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.:

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.

Part 6: Conclusion of ‘Is art a spandrel?’

Returning to the two challenges of art, the social regulation of individual’s symbolic fecundity and the extension of trust so that delicate musings could safely be shared beyond one’s intimate circle, we find another feature of art making that is critically important to the modern mind.  Look again, if you can, at the early painting of a bison found in the Altamira cave in Spain and dated to around 36,000 BCE.  When first discovered by Marcelino Saenz de Sautuola and his daughter, he and a colleague dated the paintings to the Paleolithic era.  This initially met with great skepticism, the critics saying the paintings were too skilled for cave men, but subsequent chemical analysis has confirmed the Paleolithic origins.  It is the skill, however, that indicates the artist’s aesthetic touch.  The figure is stylized, albeit relatively realistic, and the lines composing it flow with energy.  This is clearly a work of art, i.e., a rendering not of what the artist sees but of the feeling engendered with the vision.  As Picasso said, “Painting is a blind man’s profession.  He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen” (55).  Langer emphasizes the intellectual nature of art, saying that the subject of any artwork is not an object and not even the feeling about the object but the idea of the feeling.

How is it we look at the Altamira paintings, or any paintings for that matter, or at any artwork and note the skill in its rendering?  How is it we examine any object and apprehend its aesthetic value manifested through such skill?  The answer lies, in part, in the perceptual process forming a gestalt, a whole figure whose parts fit together coherently.  We humans, and most likely other animals as well—we just don’t know this yet– find or create patterns out of almost anything, landscapes, stars, shadows, the grain in wood, a narrative, etc.  This pattern finding can become unregulated so that patterns can be found and given a significance they do not actually merit.  We see this in some forms of mental illness, e.g., John Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia in the film A Beautiful Mind, and in conspiracy theories.  One feature of Asperger’s syndrome can be an extreme talent for finding, creating and remembering patterns; in autism the pattern finding can focus obsessively on meaningless patterns.  The doctor who originally observed the syndrome that received his name, Hans Asperger, thought that this patterning ability was heightened as certain social skills reliant on empathy were lessened (67).  He further thought that this patterning was a normal trait or ability and that success in some scientific, e.g., astronomy, and artistic, e.g., painting, fields depends upon its robustness albeit within limits.

Be that as it may our ability to pattern and to complete gestalts based upon minimal information is remarkable, especially our ability to recognized faces and their expressions. The important feature here is that some patterns are felt to be ‘fit’ and some ‘askew’.  Consider language and its grammar.  Chomsky’s famous example, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” illustrates how even a semantically void sentence can be syntactically ‘fit’, i.e., it obeys the rules for such a pattern.  Musical and visual patterns may not have a generative or prescriptive grammar, but they are felt to be ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’—some sort of ‘grammar’ must govern their composition.  (Of course modern art has advanced at times by violating that governance, e.g., cubists and other movements).

This sense of aesthetic fitness, then, operates in both the composition and appreciation of art forms.  This is a subtle feature of our minds but important nonetheless.  Going even further, as our intellectual abilities have developed and our cultural landscapes have come to include mathematical patterns and theoretical entities, our sense of aesthetic fitness has been extended to equations and theories.  Consider Paul Dirac’s equations that he developed based upon feeling that they were beautiful and later contributed to the foundation of quantum physics and predicted the existence of anti-matter (31).  (Descriptions of his character and behavior strongly suggest that his patterning ability and social skills were quite Asperger-like).

My contention here is that the aesthetic sense that governs the beautiful Altamira paintings also contributes to other arts and to the mental construction of mathematical formulas and other formal ideas.  The skill involved in any such composition is one whereby the person follows the intuitive form governing the whole, fills in the elements so that they fit together coherently, and so presents or embodies the felt idea in an illuminating manner.  Is this ability an evolutionary spandrel?  Perhaps a prior question should be posed before answering:  is this even a biological ability or performance, and if so, how may we approach understanding it scientifically and philosophically?

That it must be biological seems to me a logical necessity.  Some might argue that it is cultural, but that is also a biological phenomenon.  Some might assert that it is not a universal feature of our species but all humans and our known ancestors back a half million years ago appear to have developed some culture including art as best we can determine, and besides other species also share features of cultural life, even bacteria (11).  We cannot ignore the role of our aesthetic sense in phenomena ranging from appreciation of nature’s beauty through artistic production and appreciation to the esoteric beauty of abstract creations and hope to understand the intuitive contributions to conscious mentality and mind in general.  While this seems obvious, many set limits on its admissibility to legitimate examination and discourse.  It seems all too apparent that eventually we shall have to examine in a more rigorous and detailed manner the nature of art.  Thus I ask if art is an evolutionary spandrel.

Art may be an evolutionary spandrel.  Like the redness of blood is a spandrel resulting from iron-based hemoglobin, art may be a spandrel of our symbolic capacity that in essence is our linguistic ability.  If a spandrel, what are the evolutionary pillars in addition to language’s symbolic capability that support the human mind but frame art as an incidental result?  One would certainly be our proclivity for patterning the world; we see patterns virtually everywhere, even the welter of stars at night, and our abilities at gestalt formation facilitate object recognition based upon very incomplete and novel input.  Another would be our remarkable empathy and capacity for mirroring that promotes the development of long-term bonds and intimacy amid the ongoing attunement to another’s mind.  Still another would be our autonoetic self derived from episodic memory that leads to our efforts to compose a narrative that forms the pattern of our life. Any and all of these and more may have joined in a confluence some 40-80,000 years ago as a broader human culture began to develop.

Of course my position is that art is not an evolutionary spandrel but is, instead, a central pillar of the human mind that enables the accordance of our individual subjectivities beyond the utilitarian use of our symbolic capabilities and that constitutes a basis for our ever widening social groups.  Our mental ability to feel and explore the mind‘s own creations amid the self’s experience is critical to the shape of our intellect, our sharing of otherwise private forms, and our social identity.  Art is done by the subject about the self, i.e., Dissayanake’s ‘making special’, or by the subject about the self’s experience, i.e., ‘making sense’ of life through the fine arts.  I draw a gradual distinction between Bourdieu’s habitus, that collection of shared habits of how to do things that evolved along the lines that Tomasello described, and deeper culture, that less utilitarian and harder to define symbolic world that composes our cultural identity and provides rationales of varying sorts for explaining the origins, finalities, natural phenomena, exigencies, possibilities, etc., needed to support the shared world view among different individuals, each of us with a creative and curious mind bounded by one’s perspective of life, and compose a group.  Art enables us to share a dream world created communally.  Art serves the creation, conservation and progression of cultural forms, providing both the landmarks or anchors for the cultural landscape and a means for advancing new ideas for consideration.  Art, then, is another way our intellect helps us carry on with life’s mandate, i.e., to share in ameliorating life’s exigencies and exploiting possibilities, given our apprehension of life’s limits and its difficulties, e.g., fall from grace or opening Pandora’s box, and our wish to control and find a some order even if not rational in an irrational universe.  To do this together would seem to be not a spandrel, but a basic and essential feature of our biological life as Homo sapiens sapiens.


Part 5: Is art a spandrel?

Art works composed about experience also played a more subtle role in this extension of trust.  Within the family intimate communication could be more freely expressed than without.  This includes sharing of hopes and frustrations, loves and hates, and the wise lore gathered by the elders about life, its necessities and possibilities.  Not all lessons of vital experience are simply expressed through words, even in narratives that verge upon the parable or mythic.  Humans eventually developed the impulse to express the inchoate deeply felt subjective musings on one’s experience, akin to what the Japanese call ‘aware’ or the fleeting nature of life symbolized by the cherry blossoms or to ‘yugen’, the experience of profound feelings.  These are difficult to express for two reasons.  First, these are highly personal and intimate ideas.  One may find a way to express them to someone close but to share them beyond the circle of intimacy is a challenge of a different order.  Secondly, with the development of art not as an expression by the self about the self but as an expression by the self about one’s experience came a new possibility.  The person who made art took on a role different from other pragmatic, practical considerations, and their art work, though based upon personal experience, now conveyed the idea of felt experience in a less personal, more objective way, a way not didactic or organizational or efficacious but, if the artist was both skilled in rendering his ideas in an artistic medium and in composing the art symbol in a culturally competent way, was more a form luminous with being, that luminosity deriving from the internal compositional process interacting with the moment of social and cultural receptivity.  (Consider the modern version of what music becomes a ‘hit’ and what becomes a classic).  Art then became the way one expressed intimate ideas to a wider audience, and this contributed to the creation of powerful subjectively based landmarks that many took on trust, i.e., the artistic or presentational symbol, in the cultural field.

Returning to the first challenge, the cultural field helped to channel symbolic creativity into traditional forms and thereby to constrain the possibilities of untoward creations.  Art in this regard is both a conservative anchor and a dynamic agent of change.  The critical feature here, though, is how these cultural forms and art works in particular operate to promote both behavioral and subjective synchronicity.  Consider first the early arts of dance and music.  Langer called these occurent because they occur in time and then may pass into memory; I would prefer to call them performative, focusing on our active participation in their enactment.  Dance and music were and are participatory in inception and nature.  Their power or virtue, as it were, come from the behavioral and subjective synchronicity they engender in the participants; this is also the power of ritual, which is partially a derivative of these art forms.  Their vitality as art works comes from the participants’ experience of moving forward in time.  Indeed, this is their hallmark where past movements or notes guide not just what comes next but what may come next i.e., some developments feel fit or grammatical while others do not feel fit.  (I will neglect here the modern attraction to cacophonic or awkward forms.).  Dancing and music making, then, when done properly involves ‘feeling the future’.  The participants are flowing or moving in time synchronically.  They share a moment when time flows from the future into the past—that is their communal experience of virtual, vital time.

As humans developed their symbolic capabilities and our umvelt grew to include so many subjective forms created independently of autonoetic experience, we needed new ways to gain accordance in these culturally shared mental compositions.   The evolution of our mental life as it became transformed through our symbolic capabilities posed this challenge:  “What was the other one thinking about when they said or did that?”, because our topics became increasingly less about the concrete immediacy and increasingly more about our virtual abstractions displaced from any current time and place.  We became distracted by what was going on within and so needed new means for organizing our communal minds without.  One key in meeting that challenge was to develop the means for synchronizing our mental processes according to some temporal parameters, whatever they might be.  One way language does is this through tense and mood markers.  As described above, dancing and music synchronize our somatic experiences moving in time.

As our symbolic abilities developed along imaginal lines, thus embracing what came to be experienced as fantasy, mythic, spiritual, religious or something that I will term the ‘mystic realm within and beyond any one consciousness’, our deep culture then included compositions from/of a shared dream world.  Here temporal parameters became elusive yet still necessary if we are all to share in the dream. This may not seem such a challenge to modern minds because we are encultured almost from conception on with stalwart cultural forms that have steadily evolved over 10,000 years and stood explicitly on empirical footing for over 400, and because time for us means well understood natural rhythms and more importantly, what a clock ‘measures’.  As Susanne Langer noted, a clock is metaphysically suspect; what we call time by the clock is actually codified passage that we internalize as a gauge for our utilitarian actions.  Before the ascendance of large-scale civic governance, science and temporal regulation, however, humans experienced life in a less prescripted manner.  The world and time were multi-dimensional and those dimensions varied along cultural lines.  Art provided an important way society could organize and regulate individuals’ imaginary creations into a cultural landscape, i.e., we all shared a dream world, and came to provide the means by which such imaginal forms were kept in mind and memory, i.e., art forms reinforced past orthodox compositions, for the current generation and transmission to the next.

Here we come to the other category of artwork described by Langer.  The first as described above is the performative; the second she called the plastic because they were constructed of material, e.g., paint, stone, etc.  I want to refer to these as ‘artifactual’ because they exist stably in time for anyone’s leisurely examination, in contrast to performative arts that advance and depart without a trace except in memory.  The artifactual arts constitute ongoing reminders of experience both individual and cultural; they help keep past compositions alive in the present.  Consider the earliest known paintings and sculptures found in caves and dating from around 35,000 years ago.  These are representations of powerful animals, e.g., bison, mammoths, etc. and images of humans—the earliest are the silhouettes of hands, rough pictures of humans come a bit later.  The artists clearly wanted to keep the experiences with these animals present in the minds of others, whatever any other motives operated for their production, such as spiritual or religious or magical purposes.

As the cultural landscape was filled in, i.e., the shared imaginary forms came to compose an ongoing tradition, these early artifactual artworks, and to some unknown degree performative art as well, began to serve religious purposes and our cultural world became populated with gods and other mystical forces.  When oral narratives extended this tradition through myth building, art became increasingly a means to reinforce the understanding of the gods and their stories, to make concrete and immediate what was extant only in the minds of the people, and to anchor these conceptions in the history of the group.  This purposiveness, i.e., to keep virtual ideas extant, conserved, and socially/psychologically salient, continued and grew in ancient to modern times.  Walk through almost any art or archeological museum or religious building and marvel at how much of the art work before the Renaissance was given over to religious imagery.  For the Christian tradition consider how the surfeit of madonna-babe pictures and of crucifixion pictures served to reinforce and extend key narratives that played an important part in the religious milieu consequent events such as the Inquisition and Jewish pogroms as well as holidays such as Christmas and Easter.  Other traditions, e.g., Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., have similar art-narrative interactions.

From this perspective, then, the early Paleolithic art laid the groundwork, alongside the utilitarian habitus of tool-making, cooperation, and social regulation, for the cultural growth based upon the shared subjective structures of deep culture.  As an aside, the hand silhouettes would seem to be an early manifestation of art as making special, i.e., the subject making art about the self, while the paintings and sculptures of animals would be a manifestation of what we today call the fine arts, i.e., the subject making art about the self’s experience.  Again, art, including mythic narrative and drama as well as artifactual artwork, enabled the sharing of material information that would otherwise be lost in time.  Art rendered the elusive and ephemeral experiences in accessible form.  It continues to do so today, though no longer constrained by religious orthodoxy.

Returning to the two challenges of art, the social regulation of individual’s symbolic fecundity and the extension of trust so that delicate musings could safely be shared beyond one’s intimate circle, we find another feature of art making that is critically important to the modern mind.

Last part coming up next.

Part 4: Is art a spandrel?

To be sure, this view describes how art would seem to function today, but consider the human past.  It seems a certainty that over the eons of our recent evolution and the millenia of our prehistory that the human umvelt slowly changed from one dominated by our perceptual-motor engagement within the ambient to one composed from information displaced in time and space.  Indeed, by 100,000 years ago our umvelt would seem to have been composed of imaginal forms that encompassed the great uncertainties of what we now understand as the human condition.  These would include life, birth, death, weather, the rhythms of the sun, moon, and stars, health and disease, family, friendship and conflict, hunger, and plenty.  It also seems a certainty that for our umvelt to transform to one dominated by mnemonic and imaginal forms and for this information to come under the control of symbolic processes, our neuropsychological capabilities developed both the intrapsychic mental landscape supporting the growth of enduring cultural forms and the interpersonal processes whereby cultural forms were composed and transmitted through language and artistic means.  Our minds began sharing virtual forms.

These neuropsychological capabilities, whatever the details of genetic change were that led to newly formed structures along with the re-purposing of older systems, and given the opportunity of an extended altricial period, emerged from the neo-mammalian processes of attachment, bonding and empathy coupled with ever more powerful communicative abilities.  One incipient condition for the evolutionary emergence of art was the marriage between robust conspecific relations that were empowered by very keen empathic abilities and the adaptive processes dedicated to analyzing and accommodating to the exigencies and possibilities of living in a complex and changing world.  The development of symbolic thought in its dual capacity to control subjective information and to communicate that objectively thus enabled humans to solve the problems of living communally.  One of those problems was communal life, and art, both about the self and about the subject’s experience, has helped solve that problem.

Evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello has presented us with some interesting ideas about how humans came to solve life’s problems communally in two books, The Natural History of Human Language and The Natural History of Human Morality (69, 70). The essential idea here is that humans, as research by Tomasello and many others has shown, are very cooperative animals, significantly more cooperative than any of the other primates.  Given this powerful proclivity we have developed some high level social abilities involving cooperating to accomplishing complex tasks, role switching so that success was dependent upon group learning and not on any one special individual, and self/other evaluation as to one’s dependability in fulfilling any one role.  Thus, the social features of clear communication, standard protocols and fairness in interpersonal relationships grew to become cultural standards.  In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, the human habitus emerged (5).

Tomasello has provided us with a very workable hypothesis about how we came to solve our problems communally and how we could regulate communal life.  Given the fecundity of our symbolic capabilities and the complexity of establishing group identity from diverse subjective selves, how are we to understand the creation of this communal mental life to be regulated?  How do we go from a habitus of procedural mores to a deeper culture of conceptual realities when those realities are nowhere in objective evidence?  How do we transmit and transmute that culture for inter-generational learning and ongoing adaptability?  Here we approach the evolutionary significance of art, whether it be a spandrel or a supporting pillar.  Today, after roughly 15,000 years of more or less continual cultural development, we are born into a cultural milieu of great expanse and subtle power.  The rise of agriculture and larger settlements, and the subsequent necessity of increased social organization, began the historical period of civilizations, but what culture came before and how it did, whatever it was, develop?  The evolution of Homo sapiens from its inception say 250,000 years ago to the ending of the neolithic period around 4,000 years ago came with brains capable of symbolic thought and social organization based upon symbolic processes.

When we embraced through our symbolic capabilities not just the practicalities of survival but also the mysteries of the human condition, e.g., birth, death, fate, disease, etc., and our deep need for family and social supports, we began the creation, transmission and deepening development of the cultural field.  Just as our brains map space, time and experience (that is a feature of our mammalian heritage), we also began to map the shared material from subjective musings about life’s exigencies, possibilities, and vicissitudes.  That came to include imaginative material and so began the composition of the deep cultural field, wherein flourished the narratives, beliefs, and mythic ideas about the forces of nature and the limits of life.

This development may have satisfied an incipient intellectual need for understanding and explanation, but more importantly, I think, the cultural field met two challenges.  The first was the need for social regulation of a sometimes all too fecund symbolic imagination by a shared and transmissible group of concepts related to the advance of the cultural understanding.  This established an authority of tradition and limits to what new gods, etc., could be created, because the traditions had stood the test of time.  The second was to ameliorate the distrust or mystery of what was going on in each person’s subjective musings.  So long as groups were organized around intimate social awareness and knowledge, e.g. families, clans and tribes, one could trust another not to be asocial and exploitative.  The ending of the neolithic period came about as agriculture led to larger settlements (28), so that trust based upon intimate knowledge was inadequate.  Metallurgy led to new sorts of tools and, critically, weapons, so that ability to understand another’s beliefs and intentions became a matter of vital importance. Finally extensive trading based especially upon writing brought contact with very different others, and this challenged the deep-seated mistrust of the others.  However, if their cultural field were similar to one’s own, e.g., gods were recognizable, myths spoke of familiar issues, and the habitus of interpersonal relationships were agreeable and valued safety and respect, then a basic level of trust could be extended beyond the intimate group.

For example, many cultures held that a guest or stranger be given a certain amount of hospitality, and that once admitted as a guest that person guaranteed mutual respect and safety.  Violations of these mores were not easily forgiven and if repeated, marked the offending group or individual as untrustworthy and uncivilized.  Other strictures, e.g., trading, marriage, theft, kidnapping, etc. operated similarly.  Some prehistoric art was certainly a cultural signal about group identity and what social mores might operate, just as a person’s individual art signaled something about their identity and social roles. Thus, the cultural field operated to regulate interpersonal and inter-group issues of trust, and art played an important because salient role in this domain.

Art works composed about experience also played a more subtle role in this extension of trust.

to be continued

Let’s talk doxa, science, and humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now travel on with feeling. Happy New Year.

4th Anniversary: 1-Heroes

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


Susanne Langer

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

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

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


William James

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


Noam Chomsky 1977

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


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

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

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

An interesting study and my quibble

So researchers have demonstrated through an experiment that apes understand when another has a ‘false belief’, i.e., someone believes something that is not true. This seems to be applied to the concrete here and now more than to tax policy but more on that later. The researchers made a video and showed it to apes of a man holding a rock, then a man in a gorilla suit takes it from him and puts it under a box. The man leaves and the gorilla puts the rock under a second box and then takes it away altogether. When the first man returns, the apes watching are found to anticipate that he will go to the first and now empty box through eye tracking technology (they look at the man and first box repeatedly), thereby showing that they understand another’s perspective and that it can be wrong. One link is the Duke Chronicle:


So you can’t find your rock? Did you look under the other box? In your closet?

This is an interesting albeit limited finding. I like the effort to show a more sophisticated side to animal minds, but here’s my quibble. Why call this a ‘false belief’ rather than a ‘false assumption’? If linguists were studying humans in this regard, we would talk about contextual knowledge and pragmatic processes. That apes (and many other animals for that matter) understand another’s false assumption is no real surprise, so this study provides another confirming detail. Frans de Waal has documented many instances of apes using such perspective taking and knowledge to their advantage in his books, especially the latest one, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?  Consider his account when one chimp lower in the pecking order was allowed to see through a window where bananas were hidden and then when he and the whole group were released to find the food ran somewhere else and then later returned by himself to enjoy the bananas. If he had gone straight to them, an alpha male would have taken them. He promoted the assumption that he did not know where the bananas were. Did the other apes ‘believe’ he was as ignorant as they were? Mimicking false beliefs is strategically a ‘feint’ that dogs do all the time in play, going one way to trick the other in assuming one intent and then quickly changing course, as do humans playing a sport. Manipulation through hiding intent or understanding another’s false assumption/belief is, I think, common in the animal kingdom, including humans pushing a fraudulent sales deal. Our more powerful symbolic and cultural capabilities make this even more apparent and problematic.

Back to false beliefs and tax policy. I am aware of the false belief that reducing taxes on the wealthy produces more jobs; that this tax reduction does not increase jobs has been demonstrated repeatedly at the state and national level; the data are clear. This is no rock under the box situation though, so understanding another’s false belief is not so helpful because of the persistence of the false belief in the face of evidence. Surely the human or ape looking under the box to find nothing would abandon that assumption. For tax policy though, some continue to insist the rock is under the box even though it is clearly not there. This marks a difference between an assumption and a belief wherein the persistence is due to faulty reality testing by ignoring data so as to find an advantage in other ways.

I recently saw a study that showed climate change deniers were associated more with the Republican party than the Democratic one. Why? A friend’s family of origin teaches their younger children that evolution is wrong. Why? At least in part to be consistent with their religious beliefs, but they still use all the medical tools evolutionary science bestows upon us. I recognize these as false beliefs more than false assumptions because they persist in the bright light of empiricism. Yes, each of us has a powerful world view that shapes our interpretation and assembly of data, but empirical thinking, from cooking, early tools and agriculture through the scientific revolution in the 16th century to now, is our most powerful perspective. Remember a few years back when a group of young, disrespectful, stupidly self-involved American tourists climbed a sacred mountain in, I think, Indonesia, and stripped naked for their selfies? Then they were arrested for desecrating a sacred place (ok so far) and causing an earthquake (oops, slipped over the positivistic border there). I had a conversation with a friend who contradicted me when I said they did not cause the earthquake saying that maybe the indigenous people there were on to something, maybe the mountain god was angry and that we do not understand all that goes on in this world (now there’s a safe assumption I can endorse). Is there no such thing as superstition then? I knock on wood toward off bad events but I know that is a superstition. We do not understand everything but we do understand somethings very well. I am prepared to believe in magic and miracles and apprehension of unknown things by special talents but I can also reject false assumptions and beliefs. Let me not begin a discussion of religious beliefs, because we humans with our fecund symbolic capabilities not only make up the weirdest stuff (remember the Atargatis?) but we lose track of our creations and mistake them for objective truth. Many religious minded people ‘recognize’ the false beliefs of other religions. Really? Better travel on from there.


I just don’t know what to believe anymore. Maybe I should study the matter empirically.

Crown of creation?

In 1982 as she finished the third and last volume of Mind: An essay on human understanding, Susanne Langer noted that our symbolic capabilities were both powerful in rendering reality exploitable and destructive when our symbolizations exceed the capacity of our reality testing, i.e., we tend towards BS. She discussed several civilizations that declined in part because their symbolizations and cultural constructs became maladaptive. One example was the Maya, who sacrificed so many people, especially young ones, in their bloodlust belief that such a ritual brought great power that they used up all the slaves they could conquer and steal and their own youth. Ouch!

Consider in this regard psychiatric illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, that involve symbolization run amuck. In the former a self-sustaining feedback loop of negative thinking dissociated from reality based processes debilitates the energy needed for positive action, while in the latter the symbolization process itself runs unconstrained and generates internal experiences incommensurate with objective social reality, though these can contribute to social reality, e.g., Joan of Arc or Joseph Smith and many others. Not saying that religious beliefs are crazy, just that they exceed the usual constraints imposed by reality testing, sometimes adaptively and sometimes not (e.g., see previous posts about Atargatis).

So our symbolic capabilities allow us to formulate conceptions with great precision, such as when we send the Rosetta spacecraft many millions of miles to orbit and study a comet for two years before softly landing on it at a speed of 2 miles per hour. Our symbolic capabilities also allow us to leave positivist reality behind and render experience in aesthetic forms that can nurture the blossoming of our humanity. And, as Langer suggests, our symbolic capabilities, when used to impress, say through exaggeration, or manipulate, say through falsehood, begin the journey to fraud and demagoguery.

And that brings us to the fragile psychological and social processes underlying political discourse. Not that I am cynical this election season, oh no, but I remembered an old Jefferson Airplane song, “Crown of Creation,” and reflected on Frans de Waals’ wisdom in rejecting humans as the top rung in the ladder of life, and our persistent belief (and it is only a belief) that mankind is progressing towards better ends. Maybe our evolution has brought us to the place where further random mutations, as almost all mutations are, even those effected purposefully by us, will increase our adaptive powers even more. But I would not rush to judgment on that one, not when I consider our history and then look down the road ahead from where I sit and see what I see. Better travel on.

An important experiment

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Frans de Waal reports what I think is an enlightening experiment. One argument he makes throughout this book is that Darwin was right when he said that the human mind differs from the minds of other animals only in degree, not in kind. In other words, our humanity is biologically rooted and there is no discontinuity in our evolution; all we can do mentally is prepared for by prior evolutionary progress. De Waal shows how other animals remember, think ahead, conceal to gain advantage, show a sense of fairness, organize socially, delay gratification, make and use tools, and diverse other actions that some have said were exclusively human. His focus on the power of empathy and empathic communication is powerful. What about symbolization, I hear you ask after reading the title of this blog (if not before)? Ah, here is that enlightening experiment.

In a design called ‘reversal pointing’ a chimpanzee (because they are so very bright) is taught to indicate which reward he or she wants by pointing, choosing the larger pile for themselves and leaving the smaller pile for a friend. Then the contingency is changed and the reward they are given is the one not pointed to, i.e., the reverse. Now the chimps can learn to cope with many different contingencies, old, new and changing, but when faced with a small and large pile of candies or fruits, they consistently point to the larger even when the reverse pointing condition is in effect (just like human preschoolers probably before we explain it). Somehow they cannot adjust to point to the smaller pile in order to gain the larger.

But some chimps have been trained to use numbers in making their choice so that they point to 9 or 10 before 1-8 because 9 candies are better than 8, etc. Who knew? And here is the brilliant thing: chimps using numbers, i.e., symbols of at least the iconic sort, cope quite readily with the reversal pointing protocol. They will point to 9 to get more than 8, but if the researcher reverses this, they will point to 8 to get 9. See the difference? Using numbers rather than visual appraisal of quantity allows the chimps to control their mental information, understand the tricky contingency, and adapt their behavior for success by ignoring perceptual information. Therein, it seems to me, lies a glimpse of our evolution into symbolizing creatures. No need to travel on from here, just draw from our biological roots and bask in Gaia’s glow. And thank you, Frans de Waal.


5 will get me 10? That blows my mind.