I think I see the problem here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chimpanzee-personality

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

Most excellent science

Two inputs coming together perturb my system to a new understanding.  First up is a brief report I saw in the Duke Chronicle about research at Duke University: https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2019/01/the-results-were-surprising-duke-university-study-proposes-new-model-of-motor-learning.  Scientists studying motor learning found results that confounded their theoretical expectations, a small thing really, but oh so important, I think.  Good empiricism seeks just such a finding, one that challenges assumptions, and I think the assumption challenged here is central to the orthodox view of life processes.

The Duke researchers studied motor learning as facilitated by the cerebellum (using rats but they assert that the cerebellum is fairly ‘conserved’ in evolution across species, meaning that cerebellums are similar between paleo- and modern mammals, e.g., us).  They expected to find a process whereby learning comes through feedback, i.e., error detection and correction, but instead they found what I will characterize as a feedforward process, i.e., no preset standard whereby new signals are compared to old in the effort to achieve a match, but rather new signals become the old in a cascading process.  Imagine two waves at the beach, one sensing the development of its shape and adjusting to achieve a desired wave form, i.e., feedback, and one building based upon current conditions of wind, bottom terrain, depth and shoreline, i.e., feedforward.  (Of course the latter is what we naturally see which is why we love to watch them—they are like a musical melody giving us a sense of the immanent future: see post 3/26/16 More about musical import).

So these key cerebellar cells fired more when the movement was correct, no feedback needed.  The rat knew how to move successfully without feedback, kind like when we enjoy freeform dancing, no set pattern and who cares who is watching (or what our cerebellar cells are telling the scientists) but feel the simple joy of movement without prejudice, guided only by the flow of one movement to the next according to endogenous dynamics.  Know what I mean?

I can already hear some of my more intelligent readers ask why wouldn’t we expect such a process for learning?  And that has to do with the cultural development in our doxa of how we conceptualize life processes, at least what I think has been the more orthodox view.  If you thought to ask the question above, I think you might be a little heterodox yourself, but let’s consider this proposition.

I base my analysis here on Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the doxa.  The doxa is the whole field of discourse; it is what we are able to conceptualize for discursive discussion.  Orthodoxy is, of course, the current dominant paradigm for rendering our concepts for discussion, while heterodoxy comprises some alternative ideas that challenge the orthodox view.  Usually the orthodox is major and the heterodox minor (I am an old guy without much technical savvy; I tried to do a Venn diagram of the doxa etc. but cannot get it to post here), but we work at modifying the orthodox and sometimes supplanting its ideas in a paradigmatic shift.  This is both a cultural phenomenon and a lovely feature of good science.  In the above research the orthodox would stipulate that sensorimotor learning involves negative feedback, but they did not find that to be the case, so now that suggests a heterodoxical view—some other process, e.g., feedforward, facilitates this learning.

Okay, as to my second input I am reading a remarkable book from 1985 by Susan Oyama, The Ontogeny of Information.  I am sure I will write more about it later but here is my understanding so far that is relevant today.  Oyama presents a heterodox idea to supplant the orthodox ones of genes as controlling life’s flow and the long time distinction of nature-nurture.  This intellectual effort is broad and deep and, what I appreciate a great deal, very well written ( & so understandable by someone outside the field like myself with some effort).  Her polemic covers a lot of ground as she points out how many deride the nature-nuture distinction and so few, very few it would seem, actually come close to conceptualizing without it.  At its core her argument focuses on our predilection to think genes are quite powerful and even autonomous in controlling our phylogeny and ontogeny, when they are actually the seeds initiating the chemical reactions which are multiply determined by features of their context of both external ambient and internal current states.  All of life is ontogenical, as it were, to coin a word, as these chemical processes flow and cascade through time, any one moment or phase the result of its history and current states.  Our ‘nature’, she says, is a product of our ‘nurture’ and all that contributes to our ontogeny, i.e., genome, somatic ecology, environmental ecology, history, developmental status, evolutionary status, etc., composes the overall process of ‘nurture’ more or less equitably.  Long story short, control of biological processes is multiply determined moment by moment, a cascade of operations which we analyze on a number of levels or from several perspectives, but experience much difficulty is seeing the gift of life whole.  So, Wow! In her words, “Nature and nurture are not alternative causes but product and process.  Nature is not an a priori mold in which reality is cast.  What exists is nature, and living nature exists by virtue of its nurture, both constant and variable, both internal and external.”

Now this is a view of life I really go with and I will finish reading this book and then read it again.  It appears right now that for me this book will rank up there with Monod’s Chance and Necessity(which Oyama says ascribes too much control and power to the genome), Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, and Langer’s Feeling and Formand other of her works.  Enough rhapsodizing now; back to the book’s input that is relevant to the motor learning research and neural processes.

The enormous intellectual power of information theory has circled a good portion of the doxa into orthodoxy, e.g., we analyze neural processes and functions accordingly.  As I have long held, and I am in good company here, information machines and living organisms have some similarities and some deep differences.  The latter have often been relegated to the heterodox circle of the Venn diagram above.  What I learned from Langer so many years ago is that the creative vitality and autonomy of life is its own nature.  We can study it, create lively artifacts, use simulation to understand it, render it through positivism and scientific analysis, convey it aesthetically and discursively, etc., but all while we live it.  (Back to rhapsody:  Oyama keeps her exposition grounded, I think, in just this perspective.  That makes for great understanding and writing.  Thank you, Dr. Oyama).

That the Duke researchers were surprised by their finding that learning was also based upon feedforward, which we understand much less because it is less amenable to mechanical operations and very difficult to simulate in life processes adequately, and not always on feedback reflects this boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.  How we view and understand life, as Dr. Oyama says, determines what and how we study it, what is real data, and how it can be interpreted.

To begin wrapping this post up, consider this passage from her book:

“Somerhoff particularly warns against making facile assumptions that the brain, for instance, must contain comparators and be controlled by explicit error signals and command signals, just because certain servo-mechanisms work in this way. He points out that uncritical adoption of machine concepts and reification of input-output relations may encourage fruitless searches for nonexistent brain mechanisms.”  (For those unfamiliar with servo-mechanisms simple examples include a thermostat and speed control, both of which keep a relatively constant temp or speed based upon deviation from a set point; also toilet tank water level if you think about it).

The point here is that life rather continually creates its own set points, a myriad of them actually, as it multiple processes flow together forward through time.  It is not only its own set point, e.g., homeostasis, but also exerts some significant control of the world it moves through.  Another quote:  “What is important here is the ability of such causal configurations to influence their own conditions and to do so repeatedly and consistently.”

Finally Oyama’s proposal sees life as a developmental system moving forward through time (how else you ask?  Me too). Any next moment of an organism’s life is not predermined; our nature is nurtured and nurtures itself anew moment by moment.  This true in the short term, ontogeny (traditionally understood) and long term, phylogeny.  Again her prose:  “The only way out of the problem of predetermined potential . . . is thus to see potential itself, in the sense of possibilities for future alterations in a given structure, as having a developmental history.  It is multiply, progressively determined, with new varieties of causes and consequences emerging at different hierarchical levels and with time.”

Yes, feedback processes are needed for control but these, again, must be seen in context (oh, how I love this).  The autonomy of life is remarkable and the essence of feedback does not contradict this.  Oyama goes back to Norbert Weiner’s early work Cybenetics(first published in 1948):

“Whether one is speaking of machines, organisms, or human affairs, control without feedback tends to become derailed and therefore useless or destructive. . . .  Feedback has been described as control on the basis of actual, not expected performance[my bold] (Weiner, 1967). Its very definition is the ability to control by being controlled.  It is, incidentally, the influence of results on the processes that produce them that I take to be central to feedback.  The implication of an explicit setpoint, the mechanical counterpart of an expectation, while useful for understanding servomechanisms and, perhaps, for certain simulations, can be misleading in treatments of biological processes.”

So kudos to Duke’s most excellent scientists finding that their orthodox expectations were not met and I am sure they now seek new answers in the heterodox circle of the doxa.  And I hope that they learn of and see the beauty of Oyama’s view of life as a developmental system.  I hope everyone feels the deep aesthetic as life moves forward, its sails filled by its very own winds.  Oh, is there another metaphor here?  One that we can apprehend in our own experience?  Ponder your own life’s journey, its cascade of complexity downfield into the future, and maybe a musical melody might animate your next wanderings.

Well, enough of this rhapsodizing, with a most excellent science book to finish I will now gladly travel on.