Magical Mystery Ooh-er

This will be an unscheduled detour from the over-arching theme of recent posts, but relevant enough on the sub-theme of human narrative to feature now. You see, poor readers, although we may never be able to throw off this feature of our nature, all I can hope to do is offer a few tools to at least see it for what it is. Forgive me, as I cannot be as abstract as I like to be, for this comes courtesy of a contemporary event.

I understand there are things such as lotteries. I have no personal experience as I prefer to live without hope and its attendant disappointments. I also understand that some arbitrary separate groups of people have won a lottery within an arbitrary period of time within an arbitrary geographical expanse. Initially I did not believe this to be newsworthy, until I realised the true story must have been an indictment against the educational system.

I would have said a person winning a lottery has a specific chance. Ceteris paribus (which is Latin for ‘I’m a pretentious idiot who doesn’t want to just say “all other things being equal”’) I would say another person winning the same lottery later on would carry the same chance. Why? Because I wouldn’t have anticipated some process or phenomenon whereby the former affected the latter. Excuse yet more technical terminology, but we call this ‘independence’.

And yet the stories begin. There must be some reason for this. It is safely assumed that this reason, this phenomenon, perhaps even this agency-bearing action, pays due attention to the geography of the arbitrary, changeable and temporary Shire county. Had the second winning ticket been bought across the county line, well, no story there, we’re not stupid. But within the fictitious, arbitrary borders of one county, that’s different. Which is not to say there are no cross-county effects. It was pondered if such a dense and meaningful concentration of success meant not only a reduced likelihood of another win over a short, but arbitrary, amount of time in the area, but had also reduced the likelihood of wins in other areas. Some sort of quota, presumably.

Now I know the workings of hope. I have not abandoned it for no reason. People want to imagine the benefits of such a win, they like to talk about possibilities and dreams, and if pushed would likely say it was a harmless bit of fun. However this ‘fun’, lasting perhaps all of a few minutes, has postulated, yet not even begun to flesh out, an alternative to the indifferent universe we all know. Where independent events nevertheless have causal links which coincidentally fit in beautifully with our tawdry stories. Where something approaching agency either introduces probability spikes, or seeks to redress them where they appear. Where there is a quota of fortune, whatever that could possibly mean.

But it is all a bit of fun. Safe enough for a species with a proven track record of robust scrutiny over under-explained theories and events, with a relentless need to question everything about apparent mysteries, and who never, ever, end up excluding, and harming, those who differ. Oh dear. Another conclusion under-determined. One day the threads will mesh, poor, poor readers.

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Badtime Story

Consciousness may have a function. I find it unobjectionable that greater consciousness is a result of more powerful and complex brain activity, though I am not yet decided as to whether past a certain point consciousness is an adaptation in itself, or more of an epiphenomena – something correlated with, but not effectually linked to the underlying cognition.

Intuitively (pause for translation if you believe intuition to be a special or privileged form of reasoning, rather than the lazy, occasionally useful, preconceptions context and environment has hammered into us) we tend to accept the former. It is hard not to. We may admire an intricate bird nest, but we don’t imagine it is the lack of hands and concerns about land prices why those structures fail to scrape the sky, while ours can. And frankly, until they can argue the point, I’m not going to budge on that.

So. Consciousness is useful, or gives every appearance of being so. Civil engineering aside, most conscious activity is involved in social activity. When we move away from the Pavlovian manipulation of infancy, and the inherently psychopathic state which is childhood, we learn that other people have minds like we do. We spend our entire lives weaving our own actions and feelings into stories, just as we do for other people. I do x because I believe y and wish to achieve z. I expect you to do x, because I believe you believe y, and believe you wish to achieve z. Basic theory of mind, but easily expandable into the full tableau of experience, memory, conjecture, purpose etc. that saturate our lives.

This may be mostly fiction. Or ‘a fiction’, lest we get bogged down in narrative terminology. But that is not my main thrust here. Overall I think we enjoy this storybook existence. We are probably hardwired to do so. We disgorge literature, visual art, streams of consciousness about current events, even condensed ramblings on obscure subject matter. And we cannot but see them as part of a story. Works of literature, which are themselves stories, become assigned to periods or traditions which are also stories as they act as context and motivation or inspiration for further works and traditions. The most captive of us can almost harbour the ludicrous thought that a previous tradition existed in order that a current one can.

That sounds odd, but really there are few limits on how badly astray our endemic narrative sense, born of immersion in our conscious experience, can lead us. This, of course, has been known for a very long time. The famous ‘pathetic fallacy’ is one example. It isn’t surprising. Even if in the end I must conclude that conscious experience is an epiphenomenon thrown up by the unexperienced workings of efficacious mental functions, nothing will change in that experience. Our stories are written by, and are writing, ourselves. And as I say, we’d hardly wish it to. Who would wish to give up literature, or great art (where things look like the things they look like)?

But it is worth putting some limiters on. We’re usually dimly aware that what passes for narrative in real life isn’t really the same as in a book. Yet we mostly behave is if it is, that all moves towards some kind of ultimate conclusion, according to some degree of fore-written planning.

Once I have sufficiently prepared my axe with which to grind you all down, this key danger of allowing narrative free reign will be the next subject. And with the scepticism towards storytelling evident in this post, I deny that this is a cliff-hanger.

Mens Santa

I wish to discomfit you all. Whether you deserve that is less debatable than you might think, especially if I succeed in convincing any of you that whatever is reading this is not what you all think.

Philosophy is best used when applied to the findings of scientific inquiry. There is no particular reason why the nature of things – an electron or a bald ape – should make sense to us, or fit easily into the cultural narratives so immense and strident we mostly fail to recognise their presence. Science without philosophy is unsatisfying to most, and can employ its techniques to reconcile facts with our corrigible narrative; philosophy without science is plainly dangerous – anyone who has ever wasted their time with an existentialist book should understand.

Human narrative tells us we have rich internal lives, that we have characters which are discrete and persistent, even if they do change over time. Science indicates that we don’t. Consider the following ‘experiment’, which I dimly recall from a psychology study. We know the brain perceives still images or iterations presented to us above a certain threshold as movement. TV works thus. Equally, if we have a row of lights, lit and dimmed sequentially, above a certain threshold we perceive a moving mote of light. This study had such a set up, but with one side of the row with blue lights, the other side with yellow. As the lights lit and dimmed sequentially, not only did the subjects perceive movement, they also perceived a spectrum run through blue-green-yellow-green-blue. Prima facie, that is merely interesting. My deplorable Latin fails me at this point, but a second glance shows this is disturbing.

There is no green light at all. No two lights are on at once, so they do not mix. Furthermore, the same effect occurs when different colours are used, ruling out a subject’s being primed by experience. The initial philosophical treatment I found suggested two processes: Stalinist and Orwellian. In the Stalinist picture, information is filtered and censored before being presented to consciousness: we are given the motion and the mixed light because that is to be the official line based on what we expect. In the Orwellian picture, we consciously experience more directly what is there, but that is open to constant revision and denial of previous versions.  

Once upon a time I felt this was a coin toss as to which may be occurring. It was clear that conscious perception is not the truth of what happens, but it seemed difficult to decide which process obtained.  But it does appear that the Stalinist picture is a closer approximation. Neural scans indicate areas of the brain responsible for action and interpretation activate significantly ahead of any conscious report, experience or decision. The minimal conclusion is that the important processing of the world occurs prior to, and without needing the, conscious experience we almost universally take to be the defining element of our lives. The maximal conclusion, taking its cue from much wider evidence I won’t fit in here, is that consciousness is at worst a pointless accidental rider, and that persons, and our personal internal narratives, are fictitious and empty. At best… consciousness is an ultra-specialised, mostly pointless tool, and that persons, and our personal internal narratives, are fictitious and empty.

This is a conclusion underdetermined by the above writing, so I hope to perhaps expand upon the theme over time. The narrative of consciousness, whatever status we feel the need to assign it, is a dangerous misunderstanding. Philosophy is a palliative treatment only. In a future post I hope to show that this is far better than nothing.