Is a principle underlying the increasing complexity of the universe. At a critical point of massing component parts together, a new WHOLE pops into existence that isn’t like the parts. By itself that would be a party trick, but this pattern constantly builds, it goes on and on. More = Different.
It is time for common sense Human Ethology. We need to start learning more about ourselves as a species and develop an understanding of our ways and our place in nature. We need it to navigate the path ahead. Many people are frightened and offended by any serious discussion of it but it’s time for us to have a little “facts of life” talk. If a disease is misdiagnosed, the prescription won’t help: If you don’t understand the machine your hand is caught in how can you escape? A great deal is riding on us. And we begin, in the dark.
I suspect that our minds contain a built in blind spot against recognizing ourselves in this light.
Imagine being a bird in one of those huge dark clouds of starlings swarming; our perspective is constantly eyes forward, keeping up, and so involved in doing that we don’t look around and say: “What are we doing?” Henri Bergson, an early 20th century neurologist believed that the brain had as much to do with limiting and filtering out reality as with perceiving and understanding it.
It’s understandable for many good reasons. First, your dominant preoccupation here on earth is SUPPOSED to be your own life. If you aren’t going to mind that store, who will? It must be contra-survival for any creature to spend its time marveling at another level of existence, I know it is for ME. And many people are disturbed by the notion that they really are an animal and that some of their own motivations are unconscious. And when you place that animal that they are in the context of a huge hive where they are a speck in the background it’s understandable that it seems disturbing and diminishing. But you could make the case that seeing the larger story and blending it with your own reveals something stunning and elegant. The foreground AND the background. The story of our life as hive animals is not the truer story, it is simply a different true story at a different factor of magnification. We exist at several levels as radically different things.
From one perspective each of us is a gigantic amalgam of self organizing cells and microbes who go about their business with no idea how unhappy we are in our current job and how much we love cake and have always wanted to learn the cello. One level up from the bits and pieces that make us up, we are recognizably ourselves, the HUB: The eyes and ears of the universe. But one more level up and we are the “tiny” self organizing cells of a system that generally speaking, we have no conception of. What are we even doing? Continue reading
(Warning: Spitballing ahead. Sometimes I pose myself a problem and publish my half assed thoughts about it because the pressure of having it up where someone might see it inspires me to develop my thinking about it.)
The “binding problem” is how our various senses blend and synthesize. Nobody knows how right now. Francis Crick came up with the 40 hertz synchronization theory to explain the biological causes of consciousness but it seems very empty and thin. And unlikely.
All neurons process. So at some level each neuron is an experience and in a tiny way, an experiencer. We know different areas of the brain specialize in areas of processing but those areas are not simple lumps of processing material, they are massed armies of neurons …gigantic rock concert crowds talking to each other and responding to the show on stage in front of them. When the band yells out “Hello Cleveland!” and the crowd roars back…it has become like a single entity.
The mistake we make in imagining neurons is seeing them as essentially passive wiring that signals are flowing along like an old telegraph or telephone system with a caller at one end and a receiver at the other. In reality that level of transmission doesn’t require anything like the amount neuronal population and activity we have going on. The information coming into the system has to be batch processed, blended with information from other “departments” to derive the basic picture/sound/smell combination and this has to be “redrawn” at a rate that feels instantaneous and flowing to the observer. But that’s just organizing the core feed into coherent sensory information. That raw feed has to be examined for context, meaning and nuance constantly while not flooding and overwhelming the human thinking their thoughts, doing their chores, socializing and planning. This is an astounding feat and lets not forget that the same brain is also the one thinking those thoughts, doing those chores, planning and socializing. Continue reading
Stories are integral to humans, they are essential and innate.
Stories as fiction, of course, but also the way of saying anything where a subject once verbed a noun. A person born without innate language behavior, the talking and the understanding, would be as isolated from the rest of us as another species. “Talking and understanding” oversimplify the matter. Language is our medium of remembering long term, considering the future and artfully creating a new copy of that idea in those listening. Oh yes, and imagining the minds of the listeners so well, including personality, rank, bias, and weaknesses that a story can be tailored to precisely sway a single individual, then instantly repackaged in broad strokes to move a horde.
All of these complex abilities are grey matter functions. The neo-cortex REQUIRES stories to do business. Grey matter is the apartment in the human brain where “we” are allowed to live. There once was a princess, trapped in a high tower… and she is us. The neo-cortex comes supplied with libraries of story “legos”. Every hero’s journey and every fairy tale can be assembled from precursors that exist in every brain. To qualify as truly human you must be full of monsters and lost children.
What language and stories tell us is that humans are a madly, overwhelmingly social species, that nature “imagined” us as communities of extremely complex individuals. Any picture we hold of the role of stories is like imaging a little kit we take out when needed and find very useful. The reality is we are aquatic creatures in an ocean of endlessly replenished overlapping narratives. They are the enveloping atmosphere. Consider the individual and her story as the smallest discernible level, connecting to the family story, to the extended family story and the tribe story. In larger civilizations, in big cities, there are thousands of separate story communities we belong to. We have a work story, a church story, a political story, a sex and age story. And so does everyone else. A person can even be imprisoned by their own story, repeating grievances and hurts in a litany designed to preserve them perfectly.
Language is innate to humans because stories are innate to humans. Because we have to teach and apologize and convince and amuse and explain and plan, stories are innate. Because we have to imagine our own lives…Because we have to hold onto the past and anticipate the future… stories are innate. We could not be human without stories and stories do not exist without humans.
Stories are the currency of human exchange. Anything more complex than a “Hello” either IS a story or an invitation to one. These tiny proto-story beginnings: Beautiful day, isn’t it? | How are you? | Have you seen Bob?” are human equivalents to respect gestures, grooming, butt sniffing etc. and may be finished in a moment but each one can carry the participants far from the humble start and into laughter, tears, murder or sympathy.
Stories are the bridges we build to connect our lonely asteroids. At the end of a hard day of building story bridges, at last, you go to relax. What would you prefer, would you rather watch tv or read a book? Stories are food. They even open a door to escape the stories we’re fucking tired of.
Imagine campfires surrounded by the first modern humans. Humans just like us but without infrastructure or history. We know who these people are. They are us! We know the storytellers, the funny ones, the creative ones, the ones that just like attention or the sound of their own voice. And we can imagine the audience having their say, shaping and guiding the story with their responses. Imagine the comfort of safe adventures and harmless surprises. Imagine the comfort of the retold story, the listeners touching each landmark twist with pleasure.
It is also a natural process for stories to become so deeply a part of the people listening to them that they identify their stories as reality itself; the stories and life itself are one. This is an amazing jump but it is the foundation of group identity and group identity is where us versus them appears. A little tribe of humans could not exist for long without knitting a cozy story around themselves to keep out the chill. Stories are identity; I am a part of this story and this story is a part of me. What is religious fundamentalism really, but people fixated on the particular rightness of one story in opposition to all others? Think of the Islamic phrase grouping together themselves, Jews and Christians: People of the book.
Each of us began this way “You wake up and you have no idea where you are or how you got there”. In time people began filling you in on the details. You asked questions exactly as ancient children did and someone older said: “Let me tell you a story about that.”
This is a half-baked theory. It doesn’t suggest any particular role for neurons or other physical aspects of the brain. It is about the workings of the mind. It is primarily concerned with the things we learn how to do.
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, scene ii
An Odd Revelation
When I was a college boy many, many years ago I saw a cat.
I saw a cat and the cat was acting like a cat.
The cat was catlike and there was nothing about it that was anything BUT catlike.
This was a revelation and like most revelations it loses practically everything in the translation from shimmering vision to paragraph in black and white.
He was stalking and playing and being curious and easily startled and all sorts of catty things that anyone could predict. What filled me with awe was the fact that this cat had a nature and that he could do nothing that was not of a piece with that nature. The word nature comes from the Greek natura meaning “essential qualities, innate disposition” and that is the sense in which I mean this. I saw that cat as an expression of the essence of “catness” but not as some platonic ideal, I saw it as an instance of a running program. The program “Cat” existed in millions of instances all over the surface of the earth and I was watching a single instance of it having a nice moment in the Florida sunshine. Continue reading
- Mice were trained to be afraid of the smell of cherry blossoms (I don’t even want to know HOW).
- These mice later had litters which had never been exposed to cherry blossom and when they were, they were afraid of it.
- These second generation mice later had litters and their children…were afraid of the same smell.
This is obviously not direct alteration of the genetic code, it’s a methylation change called epigenetics. What it amounts to though is a much more powerful means of shaping evolution than sheer randomness, but one that doesn’t rely on some variety of intelligent design.
The next level of complexity is something you are a part of and something you can’t see.
- Visual and hearing processes
- Knowledge of physics
- Fine motor control
- Risk analysis
- Awareness of Traffic laws
There is no “idea” or blueprint of a hive. No ant works or dies “for the hive” No ant is sentient though there is a localized being with some flexibility of response. Scientists have observed a range of “personality” types or at least behavioral types. Some ants are lazy. Some are even by ant standards, dumb. No ant thinks of the past or future.
In 100 million years no ant has ever imagined or thought of a hive. There is no hive except through the combined actions of essentially unconscious operators. And yet, operational responses to various situations flow naturally with seemingly coordinated group efforts to collect food, care for larva, fight off enemies and rebuild walls. What the hell is the model in the brain of a worker ant rebuilding a broken wall that says: “OK, I’m done.” ?
The hive is the emergent whole of its tiny individual parts. It doesn’t exist without them and they don’t exist without it.
What are you a tiny constituent of? What emerges from variations of YOU multiplied a million times? Can you see it? Can you think of it?