4th Anniversary: 1-Heroes

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. My heroes are the guideposts steering me to scenic overlooks. I will present 4, William James, Susanne Langer, Noam Chomsky, and Jacques Monod and mention incidentally Christopher Hitchens and Pierre Bourdieu. Though not mentioned I also thank Claude Shannon, Jaak Panksepp, Jerome Bruner, A. R. Luria, L. S. Vygostsky, Wilder Penfield, the pioneering ethologists, the great primatologist Frans der Waal, and many, many more, including artists like James Joyce, more indeed than my old self can recall at any one moment and many more than would be interesting to read.


Susanne Langer

I first wandered down this path reading Susanne Langer’s Mind: An essay on human feeling, volumes 1 and 2. It validated my vague sense that I was an animal and that my mind, including its contents and my cultural surroundings, was biological. Easy to say and seems obvious, but I have found a surprising number of instances when talking about such matters, i.e., our humanity, that people balk or skip over that detail. If you have followed my blog for much time at all you know that is my primary pet peeve is the catergorical error when anyone, and most everyone does, says, “humans and animals”.

Langer’s earlier books, Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form, ultimately have interested me more in recent years. (And this winter I will start her text, Symbolic Logic, that she wrote early on in her career). Her examination of aesthetics I find profound in its simplicity, and yet as I read more of aesthetics, especially those claiming to be biologically oriented, I rarely find her mentioned. Even more puzzling is the absence of her work on symbols. Langer explicated two types of symbols, presentational and discursive. The former are exemplified by art, the work is all of a piece or a unified gestalt, its elements have no meaning outside of that gestalt, and the complexity of thought cannot be translated into simpler linear forms. The latter, exemplified by language, is linear, its elements (words) have meaning independently of the current form (sentence), and its thought can be expressed in many different ways. Presentational symbols carry import, Langer says, to differentiate it from linguistic meaning.

Langer’s work followed in the tradition of those who sought to understand symbols like C. S. Pierce’s semiotics and Ernst Cassirer’s development of symbols, because they are key to understanding our humanity. Prior to her comes William James whose broad understanding of psychology, philosophy and biology was astounding given his time period around the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries. While he realized that our conscious was really a “remembered present” and so his psychology reflects that insight, I also remember him for his book Varieties of Religious Experience, where he examines the data of religious experiences, not in terms of belief or disbelief, but in terms of psychological implications. His empirical rigor led him to say that while we cannot know what happens to a ‘person’ after death, we have a responsibility to understand what happens up until that moment.


William James

In the last decades of her career Langer worked on Mind, the 3rd and last volume published in unfinished form after her death. These volumes were then and still are not well received and I understand a bit why. Her research predated most of the transformation of biological science by the insights of genetics and information theory/technology. These left her last books with a certain quaint status.


Noam Chomsky 1977

Beginning in the 1950s and exploding in the 60s, Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics and biology. His early book, Language and Mind (1967), pushed Skinner and his radical behaviorism to the side of the road (though that did not stop some in clinical psychology from denying that we have a mind for many years; fortunately they discovered that we do have a mind some time in the late 80s, wow, really good work there). Chomsky formalized all three branches of linguistics, syntax, semantics and phonology, in ways imbued with information science. His work led to the realization that language was innate in some shape or form and biology has more or less upheld that thought. In my blog I depend on his differentiation between surface and deep structures of symbolic thought, deep being the meaning (or import though he does not apply this to art) and surface being the phonological form uttered (or the artistic medium used for art creation). Syntax is important because it governs the transformation between deep and surface structures. This is a very helpful notion.


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

Now I come to Jacques Monod, a prime example of why re-reading a work years later is important. I read Chance and Necessity (1970) shortly after it came out and understood its solid argument that life and mind is a biological phenomena based solely upon the chemical machinations of DNA and proteins. I read it again last year and understood as well this time the paradox that an ethics of knowledge yields a mystic view, e.g., apprehending our genetic history resulting from countless random genetic events over 3 billion years brings us to encounter the true mystery of life and humanity and not any of the mythic versions out there over our history.   This might also be the time to remember Chris Hitchens not only for his wonderfully clear prose but also his unorthodox casting of the noumenal in natural light, no longer relegating it to the supernatural because the supernatural is no longer closely related to any truth based on objective reality, instead being only a truth from our cultural imagination. (And no, our discernment of reality based truth is not a culturally imagined one; it derives from an ethic of knowledge that ensures we understand that in the realm of possible discourse [doxa] we do not mistake culture for the ‘true’ state of things, as well analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu.

So many minds bent on the same destination and offering guideposts to us all. Travel, really travel, on.

ReReading Monod: part 2

In the current debate between the religious side and those arguing for science, at least as I see it generally represented in the media and at local events, the former stand on the need for divine guidance and validation of values, else we devolve into uncivilized and evil acting animals (I am still not sure how that would be different in many instances), while the latter argue for the evolutionary basis of values derived from our ancestral past (ancestry defined broadly). Jacques Monod had something intelligent to contribute to this debate in 1971.

Monod saw that with the advent of science human epistemology changed because science, with its axiom of objectivity, separated knowledge from values, i.e., science contributes knowledge about this objective reality but values must come from human decisions and actions because, looked at objectively, the universe is more machine-like than god-like with no absolute or divine values to be found. Before the 16th century both knowledge and values were generally from one domain labeled religion with perhaps a tad of secular philosophy thrown in by Plato and Aristotle. Since that time we have developed a powerful practical means of knowledge (I hope all would agree that science is eminently successful in solving problems and extending our capabilities) that indicates that our ethical values are “sociobiological” in origin and are an emergent feature of our extended and extending conspecific relationships.

Monod goes further with this analysis, saying that actually the distinction between values and knowledge derives from the Catholic distinction between the sacred and the profane. As human society shifts from animistic to scientific, an ethics of knowledge will develop that will include a knowledge of ethics. (Consider the current outcry against the American Trump administration for their desertion of the ethics of knowledge). To be authentic (and here is a modern civilized value), then, requires one to think and act clearly about value held/acted upon and judgments based on knowledge. Jumbling the two results in inauthentic action and thinking. (Now consider again our current politics in a more general sense whereby many elected officials assess reality according to their political and economic convenience in contrast with others, including bureaucratic data driven stalwarts, who assess reality in order to intervene on a factual basis and move society towards adaptive and democratic values).

Does this sound so arcane as to be trivial? Consider the ‘debate’ about whether substance abuse problems are a matter of character/spiritual flaws or an illness. Consider the incorporation by legal authorities of neuroscience findings indicating that the adolescent brain is not fully mature or functioning rationally for fully responsible action. Consider the issues raised in Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (see my posts on 5/11/14, 7/15/2014 & 7/28/2014).  Consider the changing approach to autism spectrum disorders, especially in how and what supports we fund for our fellow citizens over their lifetime. Finally, changing tack a bit, consider the remarkable economic data covering 300 years that Thomas Piketty gathered and analyzed for his book, Capital in the 21st Century, and the analysis and values he offers in contrast to so many others who talk about economic and tax policy based upon political dogma (see post 11/25/2016).

Monod argues for a society organized around an ethics of knowledge and a clearly asserted presumption of values. In this he leans left towards civic governance that ensures that the essential needs, including adequate wealth and medical care, of all citizens everywhere are met. He says he knows this will be seen by some as utopian but asserts that this is our choice, if ever we can rise to such a conscious choice, and in this he echoes his old comrade in the French resistance, proponent of clear social responsibility unsullied by claims to the divine, and fellow Nobel laureate, Albert Camus.

A final word about skepticism and existentialism vs god. (In our free country, you may believe in any god you wish; there are plenty to choose from, though quantity does not imply quality. What is not free at the moment is to require non-believers to think and act as you would like.) I recently heard again the old argument that without faith in god, humans would do whatever they want and that is not good, but it seems to me, again looking objectively around the world and through history, that even with faith in god, humans still do whatever they want, oftentimes not good, only now they feel righteous. Oh, and I have posted about righteous indignation before, see post on 5/16/2014. Well, time to travel on.

Re-reading Monod: WOW! edition

Along about Chapter 8 in Chance and Necessity Monod quotes Francois Mauriac’s comment on his (Monod) natural philosophy: “The professor’s ideas are more incredible than any we poor Christians believe”. Mauriac had won the Nobel for literature in the early 50s and was a staunch defender of the Catholic faith. To say Monod’s ideas were more incredible, i.e., unbelievable, than god coming to earth through a virgin birth, being killed for his upsetting views and then returning to life before ascending to the skies is pretty incredible in itself. What had Professor Jacques Monod been saying? I will try and give you the gist and flavor here now but again I urge you to read the book for yourself.

Monod gives a remarkably complete and beautifully articulated view of humans as biological and yes, that means without a supernatural immanence exerting its power through the material realm. After explicating through some details of protein synthesis the scientific basis of molecular biology and explaining how that provides fully for the evolution of life forms, he discusses the implications this has for natural philosophy. He understands that the challenge is to understand life without immanence, i.e., without the animating force of a god or gods. This begins with the basic understanding that nature is objective and that we can know it only through empirical effort; there is no revelation of absolutes and even through science our knowledge is conditional.

His book’s title captures a basic principle. Evolution proceeds through chance mutations to what is a necessarily conservative invariant process of reproduction that are then tested first by their coherence in the overall genetic structure and then by any effects on adaptability and reproductive success of the group. Having passed those tests chance happenings become necessary because they are now part of the invariant machinery. What propels evolution forward is not immanent design but a “vast reservoir of fortuitous variability.” Life is not predictable because of this random variability but proceeds to greater complexity because of this altogether remarkable ‘reservoir’ of chance events adding to the necessity of organismic structures and then the furthering of exploiting environmental opportunities. (He explains this so very well—read it).


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

This reservoir of variability sustaining evolution is one of the features Mauriac found incredible. I find it quite understandable though; consider my idea of evolutionary watersheds first for Solving World Problems and then for Conspecific Relations (see posts 7/25/15, 12/17/16 & soon to come) where genes spring up and flow down to the great confluences of the River Sentience and the River Empathy that then merge for the River Consciousness, which when it meets the ocean of Experience forms the somatic delta and there solving world problems becomes a social affair and conspecific relations becomes a world problem to solve. That is us. Whew!

The next thing Mauriac finds incredible (I think) is Monod’s statement that all that life is comes from experience, not a tabula rasa ala Aristotle and John Locke, but from the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” All that we are arises in a fortuitous bubbling of genes coming together over 4 billion years, or to borrow a phrase from James Joyce, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago. One facet of this evolutionary experience is our inborn fear of solitude and our need for a “need for a complete binding explanation,” of our existence, i.e., this the facet of spirit and religion.

And so at the end of chapter 8 Monod writes, “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.” To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds. Now that is pretty incredible, and sorry to say, Monsieur Mauriac, quite scientific.

Rumor has it that when asked if he believed in god, Einstein replied, “I do if it is Spinoza’s god.”  I think Baruch Spinoza would be right there with Jacques Monod and his natural philosophy and would be delighted that somebody could write these notions openly without fear of being burned at the stake by the religious authorities. Travel on. I suggest heading upriver but it is all of a piece, river journey or a beachhead on the ocean of experience. Plash and eddy by the banks, wave and glisten on the shore.

Not your father’s fitness

I have long appreciated that our intellectual life is governed by feelings of fitness. Take for example grammar and handedness. Some linguistic constructions feel fit, i.e., they are grammatical, like this very sentence is. Others feel awkward, e.g., “Bluebirds the lands the house on nest build to”. No logic required here, just the grammatical intuition of how things are supposed to fit together. Similarly, fold your arms right over left and then left over right and then do the same with your hands. One way will feel more natural, i.e., fit, and the other more awkward. Being right handed means that turning the screwdriver with the right hand feels right and more skillful and turning it with your left is not. Linguistic grammar is analogous to the fit coordinations of handedness. Back in my days as a speech-language pathologist I used this analogy to explain to parents the development of their young child’s grammar. A toddler says ‘tow’ for ‘cow’ and uses abbreviated syntax because that is what feels right to them. Correcting their child’s performance often resulted in the child saying something that felt awkward and wrong to them. As their brains mature and their grammatical feelings change, their speech comes to accord with adult grammar in a most marvelous manner.

So now re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity I realize again how important ‘fit’ is to life. In laying out the molecular basis of the genetic control of protein synthesis, Monod discusses how proteins work by folding into particular specific shapes so that they fit into other molecules thereby catalyzing and regulating the molecular biology of cellular function. With the presence of one molecule the protein folds one way and carries out one function and with the presence of another molecule the protein folds another way and carries out a different function, both because the two shapes fit exclusively into different substrates and so engender different chemical processes. He, Wolff and Jacob won the Nobel for discovering this phenomena by studying how yeasts metabolize one sugar at a time and when the supply of that sugar is exhausted, the genetic mechanism directs the shift to metabolize another sugar if present. This shift occurs within minutes of one sugar’s depletion and another’s presence is detected as the synthesis of the new necessary protein increases a thousandfold in a matter of molecular moments. Amazing, and then he goes on to explain how similar processes carry forth the ontogenesis of a new life, even more amazing.

Fitness is not just a concept of evolutionary viability anymore. It would seem to be functional principle in life’s operations, from the replication and transcription of DNA and proteins described above as based on stereotaxic fit between molecules to the grammatical compositions we use for communication (and so much more). I am fascinated by aesthetic fitness, by how the elements of an artistic work fit together coherently to form an integrated whole that shines somehow with felt life. Great art, as I think Aquinas noted so long ago, works with unity, integrity and luminosity. Not so great art misses on one or more of these three dimensions. Bad art simply appeals to some shallow stereotypical emotional response. And somehow, like linguistic structures, aesthetic works result from a composite of neural processes working together in a fit manner.

Now consider the connectome. Monod describes DNA and its accompanying proteins as crystalline structures, not regular repetitive lattices like salt or quartz but aperiodic ones whose components are self organizing like salt’s but whose irregular shapes then fit with other molecules out there initiating chains of process and thereby creating function (based upon the decision points or choices like a binary algorithm). So look at this picture of the connectome in this light and see fluid crystalline molecules lighting up crystalline modules of different functions that must fit together to be operational, and in order to be optimal, must fit according to some linguistic or aesthetic grammar.



Both composing and comprehending linguistic and aesthetic productions involves different modules lighting up and their functional ‘shapes’ fitting together according to their grammatical rules. A stroke can hinder or prevent the parts fitting together so the patient is aphasic or has amusia. Cultural expectations shape what is considered fit, so that some music seems to violate tonal rules and causes consternation, as when Stravinsk’s Rites of Spring premiered to a riotous reception or like when I hear certain music or see certain paintings and wonder why bother. Clearly the notion of ‘fitness’ is important and pervasive.

Finally consider the old myth that creative, e.g., artistic, people use their right hemispheres more. This is one of those statements that sounds good enough for some to believe but that everyone should know is too simple to be true. A brief note from the Duke Chronicle reports some brain research showing that people who rank high on creativity (and how did they assess that? Don’t know.) use both sides of their brain, especially some frontal areas, more than people who rank the lowest on creativity: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2017/03/connectivity-between-brain-hemispheres-boosts-creativity-study-finds. This suggests that creativity stems in part from the communication between hemispheres, or following the idea here, that the functional crystals on one side communicate and operate in fit manner through the anterior commissure and corpus callosum with the functional crystals on the other side. Oh, could I go on from here, but enough for now; just look at the connectome and imagine the forms lit up and flashing between the two hemispheres (and don’t neglect subcortical structures). Time to travel on.

Re-reading: old words, new meanings

I am rereading Gerald Edelman’s and Giulio Tononi’s book, A Universe of Consciousness, and once again am struck by how much these guys knew and thought. The first time through a few years back I took in the idea of reentrance, the notion that much of brain function is characterized by reentrant processing, i.e., circuits form loops and amplify or mitigate informational patterns by recirculating the results. This is not for feedback in a corrective process but more feedforward for a constructive one and that is one important distinction for a symbolizing species. I have kept this in mind quite a bit as I have read and thought about our brains.

This time I am struck by how much I missed or neglected to ponder to a fuller extent about two other concepts. They say our brain functions are shaped by two other processes they call degeneration and value. Now I am working to understand fully the new meanings of these two words.

Degeneration, heretofore in my experience, meant falling apart or, in crude folk parlance, someone who molests children or had otherwise degenerated from being fully human. Edelman and Tononi use the word to denote how different processes can end in the same result. Now this is a curious insight and on third reading, profound. Consider how perceptual processes, the neural variability of which must be considerable when you consider the system from retina to object recognition in the cortex, result in object constancy, i.e., different processes, same result. Going further, consider how brains differ so grandly from each other e.g., 10,000,000,000 neurons, 10x that many glia, and exponentially more synapses connecting them all in some complex multiplicity of systems, yet each essentially functions to the same ends. Imagine, and this can only be imagined, if every computer was different from every other in hardware and software yet still processed unstructured input to the same result. In the realm of cognition, consider how different neural patternings can elicit the same memory, how our memories are almost holographic in their flexibility or how many different exemplars are known as falling into the same category. So degeneration is an amazing generalization about neural processes.

What about value? The meaning in biology with which I am familiar lies in the processing result of the system organized around the amygdala and with dopamine, i.e., does the stimulus have survival value (fight/flight) or indicate approach/avoidance, i.e., is it positive or negative in value? Edelman and Tononi use the term, as best I can tell, to denote evolutionary value; that is, once a structural or functional feature has appeared in evolution and is found to be adaptive, further evolution tends to elaborate upon that value. I really like this one.

Remember that sexual reproduction appeared long eons ago and continues to work in many ways because of its value, e.g., introduces controlled variability to the genetic streams. Consider conspecific communication (one of my favorites) that has evolved from finding a mate to social cooperation to cultural organization. The value of conspecific communication is especially evident in the development of empathy in both parenting and social relations. For a specific example, consider that oxytocin, one of the primary hormonal instigators of parental and altruistic feelings and behaviors, appeared on the scene some 400 million years ago and over the course of evolution has transformed to different forms in more powerful brains to promote prosocial relationships. Now that’s real value, and I won’t even begin to talk about the linguistic and aesthetic symbols of our conspecific communication.

So old words and wildly new meanings, a good reason for re-reading. Well, off to ponder some more (and work in the garden).

Rereading 4.3: Leaving Langer for Woolf to wonder about

The biological basis of genius.

I believe Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” While some of us may think that the truth value of this soundbite is limited, its memic power lasts because bringing an idea to fruition does require due diligence. In her discussion of art Langer presents the idea of the ‘commanding form’, the gestalt that comes into the artist’s mind that can then be expressed fully according to the artist’s talents. Picasso worked rapidly to paint out his ideas as he carried forth traditions, initiated new forms and then tried out different expressions of those new forms. From this we could think that genius requires both the visionary seeds and talented expression, including the assiduous effort to stay true to some intuitive commanding form, and I think we would be right. Actually this also applies to scientific endeavors; consider Einstein’s daydreams, Archimedes ‘eureka,’ Pythagoras vision of geometric relations and the musical scales, or Newton’s apple (oh sure, just another memic fantasy that one).

I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s remarkable novel about artistic being, the complexity of human thought and relationships, and the passage of time, To the Lighthouse. Consider this passage thought out by Lily Briscoe, by all accounts, even her own, an amateur albeit thoughtful artist of small gifts.

“Where to begin?—that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea that seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must be run; the mark made.”

Much in this novel, as in most of Woolf’s mature writings, presents us with her understanding of the compositional process ongoing in the human mind and personality and how art is a parallel process with special purpose. Risk? Of course courage in pursuit of the full expression of the commanding form, be it artistic, scientific, or invention, is required if only for power it brings to one’s focused effort. And genius also seems to include the ability to live mentally in some self created virtual domain; indeed, I suspect much of the gratification and survival value of artistic effort is in just this moment of abstraction from life experience. One more passage from Woolf:

Before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness, when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt.

So it would seem that artistic genius at its base helps each one of us to experience such a moment when our unborn soul stands in solitude before becoming embodied and life’s reality resumes its prominent passage even as we are changed by the artistic experience. Ah, but travel on.


Virginia Woolf


Next up: Naomi Oreskes on seeing the difference between a charlatan and a visionary.

Re-read 4.1: Langer on “the virtual time created in music”

I find Susanne Langer’s prose clear and eloquent. She would seem to be at her most passionate when she writes about life and art to share her understanding of their relationship. Consider this passage: “What, then, is the essence of all music? The creation of virtual time and its complete determination by the movement of audible forms.” Why is this important? Why is music important? Because, as she explains later in Chapter 7 of Feeling and Form, with music we may understand again the nature of time, not the moment by moment succession of mechanical ticks of the clock (which she calls “metaphysically a very problematical instrument”) in a one dimensional train, but the multi-dimensional passage of duration. Music is an image of lived or experienced time, it is vital and not mechanical, it is creative and not restrictive.

I recently talked with a young man about Joseph Campbell, one of the greatest mythologists, and his notion that modern man was somehow diminished by our lack of rituals of passage, by our loss of a shared contextual duration of lifespans and the rhythm of life. I agree with this but given how we have changed since Campbell formulated his ideas, I think he had no idea of what would come about, when so many consider their lives richer in texture through electronic friending and multi-tasking. As Charlie Chaplin recognized in his movie, Modern Times, we have reduced the richness of life by clocking. Even some of the emphasis on fitness seems narrowly focused on achievement, on adrenalin and endorphin surge, on faster and better, even as we willfully ignore the necessity and richness of the quiet reflection needed to experience fully our time here with Gaia. Consider the experience of thru-hiking on the Appalachian Trail and the many who describe it as a time of grounding, of expansive spirit among the difficult journey, and of a deepening understanding of our time here. Then consider the yokel who recently set the speed record for completing the journey and considered himself a superior man. As Yoda said, “All wrong that is.”


One more passage from Langer: The great office of music is to organize our conception of feeling . . . to give us an insight into what may truly be called the ‘life of feeling,’ or subjective unity of experience; and this it does by the same principle that organizes physical existence into a biological design—rhythm.” So, as I understand this, when we listen to music, we hear an image of life’s song emerging from matter’s noise, not as a scientific or positivistic progression of tick-tocks but as the mystic experience of attunement with some universe.

Langer was an excellent musician herself and she appreciated the modern luxury of electronic recordings, but she also said these taught us how not to listen, how to have music as the background of our lives and to miss thereby its richness. Sort of empty, non-nutritive calories, I guess, like so much of our fodder today. As we wander these trees, looking for the forest and a way through, listen for the song of the Waldenhexe. Travel on.