Posts Tagged ‘language’

A friend recently sent me this nifty article.

Here are some of my favorite snippets.

On “knowledge”:

“Knowing is not an activity of the
brain but of human beings, and knowledge is
not contained in the brain but in books and
computers, and is possessed by human beings,
but not by their brains. It makes no sense and
explains nothing to divide the brain up into
bits that contain different kinds of knowledge
and know different sorts of things, because the
brain does not contain knowledge or know

On “consciousness”:

“Dispositional consciousness is a general
tendency to be conscious of certain
things—money-conscious, for example. Such
a generalized tendency is indicated by various
sorts of behavior—money-conscious people
are likely to save their money, spend it
carefully, talk about it and think about it more
than others, and so forth. Such a tendency
almost certainly is learned, and therefore one
can be ‘‘better’’ or ‘‘worse’’ at it depending on
one’s experience, if ‘‘better’’ and ‘‘worse’’
refer to a greater or lesser probability of
behaving in ways consistent with the disposition.
So the authors’ assertion that consciousness
is not something we can become ‘‘good
at’’ may be argued with, both in its dispositional
sense and in its occurrent transitive sense
(a current consciousness of some thing or state
of affairs). I may not become conscious of the
subtle French horn part in a piece of music
until after I have read about the composer’s
penchant for using the French horn in subtle
ways—has my learning not enhanced my
ability to be conscious of the French horn in
the composer’s music? More broadly, is there
no sense in which the common Californian
pastime of ‘‘expanding’’ or ‘‘developing’’
consciousness is true?”

On “strange loopness” of human biology:

“Far more
difficult to achieve, I believe, will be an
understanding of the fundamental nestedness
of the brain, the rest of the body, and the
person in the world, each entity executing
processes that overlap and turn back on
themselves and each other in time and space.”

On metaphors as a tool for communication, not analysis:

“The point is
that it may be the ability of metaphors and
analogies to help researchers accomplish their
theoretical goals, and not how well they stand
up to connective analysis relative to their
conventional counterparts, that is the better
basis for approving or disapproving of them.”

Language always lacks fidelity. One can only put into words some subset of what we experience. What we “experience” is only a subset of what is happening around us. What happens around us in a way that could affect us is only a subset of what there is.

Folks have a tendency in all science (and non science) to analyze and report at our “level” of experience. No, it’s not possible to apply an analysis of single cell behavior to a scene study of Shakespeare. Though we often talk of “motivation” in both studies. It’s a terribly inaccurate description in both cases but it does, often times, communicate something of value.

For an alternative, but equal misapplication of language from the “human experience” level, let’s consider quantum physics.  We experience things in 3 spacial and 1 temporal dimensions. We have NO WAY to experience the world in any other context. Thus it is incredibly hard for one to conceptualize and explain what happens at a quantum level (where things don’t follow space and time as we experience it.) It is NONsense to describe, diagram, or otherwise model the quantum world on our “human” level with expectation of accuracy. Our description of quantum mechanics is a very gross description.

Where this all gets counter-productive to the progress of knowledge is mistaking a description (model, report…) of something (a system, situation, behavior…) as the thing itself.  The use of psychological “Freudian” terms can sometimes be useful to short cutting long winded discussions but one must be disciplined to recognize that high level concepts cannot be applied to what’s actually going on.

I think there’s another reason we accept gross descriptions of the world. They work for all practical purposes. You don’t need to have a perfect description of the world to be successful in achieving whatever it is you might be doing. In fact, WE HAVE TO MAKE THIS TRADE OFF. If we didn’t short cut and take on gross descriptions of the world few of us would be able to operate. At the very least, few scientists would be able to publish if they actually had to drill down and tie up the loose ends without these gross misrepresentations.

Oh, and for those that care, I don’t think there is something like “consciousness”. We are more or less affected by things happening around and in us. We are not “aware” of our experiences in some binary way (the lightbulb never really just flips on). The linked article gets at some of this and there are other synthesis that argue this point better than I can at this stage.  A further implication is that “thought” isn’t really a THING by itself either. We don’t THINK THOUGHTS. and yes, I lack the syntax to describe my synthesis any further at this time 😉

For more insight you might turn to this very recent Edge talk.  In particular, read the responses from Sam Harris and others.  Kinda embodies everything in this post…. from baggage terms to metaphors as description to just how far away we are from reasonably deep insight.

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