Part 2: Is art a spandrel

This follows directly from the 9/19/19 post:

With all of these perspectives of these various facets of our artistic nature, how do we begin to see the object, the gem, whole?

This was the intellectual challenge Susanne Langer set herself beginning in 1942 with Philosophy in a New Key (44), continuing with 1953’s Feeling and Form (45), and finalizing her project with three volumes of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (47-49) in 1967, 1972, and 1979.  The first two developed a broad theory of aesthetics based on a theory of symbols and the last presented her view of the biological underpinnings of mind and art.  Rarely cited today, her work seems to have been eclipsed by two developments that took the field by storm during the latter part of her career.  The first began in 1948 with Shannon and Weaver’s book, A Mathematical Theory of Communication (67), and Weiner’s Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (61).  The ensuing developments in information theory and technology revolutionized our thinking in virtually every area of scientific studies and most areas in humanistic studies broadly defined.  The second development was the transformation working in the life sciences with the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1952.  Three important milestones here would be Jacques Monod’s book Chance and Necessity (53) in 1971 and Richard Dawkins two books, The Selfish Gene(13) in 1976 and The Extended Phenotype (14) in 1982.  Later would come E. O. Wilson’s work promoting a sociobiological approach (77, 78).

The first development, information sciences, gave us powerful tools for studying the brain and its processes and a powerful metaphor of that brain as a machine of logic and information processes epitomized by servomechanisms.  The second development furthered the notion that genes are central to life and its evolution.  This reinforced the view of an organism as a machine, a rule governed series of chemical processes instigated and ultimately controlled by the genome.  More importantly, the gene-centered view of evolution motivated a keen focus on adaptive success.  If a biological feature did not contribute to future adaptiveness, it was at best a spandrel and more likely just noise in the signal.  This led, for example, to the sociobiological study of animal, including human, behavior.  Here beauty and aesthetics, if important, signaled mate robustness, thereby helping to shape the hereditary flow into the gene pool.  To be sure, both developments have contributed mightily to our understanding of human nature.

Yet each had theoretical and so also empirical limits to the furtherance in our understanding human nature and these in the last decade or two have been elucidated in important ways (56). Information machines process symbols regardless of their meaning. Their symbols are abstract enough to be governed by Boolean logic, and that leaves them without particular meaning or import.  In short, they are disembodied and while this abstraction is a powerful tool, it is not commensurate with biological processes.  Such a realization can be found in Lakoff and Johnson’s two books, Metaphors We Live By (42) and Philosophy in the Flesh (43), Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s landmark, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (72), and the writings of Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman and Giuliani Tononi, e.g., A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (24), who used computer simulations powerfully in their research while maintaining the distinction between brain and machine.  Machine and biological (e.g., human) information and meaning, especially when given that the former is derivative of the latter, are distinctly different.

Similarly the limits of the gene centered view of evolution and life have been delineated by those who, once again keeping their theoretical efforts grounded in embodiment, find that a broader and more adequate perspective includes ecological considerations.  This is perhaps most cogently explicated by Susan Oyama in The Ontogeny of Information (56).  She articulates a much different view of life through her wide ranging polemic on various theoretical perspectives and research endeavors focused on understanding the nature of life, and so of human nature, that highlights the error of assuming one way control of life by its genome.  She shows, instead, that life is more aptly conceived as a developmental system, e.g., what is inherited is not just a set of chromosomes but also an ecology and, quite importantly, the history of the genome-environment interaction.  Deeply embedded in her view of biological processes is the understanding that life qua organism is autonomous and, though quite responsive to both external and internal information, engenders its own activity and course of actions.  Oyama as well argues that machine metaphors are both helpful and misleading; the search for mechanical processes such as found in servomechanisms in the brain is one example of how this assumption has both helped and misled research endeavors.  Again, organisms use feedback to guide their actions but their impulses are based more on feedforward and other sorts of autonomous and endogenous processes quite consistent with Edelman and Tononi’s idea of reentrant processing for constructing mental operations (24).

With this review we can see that the two large theoretical developments that eclipsed Susanne Langer’s work to construct a theory of aesthetics consistent with our biological nature have shifted enough for some of her light to shine through.  Art is, she explains, abstracted feeling, or better, abstracted felt experience.  These abstractions are different from what we usually refer to as ‘abstract’; they are ideas of feelings.  Thus, her two modes of symbolization are discursive, exemplified by language, and presentational, exemplified by art. They differ largely in their compositional elements, language’s lexical units of independent meaning and art’s arbitrary bits of no independent meaning, e.g., notes, colors, lines, etc., and their structure, language’s linearized syntactic open-ended constructions and art’s gestalt forms upon which elements are dependent for their contributions to the work’s import.  Language, she says, carries semantic meaning; art conveys aesthetic import.  This last is an important difference, because while the surface or public structures of both discursive and presentational forms are just that, surface and objective, it is in their deep structures where important differences in their symbolic processes of abstraction are to be found.  Presentational symbols, i.e., art, are vital forms; their deep structure, i.e., import, is a virtual (Langer was one of the earliest to use the word ‘virtual’ in this way) representation of felt life.  This idea is articulated by her early books, Philosophy in a New Key, Feeling and Form, and very concisely in Problems of Art (45).

From this perspective, our understanding of thought and feeling seems enfeebled.  As the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamono wrote, “Man is said to be a reasoning animal.  I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal.  Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason” (1). (Written in 1954 and cited in Aho in Existentialism: An Introduction 2014). Perhaps this is what William James referred to when he said humans have more instincts and not fewer than other animals (34).  Such a view is decidedly in line with preeminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s view that emotion is as important as cognition in our neural operations, as he has explained now in several books,  Descartes’ Error (9) and The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures (11).  And this no doubt motivated Langer to entitle her 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.  (As an aside, the research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (37) and others shows that even trained academic minds operate more based upon heuristics than logical rules. We feel our way forward even and especially in our intellectual endeavors).

We can now approach the question, ‘Is art an evolutionary spandrel?’ from a quite different direction.

Next section to appear soon.

 

Parsing personality

Still reading Davis and Panksepp’s The Emotional Foundations of Personality.  One of their basic premises is that psychologists over the past many years have based their  conceptualizations on questionnaires using a great variety of words denoting divers aspects of personality and analyzing the responses through a statistical technique known as factor analysis, e.g., detecting patterns of responses that group together in different factors or dimensions marking personality differences.  The main model here they refer to as the Big 5, oft replicated and oft modified:  extraversion, agreeableness, dependability, emotionality, & refinement.  Davis and Panksepp, understanding that any durable conception of personality must have some basis in the brain, point out that this traditional method is a top-down approach, i.e., the words represent cultural verbal features that are presumably cortically based, and that such an approach neglects the emotional roots and biases that compose a personality when examined from a fuller, wider perspective.  Thus, their book looks at a bottom-up approach based upon Panksepp’s affective neuroscience and so begins with how our emotional systems contribute to personality formation and differences.  This makes much good sense to me.

Two interesting ideas have come up that bear a little discussion.  One is their assertion that neuroscientific research shows that subcortical structures and functions, while displaying individual differences, are relatively invariant across our species, indeed, across most of the neo-mammalian world, which implies a strong genetic basis for their development.  Cortical structures are also generally invariant in their embryological development but cortical functions appear to be shaped almost entirely by experience. In other words, we are born with our subcortical functions already defined in nascent perceptual, motoric, and emotional modules but with our cortical functions pretty free-form.

Now this astounds me.  They are saying that the cortex is virtually module free so that functionality arises through experiential engagement with the world.  Okay, I say, but what about language?  What about Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas that are critically involved in language processing?  They imply that a human child born to non-language using parents would not have the usual Wernicke and Broca areas.  Of course, human children are born into a world of language so that shapes their cortical functions as a matter of course.  (If you have read Susan Oyama’s book, The Ontogeny of Informationor read my blog on 2/22/19 on the matter, you will see that such a conception is consistent with her ideas there, i.e., ontogeny = genetic expression + developmental circumstances.  Hey now!) Davis and Panksepp pose the powerful example of vision, which is quite dependent upon cortical analysis and synthesis for object recognition, etc.  Animals deprived of visual experience early on in their development do not learn to see, i.e., their visual cortex, whatever functions it performs, does not carry out the perceptual processes needed to see.

After thinking about this for a while I came up with the question, “What about mirroring?”  Perhaps our cortex does have a mirroring module, so that our social emotions and engagement emerging from our subcortical structures are substantiated and amplified through a module whereby we mirror each other.  So far Davis and Panksepp have not touched upon this but I will keep on reading with this question in mind.  I would almost bet that the cortical structures that connect perceptual and motoric areas, e.g., the bilateral longitudinal fasciculi, the arcuate fasciculi (see post 4/24/14), the uncinate fasciculi, and let me not forget the one very important to consciousness, the claustrum (see posts 8/17/14 & 5/30/18), do form a functional module for mirroring.  I don’t know but there would be a couple of good research projects or dissertations involved in answering that question.  Mirroring could be one area where the top-down and bottom-up come together.

The second interesting idea is a bit more philosophical.  Davis and Panksepp refer to the various traits identified through factor analysis as the Big Five but another one keeps cropping up called ‘conscientiousness’.  While they can identify how the Big Five relate to the emotional systems, they see conscientiousness as different.  The others are would seem to be traits simply defined, but conscientiousness is more of a cognitive style; it would seem to operate over and above the rest in a superordinate manner.  People define it in various ways, e.g., as the focused intent to accomplish a goal or as organized to fulfill intent in detailed manner, etc.  Davis and Panksepp use a curious phrase in their discussion: To carve up nature at the joints (of course you understand this better if you have ever butchered meat), meaning to conceptualize the parts, interactions, and energies in a way that comports as best as we can tell with the reality of nature.   Being a linguistics sort of guy I have used the phrase ‘to parse nature’ like we had to do to diagram the parts of a sentence accurately.

The argument behind Davis and Panksepp’s book is that the personality traits as developed through top-down verbal questionnaires may not be the best way to carve up nature and that a better way is to go from bottom-up through the well established emotional systems.  Amen.  While the Big Five comport some with the 3 positive emotional systems, i.e., joy/play, care/nurturance, & seeking, it collapses the 3 negative systems, i.e., rage/anger, fear/anxiety, & panic/sadness into one category.  And conscientiousness as currently formulated does not fit well with any emotion-based parsing.

I can see where conscientiousness could be a dimension of personality; some people are more conscientious than others in how they do things, but I think this varies with activity, i.e., some are careful in their work habits and slobs at home, etc.  As I read their analysis I kept pulling back to gain a wider perspective. Conscientiousness in part involves attention to pattern and detail and that is a trait that Hans Asperger described as going haywire in the syndrome on the autistic spectrum that bears his name, but that he thought was necessary for anyone to achieve in their field be it artistic, scientific or whatnot.  Doing anything well requires some attention to the overall pattern and the details therein.

Pulling back farther, consider Baruch Spinoza’sconatus, an ancient concept that he saw as central to life.  It refers to the inborn momentum of life to carry on and succeed in its endeavors.  This would include the basic processes by which life sustains its negentropic balance (until it doesn’t and dies) and behaviors, I think, by which it exploits chance opportunities and ameliorates negative exigencies.  Could conscientiousness be a further development of the conatusinherent in us? Similarly, I have discussed before the two main features of an individual’s sense of self, one is the autonoetic autobiographical memory (post 8/22/18) of lived experience and the other is the sense of agency.  While personalities may vary in the dimension of conscientiousness, all of us must carry such a trait if we are to be agents of our lives.

So parsing and butchering reality, I will travel on from here.

 

Monod on spirit, Oyama on ontogeny, and a zen koan

If you have followed my blog for any of the last five years you will recognize my reference to Monod on spirit.  Jacques Monod in his 1969 book, Chance and Necessity, presented an account of biological processes that he (and I agree wholeheartedly) believes yields a more realistic sense of what spirit is.  Following a suggestion by Chris Hitchens, I characterize this sort of spiritual view as natural noumenal, i.e., a reality that is not phenomenal but noumenal, not supernatural but natural.  Monod refers to the wondrous world of Gaia with its incredible heritage of biological processes proceeding through billions of years of random events that formed the shape of genetic flows into the gene pools of today.  Here is his account:  “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.”  As I wrote in my 3/25/17 post, “To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds.”  And one more reference to render in another way the musical organicity of our spirit, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce’sFinnegan’s Wake, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago.

In her book, The Ontogeny of Information, Susan Oyama took issue with Monod’s gene-centric view (and Richard Dawkins’ as well) by pointing out that genes are only one component in a balanced system of biological controls and that what actually proceeds down through the ages are developmental systems composed of the organism, its genes and its ecological niche. Put in my terms used here, ontogeny is but one phase of spiritual happenings as Gaia continuously transforms. So today our rocky, watery planet (research indicates that even more water exists below the surface that we find on it in our rivers, lakes, and oceans—who knew?) teems with life forms in every imaginable niche, from deep in the crust to the skies above and from jungle to polar ice and down to sulfurous deep sea vents.  And even more remarkable and fortunate for those like us who live during this time, humans have figured this out.  As I have wondered about in the past at some point on this blog, the chemical processes comprising living organisms on our planet constantly spark with energy release in ways we may not be able to see but can still appreciate, all of them in almost infinite numbers over billions of years.  Spirit as natural noumena.

Zen koans are short questions or puzzles that can stimulate our meditations towards enlightenment.  Probably the most famous is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”,  and many more have been created by the sages over the past several centuries.  I read a rather curious one recently in a book, The Gateless Gate:  The Classic Book of Zen Koansby Koun Yamada and Ruben L. F. Habito.  The pithy version of it is:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?  I want to consider this koan from the perspective of my spiritual understanding, remembering that rational deliberations are, when all is said and done, irrelevant.

‘Primal’ per Webster means primeval, essential and fundamental.  I think (and admittedly I am not a real student of Zen) that primal face in the context of this koan refers to the enduring spirit of each of us that links our individual existence to the infinite universe.  But translating, or better, transmuting to natural noumena, I find myself wondering about the depth and particularity of the myriad estuarine events that led to the appearance of my 8 great grandparents, 4 grandparents, and then my parents births in 1919 and 1922.  I use estuary to signify the messy, muddy complexity of fecund life in which we are all born and that comprises not just the genetic flow per Monod and its ontogenetic ecological niche per Oyama but also the cultural compost of natural noumena left by the social and cultural milieu of piedmont Virginia back in the day.  Who was I during all of this?  What was my primal face as circumstances of persons, comings and goings, family alliances, developing affections, sexual couplings and daily happenings advanced without direction towards my birth?  Is this my own personal koan?

Better travel on to my happy meditation place.

 

How we might think about biology and beauty

I have been thinking about this article in the NYT for a few weeks now.  I feel I should write about it but what?  So here goes. This is another story about the orthodox notion that beauty is not actually a product of evolution, but wait a minute, maybe it is: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/magazine/beauty-evolution-animal.html.  Ferris Jabr wrote this longish piece and it is worth reading.  He highlights a number of examples of beauty in the animal world and one scientist in particular who believes that some other animals besides humans have a sense of aesthetics.  Most other researchers scoff at this notion because beauty seems to play so little a role in evolution, believing, I guess, that what we perceive as beauty in nature is more a simple byproduct of other adaptations.  This falls, then, into one of my favorite categories these days, that of an evolutionary spandrel.

What is that, I hear some ask?  The concept of a spandrel is borrowed from architecture where it denotes the space between an arch, ceiling and any supporting pillars.  As such a spandrel does not contribute to the structure, though architects soon learned to fill the space with decorative art.  Here is a diagram:

Spandrel

So an evolutionary spandrel is an ontogenetic structure that does not contribute to the organism’s successful adaptation and continuance of the genetic stream.  A simple example I have read is the color of our blood.  The redness has no adaptive significance; it is a spandrel to the use of iron-based hemoglobin for oxygen transport.  If we were a lobster, that has a copper based blood, we would have green blood.

A prominent example under discussion here is the bowerbird.  The male builds an elaborate nest that is used only to attract a female’s attention and not for egg laying.  Once the female approaches the male’s nest, and they are elaborate with many bits of shell, pebbles, and whatever can be found to decorate the approach, the male must then dance successfully enough to entice the female to copulate.  Then another nest is built.  Does the male bowerbird’s nest building contribute to its reproductive fitness, albeit by increasing chances of mating, or is it a spandrel?  Nest building is metabolically expensive and this kind attracts predators as well as females.  Could it be an anachronism left from an earlier adaptation wherein the male actually built a functional nest, i.e., used for egg hatching and young rearing, which was replaced by a behavioral dance?  That is the tenor of this debate.

Orthodox theory has it that sexual ornamentation, which can be quite extreme, e.g., bird of paradise and peacock tail feathers, and sexual signaling, e.g., the grouse dance, indicates the robust health of the male, i.e., a better mate. This would mean these features contribute directly to evolutionary fitness and so would not be a spandrel. To say, as Richard Prum does, that these features are a contribution to the evolution of beauty elevates beautiful features to a non-spandrel level.  And surprisingly, I learned from Jabr’s article that Darwin himself did not think that evolutionary fitness was useful in explaining all adaptive features. He thought that besides natural selection, sexual selection played a significant role in shaping organisms; indeed, that males developed ornamentation and signaling behaviors to fit or match the females’ “standard of beauty”, as Darwin put it.  There you have it, from the godfather of evolutionary science himself, though most scientists beginning even back then through today scoff at the notion.

There are two issues for me here.  One is the nature of beauty, of how we perceive it and what makes something beautiful, and the other is the nature of art, which I take to be a symbolic form, i.e., it has a surface structure composed by us (could be other species’ partake of this effort as well like the whale songs from last post) and a deep structure of some vital import about our experience.  Now consider Jabr’s words:  “There are really two environments governing the evolution of sentient creatures: an external one, which they inhabit, and an internal one, which they construct. To solve the enigma of beauty, to fully understand evolution, we must uncover the hidden links between those two worlds.”  Oh boy, that is exactly the issue here, i.e., the hidden links between surface and deep structures.

Consider seeing something beautiful in nature, like a sunset or storm over the sea or a striking bird.  Here are some photos of mine to ponder:

IMG_0275

Odysseus watched the sunset from Calypso’s isle yearning for home.

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Odysseus struggled through storms to reach his home on Ithaca.

The surface structure is the image but what is the deep structure?  What is the basis for our aesthetic appreciation of such scenes?  Further, how does a poet, e.g., Homer, transmute this into a beautiful image composed of words?  Here is another of an indigo bunting that visits our farm in the spring-how is it we see its beauty and how do the female buntings view it?

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A handsome and rare indigo bunting

To be clear, I do not know the answer here, but I have adopted two canalizations for my thinking about these sorts of issues.  The first is, of course, Susanne Langer’s notion of art as a vital form, symbolic certainly but what makes the form art is its conveyance of vitality, e.g., the experience and energy of a particular life.  The second I extrapolate from Jacques Monod’s understanding of life processes as furthering itself through fitting components together, i.e., a molecule fits with another and contributes to energy control.  Many molecular combinations fit with others to contribute to life’s complexity, and to further the stream of life, each fitting must fit with many others in a sort of closure achieved by completing an image, like the Necker cube, only this closure is the underlying form of a biological organism.  Showing even more complexity, following Susan Oyama, the organism’s form and place in the hereditary stream is a complex fitting of a developmental system comprising life and niche, the means by which ontogeny progresses along “life’s journey, its cascade of complexity downfield into the future” like a musical symphony advances some grand waves of temporal experience through auditory forms.

Vital import and fitness certainly seem relevant here, but consider another concept, that of intentionality, because it plays an important role in the linkage between surface and deep structures.  Now I gather that ‘intentionality’ in philosophical parlance is a loaded term (first clue: Daniel Dennett wrote a book on it), but I want to use the term more as a contrast to ‘incidental’.  We act sometimes incidentally, e.g., our intent is to get a glass of water and we have to walk incidentally to the kitchen.  I distinguish between the two by asking with what intent is our volitional, i.e., for initiating behavior, energy mobilized.  We can formulate an intention and plan for its implementation but enactment starts when volitional energy is summoned.  From this perspective I guess you could call incidental actions behavioral spandrels but they would clearly be instrumental.  So indeed all spandrels are, just that, instrumental; it is just that by definition evolutionary spandrels do not contribute (directly) to adaptive fitness—they are, shall we say, instrumental gaps.  (Blood’s redness here is more an incidental reflection of the instrumental iron). But by Darwin’s reckoning some do serve to facilitate reproductive success, so something must be working here.

At any rate, art certainly requires intentionality in its production—intentionality is a necessary feature of our shaping the art form to express our intended import.  Again the surface form belies the complexity of our import.  But does the apprehension of beauty, by us or any other species, require intentionality?  Consider again the images above of a sunset, storm and bird.  I hope you agree that they are beautiful but beyond the glory of nature, what might be their import?  And does fitness of even some vague sort contribute to their loveliness?  While they are not produced intentionally, we may attribute some intentionality to these images in a mythic function, like we say they reflect the glory of nature or god or we see some notion of life’s temporality rendered thereby or interpret what we see as an immanent portent. In this regard I think the sunset or a peacock’s tail is beautiful but not art.

The question Jabr reports on is how other animals see natural phenomena like another’s plumage, song, or dance. He writes, “Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”  And further, “Unlike natural selection, which preserved traits that were useful ‘in the struggle for life,’ Darwin saw sexual selection as exclusively concerned with reproductive success, often resulting in features that jeopardized an animal’s well-being.”  Is this really a sense of beauty?  Again, I don’t know.  I have asked several birds around here but they have not answered; the clouds, though, they say ‘yes’.  That some perceptual features ‘fit’ another’s sense of  ‘appealing’ is fact.  But consider bird song where ornithologists studying male song measure its power by counting the number of copulatory postures elicited in the female.  The more postures seen the better the song is presumed to be.  A song, thus is boiled down to hormonal activity.  (Don’t want to go so long here but consider if dreaming is adaptive or spandrel, and remember that other animals do seem to dream: https://earthsky.org/earth/animal-dreams.)

I have long wondered when it is that a bird stops building its nest but have never seen any research on this.  If indeed they do have some sense of aesthetic, I would assume that the bird builds until it is satisfied with the construction.  If not, I would guess that the bird builds until the eggs are laid. Likewise consider the bowerbird. Does he work continually on his nest until he attracts and mates with a female, or does he come to a moment when he feels the nest is just right, sort of like us decorating the walls of our house, e.g., these pictures and tapestries do the job?

Finally I just read an article about a Duke researcher, Steve Nowicki, who tested the hypothesis that the more complex a bird song the better the bird brain has developed.  Knowledgeable females then would pick the male with a more complex song because of his greater intelligence.  So far, Nowicki’s research has not shown this to be the case.  Good songs from good brains do not win the day.  I remember from way back research showing that some birds raised in isolation sing the best songs, i.e., the females respond with more copulatory postures, but that other males then attack this prime singer, who can survive if he is the best fighter or if he modifies his performance and sings a lesser song.  There is a lesson for us all in this finding about the importance social niche plays in our development.

In the whole wide world many things fit together.  Some fit with the spark of life shining forth.  Each life shines with its own energy and some shine brightly beyond their own time and place.  Life, as we know, abides by the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics with its own particular slight of hand.  Life is an energetically exuberant process controlled as it advances ecologically in time. And, it seems to me that this exuberance manifests in many ways with each life form and generation rising.  Finding beauty in our surrounds shows our sensitivity to this and art is a supreme expression of that exuberance. That this metaphor seems a bit out of the loop empirically, I think, is only because so many fail to recognize some features of reality, e.g., finding beauty and artistic experience given and taken, as facts worthy of study, believing that the orthodox constraints to our science are more important than our imaginative seeking beyond what we know (always I come back here seeking a balance).  Read Jabr’s article about the beauty debate and see for yourself.  This is what I had to say about it.

 

Epilogue

Or could it be that even spandrels, those empty spaces in our structure, contribute to life’s vitality?  That elements that contribute empty spaces are important to life’s functioning?  What does the Tao Te Ching say about that again?  Say in chapter 11?

 

Thirty spokes

Meet in the hub.

Where the wheel isn’t

Is where it’s useful.

 

Hollowed out

Clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not

Is where it’s useful.

 

Cut doors and windows

Make a room.

Where the room isn’t

There’s room for you.

 

So the profit in what is

Is in the use of what isn’t.

 

(Many thanks to Ursula K. LeGuin for this version) With that it is surely time to travel on.

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.