What’s going on?

A few years back I posted about a study on the genetics of race—it’s surprising in that it turns out that skin color is not a robust marker of race.  AHHH!  Still many think it signifies something important about different members of the human race.  Here is copy from back then:

Researchers studied which genes influenced skin color across several populations. Basically they found that we, including Neandertals, all have many of the same genes for lighter and darker skin, but they express differently in different populations because of other genetic factors. The gene promoting the lightest skin tones are actually very recent, appearing, they think, roughly 30,000 years ago primarily in northern European peoples and have spread because of the advantage conferred by the ability to absorb more ultraviolet light that is more limited in northern latitudes.

Their search for understanding also leads them to an important conclusion about ethics. Skin color is not a good indicator of racial differences; I don’t know what is but it is not our skins because we all share so many of the same genes influencing this particular trait. The scientists here have contributed importantly to the growing understanding that our definitions of race are based more on our proclivity for defining in-group/out-group in a discriminatory, defensive manner and not on any significant biological facts. To paraphrase Te-Nehisi Coates: the concept of race is an invention of racists, i.e., one group of people wants to define another artificially in order to rationalize their own greed for power and exploitation. (See post here on race 5/17/17). As Monod hoped, an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics. I wonder when our ancestors first used skin color to define in/out-groups—I bet it was relatively recently. Remember Homo sapiens interbred with Homo neandertals some 35,000 years ago so that speaks to some inclusion.

More recently I felt the need to contribute to the local debate on racial matters (here is SW Virginia the Confederate flag and white supremacy hangs on in the crevices and shadows.  Here is my op-ed from our local paper: 


“Growing up in a military family we lived all over the USA, in Europe and Japan.  Most summers we visited my parents’ families back here in Virginia.  While still young I soaked up the romance of the Confederacy like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Mosby the Grey Ghost. When I approached adolescence I began to wonder while visiting about these stories and the ubiquitous signs saying that the South shall rise again.  What did that mean, a return to slavery?  Surely not, but I began to listen to and watch more carefully my relatives’ attitudes towards African Americans. When my father was transferred to Montgomery AL a month after the Selma march, I knew that something was wrong with what I had learned from my family and that I needed other knowledge.

       Now 60 years later I understand that the Confederacy lost the war but won the peace.  Those white people terrorized black people, stifling their efforts to participate in American democracy, and promulgated myths about the Confederacy effectively hiding the real nature of their policies fomenting white supremacy.  How their statues and monuments did rise above to shadow the truth!  Remember the Alamo? I read The Half Has Never Been Told (a remarkable history about our American economy based on enslavement using old government and business records, first person contemporaneous accounts by current and ex-slaves and enslavers, and other documents) to learn that yes, Santa Ana was a dictator and that yes, he did ‘invade’ Texas, but this was in part to prevent Southern whites from establishing a slave based cotton economy. Mexico, it turns out, had outlawed slavery 20 years earlier.

       During our visits in the early 60s my relatives were angry that black Americans and some whites were trying to win back the peace lost to Jim Crow after reconstruction, never mind the facts that they did so through non-violent means and that they simply sought equality and fair play before the law.  While we made some progress then in legal rights, we failed to establish a culture of deep and abiding peace based upon respect born of empathy with our fellow human beings.  

Now 60 years later I understand that each person is a gem with many facets, some rougher cut, some sparkle more, but each one of us is valuable.  Every crystal has many facets shaped by our sex and gender, family roles, age, education, religion, profession, etc.  In America the race facet seems very prominent but it is still only one facet, and truth be known, our individual calling as a community is to look through all the facets available and see the object whole, the gem within, a person deserving our respect and compassion.

       Finally, now 60 years later I understand that we walk lightly on this earth.  Lightning may strike at any moment; life is fragile and precious and Covid, cancer, dementia, car wreck, hurricane, derecho, or wildfire, may strike us out of the blue.  However, racism is not lightning; racism means we focus on one facet, see it as different from our own as we impute something negative, and then fail to see the gem of many facets—we fail to see the person.  And that means some families must be afraid any time one of theirs walks out the door.  Indeed, sometimes racism breaks down their door.  Our forebears like John Lewis fought for our peace and hoped to have turned the tide.  Confederate statues coming down is a hopeful sign, but how will we know we have truly won the peace?  When black families need only fear lightning and not the police or fellow citizens insulting and assaulting them because of the racist focus on only one facet of their being.  When we all work to see the object whole, the gem within the facets, we will have truly won the peace.  And not until then.”

Recently, given the state of civil society in the USA, regardless of the election’s outcome, I wondered aloud with my daughter if MLK’s thought that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” was actually true.  In the chaotic world of human culture growing around Gaia, does our social development really organize around an attractor that establishes this moral arc towards a culture of deep and abiding peace based upon respect born of empathy with our fellow human beings. Is the hope of a phase transition to a more just and equitable world more than a motivational trope?  Is impulse towards power always based upon establishing the in group/out group as a way of reserving and protecting resources for the few?  We think the great experiment of America manifests a movement towards true democracy, but we know that our society is more complicated than that.  We also know that the economic stratification concentrating wealth to a morally corrupt (otherwise they would ensure equitable sharing to ensure others survive and prosper) elite along with the fomentation of racial division is not conducive to any advancement along the arc of the moral universe.  

We are the great viral race inhabiting Gaia.  We think our intelligence will keep us from cataclysmic catastrophe, but intelligence fails without the empathy grown from a vibrant community, and that is what worries me about what I see here in the USA.

Best travel on.

Coming back online

Citizens and neighbors of Gaia, remember the Biological Roots credo:

Keep a simple faith.

Believe in the presence of spirit.

Follow an ethic of knowledge.

Seek a knowledge of ethics.

Feel the deep aesthetic between life and mind.

With this post I announce that I will start posting again somewhat regularly. Travel on.

Hasta la vista

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

Consider this Zen koan from The Gateless Gate:  What is your primal face before your parents were born?  As I understand this, there is no understanding this.  The ‘answer’ must be experienced so that enlightenment washes away the categories of this world.  I seem to be, however, too literal minded for such an experience, and instead I am lost in the mystic details Monod laid bare in Chance and Necessity:   “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”

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

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

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

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

Penultimate post (approximately)

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

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


The word for today: eudaemonia

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

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

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

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

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


Susanne Langer

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

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

MEMBRAIN, mirroring and the god within

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

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

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

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


speech signal showing no pauses or gaps between words or phonemes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to the MEMBRAIN

I have not posted much about the MEMBRAIN since 2017 (see post 11/24/17, also 8/27/14 & 4/7/14), but I have been thinking about it and recent readings have fed that line of thought.  In brief, the MEMBRAIN comprises those parts of our brain and soma that establishes the mind within and the world without as it connects us socially and mentally (in this empathy is both basic and powerful) to our conspecifics (and other animals and other worldly features, more on that later).  It is a rather grand development along our evolutionary path.  Remember life on Earth appeared some 3.7 billion years ago when chemical metabolism established a membrane protecting the self-organizing and self-replicating processes within and controlling interaction with the environment, i.e., Varela’s autopoietic form (see post 8/22/18).  This resulted in the basic soma, i.e., the body each life form develops for its span.  Somas evolved to become more complex until brains appeared to promote the somatic vitality given the more complex needs and gain increasingly powerful ways of exploiting environmental opportunities.  Somas and their brains then evolved in various ways until sexual reproduction initiated new phases of genetic streaming and of conspecific relations, say around 1.2 billion years ago.


Genetic watersheds of SWP (solving world problems) and CR (conspecific relations)

As luck would have it, conspecifics became so important a feature of the animal’s umvelt, that the brain, that heretofore had concerned itself with its own somatic vitality, began to deal with the vitality of its conspecifics, i.e., the vitality of other somas not its own.  This was a momentous development as brains evolved to carry out this challenge as exemplified most powerfully in mammals who appeared around 315 million years ago. (I have posted several times on the felicity of our mammalian heritage—see posts 11/12/16 & 11/8/19).  As the interaction with conspecifics mounted in importance, brains evolved to include MEMBRAINs (as I have called them) and this entailed a new development in the evolution of minds.  The increasing transactions with others pressured the evolution of social relations obviously, and in a bit of a paradox, the evolution of mental functions supporting subjective awareness.  This is where my notion of the MEMBRAIN of the mind comes into play.

The MEMBRAIN gates (or doesn’t) information or parcels of experience specifically drawn from the social/mental realms.  For example, our visual system has a large proportion of cells dedicated primarily to facial recognition, e.g., conspecific information gated in, and further, such processing is basic and preliminary to reading the other’s emotional states, i.e., their internal musings.  Another example, this time of gating an experiential parcel out, is our kinesic expression of our own emotional states through facial expression, tone of voice, posturing, etc.  Of course our language is a remarkable feature of MEMBRAIN functioning, passing info in and out (or not if the we do not know that language–the channel then does not exist).


The MEMBRAIN does what every membrane does, pass material in and out, and keep material in and out

As I read books, etc., that touch upon the MEMBRAIN, I find some who mention how the brain functions as a membrane controlling flow in and out; after all, those are basic to any organism, taking needed nutrients in and passing out wastes.  I have not seen much about keeping material in or keeping it out, but that too is a membrane function—it will only pass through items that fit through its channels and will decidedly reject , for example, toxins from without and certain parcels from within that can range from lower level processing, e.g., we would not want our protoplasm leaking out and we do not express or pass out gut functions or the initial phases of intuitive constructions which are not available to consciousness or say, socially embarrassing secrets.  A more esoteric example is information that conflicts with our beliefs or personality structure.  An example here is that some people hear information indicative of a leader’s corruption but it does not enter into their minds as such.  It is kept out through some MEMBRAIN function which only gates distorted parcels (kinda like a word from a foreign language that sounds like one of our own–we think we understand when we do not) that I do not well understand as of yet.

While many understand that our ubiquitous linguistic functions support the MEMBRAIN, both to communicate with our conspecifics and to organize our interior experience, fewer understand that art likewise supports the MEMBRAIN.  Clearly art fulfills a social function, but it also helps to organize our mental domains by structuring intuitive processes in the service of developing creative and communicable renderings of our vital experience.  Susanne Langer’s thoughts are important here.  First, art forms are a high form of nervous response, i.e., they are abstracted from experiential felt material.  These abstractions are created in virtual domains; their communication depends upon these same domains being present in both artist and audience.  The MEMBRAIN channels must function in quite a sophisticated manner in order to communicate such complex information about our vital experience.  Further, she details in Feeling and Form  the demands each art genre, e.g., music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, cinema, etc., places on our virtual capabilities.

Now I am reading Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life in which he discusses the basis of life forms and how mind is in fact a natural outcome of life’s evolution—a very good book so far with the promise to get even better.  He, like others such as Susan Oyama (see post 2/22/19), is critical of the gene-centric view generally received from the Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and cohort.  Thompson says that their usual metaphor of genes providing coded instructions for an organism has been shown to be inept; too much data shows that genes are only a part of developmental system and that they do not play any privileged role apart from the organism as a whole and its complete ambient, i.e., Oyama’s developmental system.  A better metaphor, says Thompson, “for development than ‘following coded instructions’ is ‘laying down a path in walking’.  This metaphor implies that there is no separation between plan and executed action.  It also evokes the similarity between organic self-organization and human creativity discussed by Kant.”

Remember how an artist composes through feeling the future, as I have put it (see posts 5/15/15 & this year’s series on art as spandrel).  This is especially apparent in music, where even the listener feels the flow into the future.  Art results from a series of steps creating contingencies that render a vital form.  Unlike discursive thought, such as any mathematical theory of science, which if lost could be re-discovered because that is inherent in its relation to the world, art if lost is lost—it cannot be recreated because of its contingent nature with the chaos of life and world.

Thompson following his work with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rausch in The Embodied Mind explicates the basis of life.  It is an autopoietic (a new and important word) system whose inherent purpose is two-fold, identity (self-production and this entails closure from the without) and sense-making for adaptivity and cognition.  “This twofold purposiveness turns an indifferent physicochemical world into an environment of biological significance.”  The implications of this formulation are extensive, and I will have more to say of them another time.

But back to the MEMBRAIN and what Kant discussed, the “similarity” between organic self-organization, aka autopoietic system, and human creativity.  Any organism is self-organizing which is sustained through metabolic activity with the inherent purposes of identity and sense-making.  It is self-contained, its parts are subsidiary to the whole, and it interacts with its environment in specific ways.  (Remember Acquinas’ 3 aspects of aesthetic beauty:  unitas, claritas, and luminas—see post 6/19/17.)  This is the essential idea of life, as we understand it.  So our MEMBRAINs take in art forms, gathering this import, and artists of any and all sorts construct art works that they can express through MEMBRAIN channels.  If art renders the import abstracted from vital experience, and autopoiesis is the basis of that vitality, then any conceptualization of aesthetics must include such in its account.  Whether we study art as a biological activity (see post 2/9/19!) or as a critical effort to assess its aesthetics, we need to understand how an artwork is a whole, how its parts come together (and these two are essentially an extension of gestalt studies), and how that form ‘shines’, as it were, or how it has rendered intuitively that spark of life such that others can feel the vitality therein.  As Susanne Langer taught us, art is a high intellectual activity whereby we deal in vital experience.  Empathy and symbolization are the two great channels of our MEMBRAINs—that is the easy part, but what lies within that powers such intuitive creative constructions? Travel on.



Where is the self that composes artworks?

Even earlier art discovered

I have seen 3 news stories about prehistoric cave paintings discovered in Indonesia that are over 43,000 years old.  That is older than any of the cave art found so far in Europe.  The paintings are dramatic, depicting a group of beings, human or human-like with a bird head or with a tail, some holding spears around a large animal.  They do not appear to have the beautiful curves of the Lascaux paintings but they are still colorful and clearly imagined.  The cave is located up on a cliff and requires some rock climbing and scrambling to reach. Once again we find paintings underground, in the earth, which Lewis-Williams and Pearce say in their book, Inside the Neolithic Mind, that our ancestors felt was a link to another world, one filled with spirits (see post 11/23/19).  Here is one link to the NYT rendition:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/science/cave-art-indonesia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.

As you can see, the NYT writer wonders if the beings represent mythic figures. Doubtful, that, but certainly they could have come from an early shamanic tradition before mythic narratives had really developed.  Here is link to the Scientific American version:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-this-indonesian-cave-painting-the-earliest-portrayal-of-a-mythical-story/.

The scientists have several questions going on.  The large animal has been dated to at least 43,000 years ago but the humanoid figures have not been dated as of yet, and research into other cave paintings has revealed that figures are often added over many, many years.  Also, while the large animal is clearly just that, the humanoid figures are not as clear.  Some could be human, some shamanic figures with human and animal merged, and some could be just other quadrupeds.

The big question is who painted them?  Human fossils have not been found locally.  The scientists seem sure that some group of Homo sapiens painted them, but it could have been Neandertals, Denisovans, or others.  This is interesting not just because the paintings predate anything found so far in Europe, but also because humans had to migrate here (Indonesia) from there (meaning Africa or Europe) and it is very doubtful that they brought the painting tradition with them, so they must have discovered it anew. And that speaks to the profundity of our impulse to make art.  And so we travel on to learn more.

The affective revolution comes to dogs?

Dogs? You say.  Why, yes.  In talking with some friends and trying to explain my view of where we are in understanding mind, I bemoaned the travesty of behaviorism, appreciated the revolution (or return to sanity) of cognitive psychology, presented as seminal the developments in evolutionary psychology and expressed my hope that we are now entering the affective revolution where researchers are appreciating and furthering the pioneering work of Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio, Francisco Verala, Evan Thompson and others (see last previous post).  Affect, or, better, feeling, is the grounding and motivation of cognitive operations, and that is to say the least.  Now Susanne Langer was one of the first to espouse that humans were both biological, sharing our evolution with other animals and distinct, even special, saying that our symbolic capabilities constituted a great shift from being like other animals to being especially human. Our symbolic capabilities, she says, transformed our minds into something quite different from those of any other animals.  How we feel is important here, Langer asserts, because our symbolic abilities are based upon our special feelings and have permeated our mind so that even our perceptions are influenced by symbolization.  Further, we are driven to make meanings, to find and/or create significance incidentally and unconsciously, i.e., we cannot really stop doing so because symbolization begins so early on in our mind’s processes.

So yes, humans have evolved from and along with other animals and yes, our evolution has led to symbolic capabilities  which have transformed our minds and enabled us to transform our world.  And while most focus on our cognitive abilities, Langer’s focus on feeling and her understanding that our intellect derives from highly evolved modes of feeling is one that helps us understand the embodied mind in a deeper way.  It presages the affective revolution that I perceive is happening as I discussed in my last post.

And now I see in a NYT science story that the affective revolution, so to speak, has also encompassed our study of dogs.  Brian Hare has done good work on dog cognition (see post 10/7/14), but another group of researchers is looking at how dogs feel, especially their talent for bonding with another species and not just us humans but many others, e.g., sheep, goats, penguins(!), etc.:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/science/dogs-love-evolution.html.

This article covers a fair amount of ground so I will highlight some of its information:

  • Compared to their ancestral wolves, dogs have succeeded evolutionarily bigtime, with 3000 dogs for every wolf in the world today.
  • Spending 90 minutes a day in contact with another species prior to 14 weeks of age leads to strong bonding.
  • Without human contact dogs grow up very wary of us. Recently friends returned from SE Asia where many dogs are wilder and not pets (and sometimes food).
  • Their interspecies bonds are maintained throughout their life span.
  • MRI studies show that dogs light up (meaning their neural pleasure centers do) upon hearing their owners’ voices, and they like praise as much as hot dogs and some even show a preference to owners over food. (These studies also show how dogs can be trained to lie still in the MRI donut while being tested, no small feat itself).
  • Genetic studies of people with Williams-Beuren syndrome reveal certain genes that contribute to hypersociality, i.e., indiscriminate friendliness with strangers, etc., and studies of dogs show they share these genes.

So dogs experience intense pleasure with their owners (and their other bondees, e.g. sheep?).  The researchers point out that another remarkable aspect of this is the ease of triggering such a response.  Dogs really are talented at liking their humans and bonding with other species.

Now I am not sure what ‘liking’ means in this context.  Pleasure at contact?  Protective responses to perceived danger?  Missing when absent (remember Greyfriar’s Bobby)?  Feelings of identification?  We (most of us anyways) like dogs back, and cats and fish and birds and trees and landscapes and the list goes on, in part because our symbolic capacity also serves to extend our ‘liking’ to almost anything.  Indeed, I have started a book, Faces in Clouds: A New Theory of Religon, in which Stewart Guthrie examines in detail how our human propensity or talent for anthropomorphizing leads us to see human agency in almost anything, even never seen creatures we create in our own minds, thereby attributing a spiritual element to worldly things, and then we ‘see’ those creatures all around, e.g., angels.  Feel a kinship with a crystal?  Welcome to the anthropomorphic club.  We humans seem driven to symbolize in this earthy way, and perhaps dogs are doing their own version of caninomorphism when they like us?  More later on this, I am sure, but for now I will travel on.

Langer on the rise

The big news about Langer is that a new book about her work has been published.  Written by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, The Philosophy of Susanne Langer:  Embodied Meaning in Logic, Art and Feeling explores the roots of her philosophizing, which were primarily European, Henry Sheffer, Ernst Cassirer, Ludwig Wittengestein, and Alfred North Whitehead, even as Langer expanded the American tradition of pragmatics from John Dewey and C. S. Peirce.  Langer was able to read some of these European sources before many others in the USA could because she was fluent in German; indeed she translated one book by Cassirer before most over here had read anything by him.  This new book is expensive so I must save some pennies before buying it, but I have read excerpts from the introduction.  Two things stand out.  First is Ms. Chaplin highlights the challenges facing Ms. Langer as a female in the male dominated world of philosophy.  She attended Ratcliffe College because Harvard did not admit females back in the day so Ratcliffe was a way for them to access Harvard’s resources; thus she was able to work with and learn from the likes of Alfred North Whitehead when he came to Harvard.

The second thing is how her emphasis on feeling was (is?) a challenge to some readers.  In a letter to a colleague in the art world she bemoaned his response saying she had hoped she had expressed herself better.  The confusion centered on the colleague’s reading of ‘feeling’ as emotion and that generally led to understanding art as emotional catharsis and that is quite counter to Langer’s ideas.   Langer clarified that ‘feeling’, not withstanding its use in general parlance, referred to the broader notion of responding to some sensation from without or some action from within.  “How does that feel?” then can refer to blinking in the sunlight having emerged from the cinema, being slapped in the face, realizing you are loved or betrayed, realizing you have understood a poem, thinking about a special childhood haunt, expressing some wise lesson learned, etc.  The point being is that ‘feeling’ is a broad concept, and Langer spent much of her career to clarify and specify how human feeling evolved to be a rarefied intellectual and high form of nervous response.  So I will buy this book ASAP.

In the mean time I have finished re-reading Innis’ fine book on Langer’s philosophy and so have much to ponder.  In re-reading Langer now, I am not as comfortable with how special and distinctive she sees humans.  I don’t exactly disagree with her, but I find some of her ideas marked by anthropodenial, to use de Waals’ term for refusing to see animal actions in their true light because humans do these same actions routinely.  Langer was an early and clear proponent of humans being in line with our mammalian ancestors; she also refused to engage in reductionism and instead pursued a conception of mind adequate to the reality, both human and non-human.  I now have the benefit and privilege of integrating the work of Panksepp, Damasio, de Waal, Tomasello, Varela, Lakoff, Johnson and all of those working to develop an understanding of the mind as embodied.  (And I suspect she would have appreciated these developments oh so very much).  And animals, all of us, are really special creatures. But Langer insisted that biographical memory was heavily dependent upon language, so that a non-verbal species would not have a robust ability to recall past experiences.  Frans de Waal refutes that with a lot of research and study.  Consider his example of the bonobo who accidentally bit off a handler’s finger and then clearly showed memory of and remorse for the act several years later when the handler returned for a visit after having moved away (see post 3/9/15).

One of Langer’s primary theses is that while humans have evolved from and along with other animals, our evolution has led to symbolic capabilities that transformed our minds and enabled us to transform our world.  Sort of undeniable, isn’t it? But while most focus on our cognitive abilities, Langer’s focus on feeling and her understanding that our intellect derives from highly evolved modes of feeling is one that helps us understand the embodied mind in a deeper way.  It presages the affective revolution that I perceive is happening through the efforts of Panksepp, Damasio and many others. Indeed, I have started a 1997 book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind by Evan Thompson, who collaborated with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch to write The Embodied Mind.  I am amazed to read conceptualizations that Langer postulated 30-50 years ago though without any recognition of her work.  Thompson lists several of these as concepts basic to his thinking:

  • Organisms are autonomous agents, self-organizing and enact cognitive and overt behaviors (Langer in Mind devotes much energy to biological action enactment).
  • The nervous system does not compute and process information but rather creates meaning (Langer develops this in her early works, The Practice of Philosophy, Philosophy in a New Key, and Feeling and Form, all completed before 1953–and she was following up on Ernst Cassirer).
  • The concept of experience, as the phenomenologists have understood it and psychologists abandoned it, must be understood biologically if it is to be adequate to the task of furthering our notions of mind (again this integration across disciplines was a major focus of Langer’s life work).

Thompson, Varela, Rosch, and others have come around to Langer’s clearer understanding of what and how our minds are through their own traditions and studies.  That Langer was there, I think, from the beginning and throughout her long career shows her prescience even more fully (as Donald Dryden said in his article “The Philosopher as Prophet and Visionary” 2007 J. of Speculative Philosophy). That a new book about her has come out shows, I very much hope, that her influence is rising.