Your Neurons and the Classics

In Communication, Metaphysics on July 31, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Dean Williams, Kyoto

My argument is with those…who congratulate themselves on a knowledge …gained without any human guidance.

Nobody should regard anything as his own, except perhaps a lie. What do we possess that we have not received from another?

I reveal not only what I understand but the rules to be observed in the process of understanding it.

St. Augustine

A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only, and ignorant with its ignorance. Observe how the greatest minds yield in some degree to the superstitions of their age.


Note: This is the first of a two-parter. I did my best to smooth out the different parts of this piece but in all probability its virtue lies in the charm of its disparate, wonky parts rather than any underlying coherence.  Hopefully in the second part I can tie things together.

Beyond Language

Years ago I had a falling-out with a friend. The first tentative steps towards a reconciliation were made by her. It was a card with a gorilla on it and the caption, “Sleep now, talk later.” Let’s let it rest for a while, she was wisely telling me. There was nothing to be gained by communication at that point in time, nothing at all. It was better to wait, just wait. And some years later, we did have a sort of autumnal rapprochement. She had been right: talking wasn’t what was needed, nor was listening. No matter how persuasive our words would have been or how sympathetic their recipient, the situation would have crushed the attempt. She and I were in a place beyond the aegis of language.

Beyond language. It is frightening even to contemplate. One imagines an unfortunate person with aphasia, (a language disorder) or being at the bottom of the black sea, or on the other side of the moon. If  aliens wanted to conquer earth I can think of no more effective strategem than to somehow deprive our species of language. Cut off, isolated and terrified, we would be easy pickings. The ability to come together and create meaning  lies at the heart of our understanding of what humanity is.

But how, precisely, is that accomplished? Wherein lies our capacity for the creation of human meaning? Is it a sheer biophysical talent, akin to any other animal’s ability to react to and shape its environment? Or is it culturally transmitted? Obviously the “it” in question, ‘human meaning’, is a massive and nebulous construct. But I would like to take a small shot at it.

The next passage might not seem to have too much to do with the ostensible subject of my sporadically appearing series of posts, literary classics, but I beg your indulgence.  I’ve been reading some cognitive science material for quite awhile; let’s see if it has done me any good. I would like to try to relate some recent findings on the brain and our biological language faculty to the broader realms of history and culture. The basic point is that we create meaning (linguistic, musical, philosophical…) through an exquisitely refined, resilient and flexible bottom-up process that begins with neurons, ends with symphonies, or pogroms, and that is terrifyingly dependent on the right kind of articulated (complex) stimulation. In modernese, it’s Nature, leaning heaveily on Nurture.

A  longer version of the same basic concept: the astonishing plasticity of the human brain, its bottom-up and decentralized nature, is what gives us our protean power, our apparently limitless ability to “make it new.” However, there might be a price to be paid, in everyday affairs and at the highest, most consequential levels of cultural history. Cognitively speaking, evolution has not moored us that firmly to a set of clearly identifiable, unvarying points that  we can claim mentally define us as human. It is true that surveys of world cultures have found certain traits that indeed can only be described as universal: sexual taboos, leaders, gossip, beliefs about death, and many others. But I will stake out the position that these are cultural human universals, not cognitive human universals. So yes, the aggregate of human interactions has inevitably tended to create quite similar social constructs in cultures far removed from each other in space, time, and circumstance. But this says little about the actual content of individual minds.  Perhaps another way to think about it is scale. On a gross societal scale we find much the same solutions. For example, few societies probably openly tolerate adultery. On the detailed level of individual mental content, (leading often to actions) there is both far more variety and mystery. There certainly are adulterers, and chaste nuns as well! One of the many fascinating human mysteries is how this apparently endless individual variety tends to lead to the same solutions in culture after culture.

To refresh our memories, I am exploring some facets of human meaning and trying to pin down the level(s) at which human communication originates. As best as my earnest but amateurish investigations can tell me, there has been a blunt, brutal but effective—phenomenon- we call evolution that has created the human brain. That brain, itself a wonder, has created another marvel: the mind, or consciousness. The mind is the story that the brain tells itself, a kind of super mental organizer or filter for everything that goes on. Why does the brain tell itself a story? Because that’s what neural nets do. They form meaningful patterns from all the incoming data. And when there is no meaningful pattern to be found, they create one anyway! Other than very basic biological or perceptual categories like food, dangerous animals, colors, and temperature, the concepts, constructs and mental frameworks with which we organize our existence in the human realm—ambition, God, art, democracy, altruism– are advantageous reifications: the mental conversions of abstract entities into things. In plain English, they do not exist. We make them up. We make them up because we need them. The range of human mental constructions seems limitless and includes mysteries like unicorns and bingo, fabrications which no one would describe as actually essential, except for the small point that fantasizing and collective, purposeless fun are apparently essential to our species’ psychological wellbeing.

In cog sci parlance, I am a strict material reductionist; I think that it’s all in the neurons, period. And I believe that non-reductionists, who include in their ranks scientists, rationalists and the spiritually and religiously minded, must answer the question, “If human meaning is not in the patterns of neuronal firing, where is it exactly? But they can retort, “I don’t have an answer for that, but you on your side have described how humans mean, how they write, think, make art, but you have not explained it. There still remains a yawning gap between your no-doubt impressive array of Christmas light neurons and the undeniable phenomenon of human experience,  of life as it is actually felt and experienced by us.” And of course they are right. A good way to understand their argument is to read Thomas Nagel’s paper, freely available online, entitled “What is it Like to be a Bat?” Here is the quote from the first page:

Philosophy is … infected by a broader tendency of contemporary intellectual

life; scientism. Scientism is actually a special form of idealism, for it puts one

type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said

about it. At its most myopic it assumes that everything there is must be

understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have

developed to date—physics and evolutionary biology are the current

paradigms—as if the present age were not just one in the series.—Thomas

Nagel (1986)

What I would love to do is draw a neat dividing line, like the Spanish and Portuguese did during their age of exploration, dividing up the world. I would love for us to be able to say, “Here, this is the realm of science. And this, this is the kingdom of philosophy, religion and humanism. Both camps, please stay in your respective areas.” But neither side is willing to do that. Even I am not; my secular readings have absolutely convinced me that God is a neuronal pattern like any other, a particularly flexible and consequential one that has given us all kinds of goodies and horrors over the millennia. Yet my shallow wading in the sea of religion (most of the Bible and a fair amount of scholarly exegesis, oodles of literature, scatterings from the other religious traditions, philosophy and commentary both pro- (Swedenbourg) and anti-religion (Paine, Russell, Feuerbach) have taught me that we should at a minimum have a grudging respect for spirituality and religion. God is quite real, and magnificent, in the human world.

(By the way, I challenge you to read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. A slender volume, it packs a wallop. Casual atheists and sloppy thinkers, beware!)

Now, on to language itself, looping back to the cog sci paradigm:

For true communication to occur, it is not enough for the parties to be able to produce a string of well-formed linguistic code  and decipher that of their interlocutor.  Language is contextualized; indeed, modern linguistics claims that there is no language without context, that individual words and the syntax that orders them literally have no meaning without reference to the psychological and pragmatic situation that embeds them. This was the fatal flaw in the Chomskyan paradigm, groundbreaking and undeniably brilliant as it was: in his account language is a modular system that exists in all humans, a biological birthright that, after all his byzantine syntactic explications are set aside…simply is. A thing that is, a computer code in our heads that is sitting there, waiting to be “run” by you for the next “communicative event.” Of course he and his many talented followers make it sound a bit better than that. They speak of the universality of all human languages, how children are capable of learning any language until their environment compels them to “select” one and all the syntactic and phonological “parameters” that come along with it. They speak of many things, some more plausible than others, but the whole project, the Chomskyan project, appears now to represent the high-water mark of the information system paradigm, in which the dominant metaphor for the human mind was the computer.

Language, communication, is not a thing that is. Refreshingly, (to me at least) it is the Kiwis and the Australians, with some help from the Brits, who have put the warm blush of life on the cold theoretical bones of our Yankee construction. I speak of M.A.K. Halliday, among others. Language becomes, it is not a thing that is. The phoneme is embedded in the cluster, the cluster in the word, the word in the phrase, the phrase in the utterance or sentence, the utterance in the turn or move (the conversational turn), the turn in the conversation, the conversation in the situation, the situation in the life, the life in the milieu…and everything, like a bed of seaweed on a gently undulating sea, touches everything else. It ripples, coruscates, top to bottom and bottom to top. There is no modular linguistic gearbox with pristine rules that we follow as we talk. You don’t escape the responsibility of freedom, even at this fundamental level: you and I, we make the rules. Really. Language evidently exhibits what researchers call “rule-like behavior without actual rules.” All the taste with none of the calories! The brain-scans, the psychological reaction tests, the introspective talk-out-loud procedures, applications of the latest neuroscience, chaos theory, and connectionism, they all point in this wondrous, democratic direction. Neurons fire in instantaneous, supple and massively parallel fashion to decode and create language without recourse to an executive control system. Your mind, from the bottom up, tells itself what to do. Way before modern imaging techniques could begin to demonstrate this, a pioneering cognitive scientist named Gilbert Ryle made a convincing common-sense argument that’s called “the homunculus” (little man) or the “problem of infinite regress.” Basically, if we posit a central executive controlling things, something like a little man sitting in the control room of our brain, we are immediately faced with the problem of explaining the provenance of the homunculus. Who tells him what to do? We can create a super-executive to control him, but who is HIS boss? You can see the problem.

Incidentally, it’s probable that the sentence about the mind telling itself what to do, is not fully comprehensible to us. I mean that even if at some intellectual level we feel it to be true, everything in our human experience rebels against it; it’s too  Star Trek Borgian, insectoid in its abdication of a recognizable human agent or midlevel, executive entity. We want someone, or at least a something, some universal quality like Life or Consciousness or Karma to be in charge, to be running things. This is entirely understandable. But I would remind my readers that in the two great realms of physical phenomena that science has explored, biology and physics, the central discovery in both has been an agentless, bottom-up matrix of simple units which relies on a few simple laws or patterns to create large-scale phenomena of astonishing complexity. In the living world evolution works through genes and chromosomes, and in the non-organic world it is the combination and interactions of subatomic particles with basic physical laws. As far as we know, these are the ways in which our world has been formed and continues to change. Small mindless agents acting “without rules but with rule-like behavior.” This is not a comfortable answer but nonetheless it is the one hard science has given us. It’s a ruthlessly bottom-up world, baby. Yet another way into all this is to understand that the process of evolution itself is not epistemically transparent to these fundamental issues. Our minds have evolved to be as they are, to function in certain situations. Perhaps they were not designed to plumb the deepest depths. Better brains than mine have suggested exactly that on more than one occasion.

The matrix-like, fuzzy-logic structure is replicated at every level of the human meaning-creation system. The whole human edifice is one big fractal. An example: watch a 50’s movie with snappy dialog; notice the small but perceivable differences in how they speak and the idioms, phrasing, etc. If they could time travel and be exposed to our speech, they would feel the changes in our speech patterns even more. (That’s because our English has subsumed theirs.) English has subtly but appreciably changed. Well, how did English “know” how to evolve like this; how did it make the myriad infinitesimal moves necessary for such an evolution, and how did we, its speakers, know how to move in the same direction? Unlike computer software, we can’t get an official, periodic update from the manufacturer. “Ted, there is a new version of your English. Would you like to update now?”

There is no crystalline code, no program that our mind “runs.” The reality is far messier, more grainy, and infinitely more interactive and interesting.  Every communicative event, every campaign promise or muttered threat to an enemy, every blessed time you open your trap and I take in your words…changes the language. Infinitesimally but definitely.  Again, this is because there is no abstract entity “language” that one can dissect as a whole. Sure, you can analyze bits and pieces and get useful data.  That’s what linguists of all types—historical linguists, sociolinguists, those of a psycholinguistic or comparative typological persuasion—do profitably all the time. But as in modern physics, the old assumption of the privileged, neutral observer is simply no longer epistemologically viable. You and I are part of the phenomenon, human language, that we wish to apprehend. This is true both in the narrow technical sense that, as in the Schroedinger cat experiment, we cannot remove ourselves from the experimental field, that our presence affects the result, as well as in the larger sense outlined above. That is to say, this bottom-up, decentralized account of how language arises and functions has cultural, historical, and even ethical implications.  Big ones, people, which we will have to wait until next time to explore.

So I spilled a fair amount of digital ink in trying to show that far from there being some Pentagon of the mind (God forbid) handing out neuronal orders and generally keeping things running, thinking (by which I mean to include remembering, conceptualizing, planning, using language…) is, biochemically speaking, a far more democratic process, relying on myriad neuronal foot-soldiers who combine in all kinds of ways to create thought. Thinking is an active, constructive process, and not just in the gross psychological sense. Every time we, say, look at a Picasso, even one which we have seen many times before, those individual brain cells fire together in a wondrous, surging cascade that ends in our frontal cortex at the very highest and most evolutionarily unlikely level of human mental operations: the aesthetic sense. In the next post I will explore how the very bottom-up attributes that have given our thinking its unbelievable power and flexibility also carry within themselves the seeds of its decay.

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  1. Darren fit 2 really good observations into a 5 line comment, both of which I’d like to hear explained more fully from someone: 1) That the ground-up hypothesis is the basis of post-structuralist thinking; and 2) it is an active process, unlike social-construction theories.


  2. ah how timely is this as I grapple with the implications of constructing gender identities. The beauty of the ground-up hypothesis (the basis of post-structuralist thinking if I’m not mistaken) is that involves the ability to change – as it is an active process, unlike social-construction theories. And I love the way Puritano has conceived that change at our most fundamental level.

  3. A similar Thoreau quote i just found, on our fascination with ancient Greece and Rome:

    This lament for a golden age is simply a lament for golden men.


  4. Great post Puritano. I follow your argument, and am fully supportive of the implications, which I think are huge. This discussion brings to mind Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves,” which argues, basically, that free will exists not as an absolute or universal constant, but as an evolved, “bottom-up” if you like, process that is ongoing and that we all are caught up in. I’m intrigued by the Thoreau quote…

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