brains and MEMBRAINs carry that feature through our mentality. Life in essence operates to mitigate exigencies and to exploit opportunities. No surprise that our minds do the same. Consider this example from current events: once we form an opinion we tend to preserve it despite new contradictory information. Invariance is naturally a conservative process. Cultural orthodoxy, especially religious, maintains invariance; rebellious hereterodoxy promotes variance until it succeeds in transforming views. The beauty of science lies in how it handles errors, i.e., variance, in its practice and theory and in how it institutionalizes the disjunction between our conceptual world, i.e., the doxa, and reality or nature, thereby making the empirical process necessary for objective and reliable understanding, so the need for our ethic of knowledge.

As I have studied our roots, some questions have come unanswered. What was the chemical process initiating life? How did sexual reproduction start and take hold? What were the genetic springs that fed the streams leading to humanity? Were the dominant ones for empathic and cooperative relationships or ones for control of displaced information? Are our distinctive mental faculties based upon cognitive advances, i.e., the orthodoxy, or are these advances really to serve a remarkable blossoming of empathy, i.e., heterodoxy? How is the self composed from the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN? Why were some of the earliest artworks hidden deeply within caves? What led to our awareness of a noumenal domain and then to its reification as supernatural? And how is it so much ugliness is tolerated by a species that developed such a keen sense of aesthetics?

In the course of writing these anniversary posts I realized more explicitly than I had previously why I have always written “soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN.” While the MEMBRAIN understood simply and basically as an exaptation of the brain, the MEMBRAIN is strictly speaking not of the soma or its brain. It is rather a construction based solely on social interaction; it is necessarily a social organ embodied in many conspecific somas. It comprises the self of social individuation based upon attachment and socialization and not just the self of agency and autobiography. It comprises the self as presented socially through various roles as well as the self hidden behind those presentations. Of paramount importance it comprises the self’s adoption of the habitus, the cultural mores and practices that knit the social organism together.

One final lesson for me from me: the dialectic between positivism and mysticism that operates as my mind finds its way to understanding. In these posts I have focused more on the former and now I will conclude with the latter. The ancient Greeks thought that the universe was composed of 4 elements: water, fire, air, and earth, and this conceptualization served them well for a time. Before I travel on, here is a scientifically transformed elemental prayer.

Elemental Prayer

Let me hold this water I use today

Remembering its earthly passages

And wondering how it came here.

Let me burn this energy I use today

Remembering its finitude between earth and sun

And wondering at its myriad forms.

Let me breathe this air I use today

Remembering that I am a human

And wondering how the fire burns within.

Let me walk this path I find today

Remembering those here and passed

And wondering at Gaia’s kindness.

a positivist genesis myth

[This is a very long post. I considered breaking it down into 2 but did not like the results so here it is. Having read the previous post would be helpful and acquaintance with some of the threads running through my blog may help this post be more understandable. Thanks in advance to anyone who reads to the end.]

What do you call a genesis myth without the supernatural? Au naturel, of course. And I use the term myth loosely, meaning an allegorical narrative symbolically capturing an explanation of nature that is, when objectively considered, unexplainable in its totality. Thus we have gods creating each other and the cosmos and humans. We also have the mystic apprehension of the unexplainable universe; one of the first and to my mind still one of the best is the Tao Te Ching (and I really love the translated rendition by sci-fi hero, Ursula K. LeGuin).

I have written here about the ocean of experience surrounding each of us, meaning that domain where the two great genetic watersheds (Solving World Problems (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR): see post 4/7/17 ) run to confluence and form an estuarine island of life and mind. A mystic stands on the shore, a being nakedly aware of the generational and temporal flow through to this moment, then this one, and oh, you know, and watches the weather, tides and the waters wave and glisten on the shore, content with just that apprehension, finding that experience a full one, and assured that the knowledge mirroring the experience is meaningful and insignificant. A genesis myth is valuable, even necessary for carrying that apprehension forward into meeting life’s probabilities and necessities.

Though a positivist genesis myth may be paradoxical, when we consider the scientific basis of our genesis presented below, I think that mythic aspect will be apparent because our understanding has come through increasingly sophisticated mathematics and information processing. Most of us cannot really comprehend how the numbers show their truths as the mathematically keen scientists do see them. In this sense scientists are like the seers, shaman and priests who created and developed the supernatural myths: only the initiated have access to the genesis esoterica as gleaned from either the mathematical domain or that learned through communication with the supernatural divine. Scientists talk with numbers and priests with angels. (I pass over the crucial differences in replication, falsifiability, and transferability between the two). We may not usually think of science in this way but in truth the majority of the people on Gaia evaluate positivistic myths and find them much less comprehensible than their religious mythology.   Conversely those of us initiated into this scientific world view, both the lay and the practitioners, can still find some truth about humanity in the old myths but little fact, certainly not enough to guide our pursuit of knowledge. Religious myths are at this point best seen from without, i.e., as data as we seek to understand our humanity.

In my last post I talked about Monod’s ethic of knowledge, and so to journey even further above my pay grade, this constitutes an epistemological effort that needs some supporting concepts about reality; about what is it we are learning? How did it come to pass and what is my relation with it? My bias is that any statement about the ultimate nature of reality, i.e., metaphysics, ultimately and necessarily given the scale and scope of our capabilities relies upon, revolves around and devolves intellectually into mystic apprehension. The question here is how from a cold, mechanical and valueless though lawful universe can life evolve with its values, as it has clearly done here with us on Gaia? That is, how to account for both our knowledge (true knowledge formed from an ethics of knowledge based upon empiricism) about the world and our values as both are clearly, as Monod demonstrated, sociobiological in origin. So again, what is it we know and value?

Human culture, though composed from both knowledge gained and values held, is a virtual world imagined among group members that helps to govern or to channel how each individual goes about life and supports the group. Over the past few thousand years, cultural parsing has held knowledge as more secular and values as coming from a supernatural divine. The ancient Greeks attributed some values, e.g., hospitality to strangers, respect for the dead, obedience to the king, acceptance of fate, to their gods, while they initiated a grand tradition of intellectual effort, i.e., philosophical and scientific knowing. The ancient Israelites certainly attributed their values to Yahweh and I believe follow a more secular and pragmatic approach to knowing. The Taoists stand on the shore and seek the Way. We don’t know about the people who painted the caves 40,000 years ago, much less about the earliest Hominids who buried their dead, but we do know that from them and since the advent of agriculture, civilized knowledge and values have grown to compose today’s cultural worlds.

Accept for a moment that all culture is learned and that we acquire culture through mirroring, empathy and symbolization. Assume even further that we can understand how we benefit from experience in such a way that cultural invariants form inter- and intra-personally that then guide how we relate, communicate symbolically, conceptualize with words, use metaphor, govern individual actions and relationships, organize socially, etc. Understand that early groups form on the basis of kinship which yields a natural historical narrative through their ancestry, while other groups form through social roles irrespective of kinship, and so must bond through constructing and sharing relevant narratives, some literal or empirically based, e.g., a flood, and some mythically based, e.g., the afterlife. All this to say that our philosophy as currently conceived results from a long history of cultural development (or is that evolution? Erwin Schrodinger, for one, wondered if humans were done evolving, i.e., we would stay in roughly the same biological form now into the future, sort of like sharks and insects have been the same for roughly 200 million years, so any further evolution for us would have to be cultural).

John Locke said the human infant was a tabula rasa, i.e., a blank slate, upon which experience writes its tale. Today we understand much more about what the child brings to the table and that there is no ontogenetic blank slate. But this idea covers only a very short time scale of one life. Monod from his scientific perspective seems to endorse John Locke’s tabula rasa, i.e., blank slate, but says the blank slate has been written on by the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” So our capabilities flow from incipient life some 3.5 billion years ago. Yeah, it was a blank slate then, but much has been written on it since and much has been edited, erased and replaced.

As I discussed in the previous post on Monod’s book, our evolutionary experience has led to two cultural facets from which mythic values seem to arise. One is an inborn fear of solitude; we are social animals and do not do well in isolation. Our contemplation of the cosmos along with our knowledge gleaned so arduously through empirical efforts indicates that our place in the universe is indeed lonely; we are warm-blooded strangers in a cold place, each conscious of our irrevocable solitude within our own MEMBRAIN, and constantly filling our mental void with all kinds of energies. The other facet derives from the first; we have, Monod says, a “need for a complete binding explanation” of our existence, and that includes the gaps before birth and after death. How have we come here now to stand on the beach of the ocean of experience? Both of these facets are inherent in life as it has developed on earth; they are inherent in Gaia’s character, i.e., they follow from life holding forth through negentropy amidst a universe flattening out in entropy. Each soma operates to replicate the passage of genes while mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance opportunities until its lapse into the final entropy of death.   This view of life is consistent with Susanne Langer’s idea that human consciousness arrived with the understanding that our life is one act that begins and ends and that within that frame each of us lives alone. Also consider Camus’s Absurd and the myth of Sisyphus and most especially Chris Hitchens’ proposal to separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see post 4/13/17).

It is as I have pondered Monod’s Chance and Necessity and sought its relations to other readings, e.g., Langer, Dawkins, James, Whitman, Hawking, etc., that I have developed a frail metaphysical myth to support this ethical epistemology, keeping consistent with my basic approach to the biological roots of our humanity and moving forward through a dialectic between positivism and mysticism (see posts beginning 11/15/15). To be clear, I believe any truth of which we are capable of apprehending is a gem with many facets, some more transparent and therefore practical or at least knowable than others; the goal is to see the gem whole even given our limited access to various facets. The metaphysical and epistemological answers to the questions of solitude and significance that used to be answered by animist myth with reference to the supernatural (and these serve us well for some purposes still, like artistic imagery or, as indicated, anthropology) are now superceded by positivist myths with reference to the natural world (and these can serve us better if we develop and use an ethics of knowledge to organize our culture and civilization). So to give an abstract rendition of a positivistic genesis myth:

  • Consider the big bang, or any theorized notion of this cosmic course through time, e.g., expansion and contraction, parallel universes, multiple dimensions beyond 4, etc.
  • These refer to the void beyond our comprehension and how the universe developed in ways we can comprehend.
  • A void filled by energy that illumines no forms =>
  • Higgs field appears whereby energetic matter gains mass (see delightful illustration at:
  • Matter and mass, though we apprehend them through our senses on some macro level, actually operate on a micro level through quantum waves of probability =>
  • These waves swell, subside, interfere +/-, and break into present reality: this is the first level of chance and necessity, i.e., quantum probability reduces to a certainty, e.g., Schrodinger’s cat is either dead or alive but not both because that wave has crested and broken on the shore
  • Matter with mass coalesces and clumps even as the incipient energies undergo entropic dispersal
  • The clumps accrue in the spacetime continuum =>
  • Gravity is a manifestation we can discern of this negentropic building process, i.e., against or resisting entropy; the spacetime curves according to this history of amalgamation
  • Gravity assembles cosmic structures that become elemental forges, e.g., stars burn and synthesize heavier elements: this is a next level of chance and necessity in that cosmic structures, e.g., gas clouds, galaxies, stars, planets appear by chance and then follow a time line ruled by necessity
  • The next level still of chance and necessity is when some combination of the products of these elemental forges coalesce through a gravitational eddy to generate life, e.g., planet Earth becomes Gaia.
  • Once begun life evolves according to chance and necessity.

This would be our genesis story if it were constructed as an anthropomorphic narrative; it is more detailed than animist origin myths because it is empirical and dynamic; the big difference is, of course, that this genesis details a cold, mechanical, and valueless universe from which life evolves with its own sociobiological values. Religious people may find that a problem but those who pursue an ethics of knowledge do not, because we realize that any and all value appears through and from life. Consider these incipient values I find apparent in Gaia’s biosphere:

  • Of course the first value, though perhaps one of the last to be understood, is to understand the world through realistic means and action.
  • Life’s projection into the future through replication, e.g., procreation is good for many reasons
  • Generational replication via somas is quite conservative by necessity and its sensitivity to chance events allows evolution to proceed in two ways:
  • One, variant genes must fit coherently into the whole genome or they will not continue
  • Two, having done so these variants become invariant and must pass muster through environmental interaction by demonstrating the same or increased adaptability
  • Each and every soma operates to minimize exigencies and to exploit chance
  • Their capability to do so speaks to their evolutionary potential.
  • Somas with brains do better than those without, somas with strong social relationships, i.e., have MEMBRAINS, do the best.
  • All life is interconnected
  • All life is local and Gaia is the location; each soma participates in the ecological balance
  • We must respect Gaia, understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that our actions even if performed authentically with sound knowledge and conscious values have many intended and unintended consequences.
  • Our ignorance is greater than our knowledge, e.g., standard theory of physics about 10% of the universe and the rest dark
  • Finally, while we accrue our knowledge through scientific means, both empirical and theoretical, our values continually emerge from the ancestral history of our species. I hope to expound upon this more in later drafts.

With this first axiom of procreation (replication) and its two corollaries of mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance, our frail metaphysic grows strong enough to support a new domain of values instigated and developed through evolution with conspecific relationships. With our heightened empathy and symbolization, we become conscious of greater questions, that of our solitude and of our significance, that can find only partial answers through our ethics of knowledge and development of values.

We have no way of comprehending this richness of life on Gaia. We may work on constructing our ethics of knowledge based on a positivistic genesis myth for our metaphysics, which can lead to a knowledge of ethics and a better understanding of our values. That effort, for me, resolves to a dialectic between my biological mysticism and my intellectual pursuit of knowledge. If you have read all of this, I again thank you. Linger here if you like watching the ocean waters wave and glisten upon your shore or travel on the Way.

The purpose of sleep and the mnemonic forms of experience


So we have a science story in the NYT entitled ‘The purpose of sleep is to forget’:

Catchy but maybe not as summary a title as one would want. They cite some assiduous research showing that during sleep the brain decreases synapses in some areas, an action mediated by at least one particular protein that we know of. Some of this work was done by Guilio Tononi who collaborated with Gerald Edelman before his death. What a lot of good science is being done. The premise underlying the title is that loss of synapses equals forgetting. Not so fast there, my friends. Pruning improves and sharpens growth, helping forms to be articulated more coherently, as the story goes on to explain. Sure we may forget some details due to pruning, but we also forget without pruning, and the larger purpose is to remember (and imagine) more clearly. Let me explain myself better.

The NYT title refers simply to the ongoing debate about what is sleep is for. Why sleep? We know sentience and being awake helps exploit environmental resources, e.g., food. Some think sleep keeps us quiet at night when predators are about; others think sleep lets the brain clean up metabolites and such, much like I take the compost out after cooking. Tononi and colleagues posed the hypothesis a while back that sleep lets us clear our minds of the residua of the day and prepare for another and further research has slowly begun to support such a view. Presumably the synapses that shrunk, in some areas by as much as 18%, quite a significant proportion, had enlarged dealing with the exigencies of the days past. Here is my question: does the shrinkage constitute pruning, like apoptosis, or consolidation, like items in STM moving to LTM, if you get my gist here. Remember that TMs are not spaces but activity and that activity contributes to invariant and variant mental structures (you know, of information).

Our model for pruning comes from apoptosis, the death of neurons that are poorly connected or that connect poorly during early maturation of the year or so after birth, thereby contributing to the invariances of personality through attachment and affective regulation. This pruning promotes the development of other systems and structures, reducing noise in the processes, that are presumably more adaptive to the person’s niche. Our model for consolidation is not quite so clear. It can be looked at from several perspectives. There is the long standing cognitive research tradition studying short and long term memories, how the transition between them might happen and what happens when it doesn’t happen as in the case of H.M. who had his hippocampi ablated to control epilepsy but taught us so much about the loss of that transition between STM and LTM. Neuroscience, both clinical and experimental, has long studied the processes of symbolic competence and performance, i.e., the maturation and development of language and how it is compromised by disorder and trauma (aphasias, etc.). For example, consider word retrieval. Frequently used words in your vocabulary come to mind almost effortlessly while more unusual ones are more difficult to remember. Could it be that the higher frequency usage keeps the memory traces of neurons and synapses primed while pruning leaves less frequently used words less accessible?

Consider as well the connectome, that ongoing connective patterning of CNS communication amongst its systems, and the clinical example of a young scientist falling into icy water who died, whose body was recovered after some time underwater, and who was later resuscitated at a hospital, her identity intact and who with therapy came back close to her previous self and competence. Somehow her connectome was resilient and unpruned or at least, information not forgotten and lost.  Next consider the question of how dreaming plays into synaptic flux. Do synapses shrink or grow or just maintain with dreaming? And what about meditation? How does this pruning/consolidation change with developing expertise at meditation?

My list goes on, a sort of wish list for empirical clarification. When someone is depressed and their cognition is a maladaptive redundant feedback loop called rumination, what happens to their synaptic tidal rhythms? Does cognitive therapy bolster both the ebbing of ruminative circuits and their replacement with the flow of adaptive flexible and realistic cognition? Does this tidal flow while sleeping contribute to that? When someone cogitates over a problem like Monod’s colleague, Jakob Wolff, who subconsciously solved a problem leading to our understanding of rDNA, how does the brain keep the thought processes alive when asleep, as with Kekule’s dream of the benzene ring or Wolff’s insight flash during a movie with his wife? (She did indeed, I hope, understand why they had to leave the theatre and return to his desk). Did the cogitations over a theoretical problem keep certain thoughts bright and let others dim, thereby heightening and clarifying the gestalt answering the theoretical call?

This is already a longer post for me (and I have much else to do today), so let me not go into a lot more details of which there are many, and instead go back to my notion that sentience and consciousness are quite different. In my thinking sentience is a basic life function; the sensing of the environment is necessary to solve the world problem of finding nutrients and conspecifics and avoiding the bad stuff. The evolution of sentience, then, can be traced from early single celled organisms to multicellular ones and then through its evolutionary victory with vertebrates, especially mammals. When we think of an animal’s Umvelt, we usually think of its sentient abilities. Consciousness is the contribution of the organism’s own autogenic impulses to its Umvelt; consciousness is the suffusion of information from memory and imagination to sentience. I have talked about this many times in past posts, like when I say we can be +/-sentient and +/-conscious, creating a 4 celled matrix:

SENTIENCE/CONSCIOUS            + sentient                                  -sentient

+conscious                                       awake                                              dream (REM sleep)

-conscious                                       hypnosis/dissociative                    sleep (slow wave)

I have also discussed this in reference to Jaak Panksepp’s remarkable observation that the center for dreaming (REM) seems to have appeared in evolution before the centers for arousal/awake. Thus, looking at this in a poetic light, animals dreamed before they awoke. (Actually the earlier dream centers controlled arousal through the suffusion of conscious energy into sentient processes. With further evolution sentient processes gained their own arousal governance system, I presume because of the increasing scope and power of perceptual abilities, e.g., olfactory, auditory, and visual and the special systems for conspecific recognition and interaction and consciousness increased in its power to manage memory and imagination.)

Here’s my point now: The research into the tidal ebb and flow of synapses during sleep does not reveal that the purpose of sleep is forgetting, though that is part of it, but it does provide a glimpse into how sentience and consciousness interact in a balanced manner, of how they are balanced. This is a dialectical process by which the organism’s vital nerve centers incipient to its intentional stance exert control over and respond to the sentient processes that are necessary for adaptive functioning. Unconscious sentience is mechanical and inflexible. Insentient consciousness is fluid with a reality unbounded by necessities though fertile with possibilities. Conscious sentience, when balanced, allows creative intelligence to flourish, and some of that balancing occurs when unconscious insentience allows the chaff of the days to be separated from the seeds needed for the next mental crop.

So remember, please, as you travel on, where you read such thoughts first put together. I will pause and dream about variant and invariant forms in language and art, in memes and tropes, and how each aesthetic communication transmits an organized form of experience allowing it to be replicated in another mind and how this organization leads to mobilization. Right on.

Return to invariance for the holidays

I had another thought about invariance/variance yesterday as I reflected on some recent experiences. One aspect of life I find entrancing is the rich chaotic activity it seems to be, like an estuary, yet in the constant flux, amid the “buzzing, blooming confusion” we find channels of activity both variant and invariant. Consider again the rendering of the connectome,


Connectome picture

remembering that neural structures are only the substrate of much dynamic activity, including electric action potentials, neurochemical messengers and actors, and a plethora of protein action. Recently I have written here about the structures and functions of language, invariant (words, stock phrases, syntactic structuring) and variant (sentences and conversational flow), but there are different and larger invariant structures we all have that shape our personalities.

So consider the tapes that play in our head, the consistent (invariant) worries rational and irrational that occupy our thoughts. Some are fairly adaptive such as goals and motivations (these change adaptively with circumstances) and some less so, inflexible neurotic anxieties that compose our responses to similar situations even though they are out of date and no longer relevant really to what is going on now. And then consider that neurosychiatric disorders might be seen as monolithic stone in an otherwise vibrant landscape, e.g., the depressive thoughts and feelings that stay the same as life goes on and even gets better, or as liquidities of a dissolving mind rendering reality testing rather impractical, e.g., the hallucinatory escapades of a thought disorder. The ancients knew that a healthy life depended upon balance; here I am saying the balance holds functioning from swinging to far towards petrification or diarrhea of mental life. Our patterns of balance and imbalance are multitudinous and vary from culture to culture and from family to family. So this holiday, when one of your family members re-enacts the same old schtick or becomes drunkenly mercurial (even without imbibing), be thankful you have flexible enough balance between variant and invariant processes to see the difference. Travel on.

dialectical path 2.1: alpha & omega: error recognition and response

My dialectical path wanders between mysticism and positivism in a noumenal sort of way and between religion and science in a phenomenal one. The latter pair both are systems with different levels, e.g., social in their churches and labs & epistemological in their seeking true knowledge. Errors are important in both. Consider this comparison of error recognition and response between the two systems: within science errors are inadequacies in experimental design and control or if the data has been gathered with utmost rigor, errors lie in our theoretical understanding. Scientific response, then, comprises reworking the experiment for greater reliability and validity or challenging and changing the abiding theoretical understanding of the ultimate state of nature. Science, like Hegel’s history, is a paragon of dialectic. Within religion errors are deviations from some god’s law or the laws of a karmic universe. The socially approved responses include individual repentance or congregants’ compassionate prayer for that individual should he or she persist in their un-repentance, or should an individual assiduously rail against the orthodox, the authorities, acting again at the behest of their god, categorize them as in the outgroup, the consequences of which range from mildly predicting their eternity in hell to their torture/murder as apostates. No dialectic exists here within their system, because errors are not ever considered as signals that the standards, e.g., god’s laws, need revision, i.e., that something is amiss with the law itself. Where is the alpha and omega here? Science is always an alpha approaching asymptotically at best the omega of understanding nature. Religion is always an omega as the alpha was already set in stone, so to speak; it may be an omega waiting to happen with the end of days, or an omega of transcendence whereby one leaves off the attachment to this dreary world, but there is no dialectic of religious thought, only evolution of church functioning.

Or consider another frame. I have recently had consideration of the phrase, “coming to my senses,” brought up again. When does someone say this? When realizing that continued effort in the same way would be futile, i.e., senseless, like when someone realizes that a relationship will never be good or healthy or that a plan of action being implemented is untenable or that some belief or assumption is rather unquestionably wrong. “Coming to my senses,” then, is when an omega moment occurs and transforms to an alpha, e.g., Archimedes’ ‘Eureka!’ or (dare I say this) Saul’s epiphany on the road to Tarsus. I use these examples to emphasize that coming to our senses is no sure road to epistemological truth; our senses are famously quite constructive and rather vulnerable to perturbation and error. Still, “coming to my senses” usually connotes a positive and adaptive change of mind. I don’t know if I have ever heard the inverse phrase, “leaving my senses;” I think we tend to say instead, “I am losing my mind.” Curious metaphor that, where the disregard of data engenders mindlessness. And that brings us up to an ever growing facet modern American culture, our fundamentalist religion and divisive politics. Better travel on now rather quickly.