The Kekule Problem: Language and Consciousness

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  • 20 Apr 2017 at 5:15 pm #9163

    Richard L.

    JVH5, of course I think you’re right.

    It amazes me that here, as usual, McCarthy argues a bit ambiguously. He is “for science,” as if biology is more scientific than psychology, and while he flatly states that the unconscious is a machine for running an animal, he seems to reject Descartes, who is famous for saying, among many other things, that the mind is a machine.

    I agree with them both on that particular score though I would add, a very complicated machine that acts on an algorithm, which means that it is programed to act differently according to different triggers and circumstances which are logical in ways not always easy for us to discern given our present scientific knowledge.

    The machine responds to pattern recognition.

    It is a playful raising of questions, this article, but the answers are not to be found within it.

    I was just trying to be likewise playful in supplying multiple candidates for members of “the committee of sleep,” id, ego, superego, dasher, dancer, prancer, etc., so that some Shirley MacClaine among us, or some other Mac, might step forward to examine the line-up, and pick out the real “influential persons” from the rest of the pack.

    20 Apr 2017 at 7:19 pm #9164

    Richard L.

    Re: “If you ever tried to teach, say, epsilon-delta proofs to undergraduates you’d realize very quickly that “capacity for math” is not at all hardwired into us in this sense.”

    In the article, McCarthy playfully suggests to his mathematician friends, that the unconscious is better at math than they are. And of course, that’s the case.

    Our unconscious takes the proto-language of toddler humans and after it has reached a certain vocabulary threshold, it organizes it with its hard-wired syntax into usable sentences or sentence fragments. It did this in the beginning with early human proto-languages. After so many things were named, it used the “this is that” or say, as Chomsky diagrammed it, with likeness equaling likeness plus or minus appropriate values, an unconscious math underlying language which then grew by leaps and bounds. Our unconscious minds do this without us thinking about it. The students in your class approach math problems an entirely different way with their conscious minds.

    21 Apr 2017 at 8:42 am #9165


    Pure multiple,
    Just interested where Nietzsche talks of Descartes. Nietzsche himself would reverse the formula you mention, and would say that a “subject” is always a linguistic interpretation of an action. “There is no doer behind the deed,” as he famously writes in The Genealogy of Morals. I previously mentioned Dan Dennett, who in Consciousness Explained likewise argues against the notion of a “subject behind the deed” (even a subject who “thinks”). The idea that there is a little double inside the brain who is the subject is given the disparaging name of “the Cartesian theatre” (since the “subject” is presumed to reside in the brain and receive all sense and memory impressions as if on some kind of a screen.)

    That Oliver Stone quote is interesting. I’d say that there is also a counter tradition in the West which denies the importance of self and of “consciousness.” From the medieval and baroque mystics dark night of the soul to Keats’s negative capability to Fellini’s declaration “I am unconscious,” the importance of consciousness has been called into question. Walter Benjamin speaks of the diabolical nature of “pure consciousness” which he links to the thirst for “absolute knowledge.” In its dependence on, and pursuit of “intelligence,” State power shows its satanism. Reminds me of Burroughs’ form of ethics: minding one own’s business.

    22 Apr 2017 at 7:08 am #9166

    Candy Minx

    What I liked about the Stone quote…is this idea that there is always tis license togo-opt…or compete for some kind of insight…knowledge…spying…

    And it happens here among us. We struggle to comprehend each other….while of course language, meaning, definitions are almost completely rendered useless among us. We use the word “math”….but we actually don’t know what Ed means by “math” or Richard means by “math”…as I repeat myself…the enduring work of Alistair MacIntyre and meaning, language comes to the topic.

    “Just as no one can win an argument with anyone else by persuading them with reasons, no one can win such an argument with himself or herself in trying to determine what their own moral commitments should be. In other words, no one can have real reasons for choosing the moral positions and values that they do, and no one can have any real reasons for choosing any way of life over any other as the best possible life. So any choice about the kind of life one will lead (and of course these choices have to be made, either consciously or unconsciously) must be arbitrary; any individual could always just as easily have chosen some other life which would have a very different set of moral positions and values (After Virtue Chapter 4)”

    We live in a community of fragmented and lost meanings.

    And John Vanderhiede you said this “His conundrum is that biology does not seem capable of explaining everything, but he doesn’t want to fall into some kind of simplistic dualism.”

    Yes, this is part of the interesting meat of this article.

    The crazy thing is…that biology, science, math, law, algorhythims….are not part of the way we can understand concepts. They are not that helpful in understanding what it is to be human!!!

    And this is hilarious.

    It goes back to the quote of Holland I shared earlier…”poetry and Physics”…

    Part of what McCarthy is saying is that myth, poetry, art trumps math…science…biology.

    And when we are competitive people…and we want math or science to “win” all arguments…well we are set up to constantly fail.

    We can’t agree on what math means. There isn’t one math. There isn’t one dialogue. There isn’t one feminist. There isn’t one discipline. We are a range of all of these and separating them…is actually the problem…it’s part of the social conditioning to compete.

    Surely, the competitive mindset says….there is one sweet methodology to answer life riddles? Maybe. But it’s certainly not biology, science or the maths. Those are…like so many languages one way to talk about the nature of reality.

    But the human responds and comprehends in ways we can not explain to the picture-story. The picture-story is the most motherfucking efficient tool for the human being…and that is why it trumps science, the maths, Decartes, language……

    and gosh darning…that is a real blow to the people who thought they had dedicated their lives to “the superior disciplines” or the left-brain word fetishist (remember Michael Douglas in THE GAME?)

    And the picture-story is infinite and assimilates everything…it even assimilates science and physics. The picture-story encompasses prose, poetry, painting, math metaphors, science metaphors, sports analogies, movies, public signage,

    How could the scribbles of Jackson Pollack, the words of Allen Ginsbergor ee cummings or Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy, or the misty colors of Monet or the scratchings in caves of animals bring us to tears and so effectively help us understand each other…..?

    The picture-story is the most effective tool we have for understandng the nature of reality and the universe….and our place in it.

    McCarthy lays this out at the beginning of BLOOD MERIDIAN…

    His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay

    At the very beginning of this article the introduction tells us that the scientists are the ones studying McCarthy’s work….because science can not understand why the picture story answers the mysteries of life. Al the math and science in the world is no use of we can’t comprehend it…or have communal comprehension…and implant it into memory. And to articulate…it’s the technical language of science that can not describe or impart to memory as efficiently and profoundly as art can. End of story!

    It’s not McCarthy studying the scientists…the scientists are learning from him…about the picture-story!!!!

    • This reply was modified 9 months ago by  Candy Minx.
    • This reply was modified 9 months ago by  Candy Minx.
    • This reply was modified 9 months ago by  Candy Minx.
    22 Apr 2017 at 7:22 am #9168

    Candy Minx

    “Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms. An aficionado on subjects ranging from the history of mathematics, philosophical arguments relating to the status of quantum mechanics as a causal theory, comparative evidence bearing on non-human intelligence, and the nature of the conscious and unconscious mind. At SFI we have been searching for the expression of these scientific interests in his novels and we maintain a furtive tally of their covert manifestations and demonstrations in his prose.

    Over the last two decades Cormac and I have been discussing the puzzles and paradoxes of the unconscious mind. Foremost among them, the fact that the very recent and “uniquely” human capability of near infinite expressive power arising through a combinatorial grammar is built on the foundations of a far more ancient animal brain. How have these two evolutionary systems become reconciled? Cormac expresses this tension as the deep suspicion, perhaps even contempt, that the primeval unconscious feels toward the upstart, conscious language. In this article Cormac explores this idea through processes of dream and infection. It is a discerning and wide-ranging exploration of ideas and challenges that our research community has only recently dared to start addressing through complexity science.” (intro to McCarthy NAUTILUS article)

    There is something very difficult for some people to reconcile…that science is actually a very inept way to talk about the world. And…it does not lend itself to memory. Neither does math.

    (btw…I’m a science junkie and love math stuff too…but these are not superior formats for talking about the nature of reality…duh! They are one of many)

    The nature of creating a picture-story is one of the last ways a human can go about examining life unsystematically.

    Science and math have censored the idea of reverie…of an unsystematic exploration of nature and the world. Yet….that approach of being unsystematic…of experimenting is crucial to innovation, discovery…and creative problem solving.

    “freedom only being realizable in association with others” Georges Bataille

    “knowledge kills action” Nietzsche

    “obligation happens only if one is free to not accomplish the obligation” Kant

    “Experiment must give way to argument, and argument must have recourse to experimentation” Gaston Bachelard

    • This reply was modified 9 months ago by  Candy Minx.
    22 Apr 2017 at 7:59 am #9170

    Candy Minx

    Speaking of science….any of you going to the March For Science protests today? I am on my way out the door to march now….

    If I see any good signage, which if the womens march was any indicator I will…I’ll post them on my blog.

    For those who missed the Cormac McCarthy signage I posted from the Women’s March jan 21….here is the sign here:

    22 Apr 2017 at 6:16 pm #9174

    Richard L.

    Hey, driftwood, it was good to see you here again, but somehow your recent post is not now to be found, at least in the section of the multiverse ether where I have been residing–this side of Discworld, I suppose.

    At any rate, I hope that you are well and will post yet again. We may quibble about this and that, but I always find your posts refreshingly logical.

    [edit] I think that McCarthy does argue against Chomsky, but I think that he is wrong to try to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Syntax is different from language. It is not the language that we inherit but the structuralism in the gene algorithm that responds to the naming of things that produces language.

    This subject is deep, yes, and there are lots of things that can come into play, and as long as we’re playing, I suggest y’all not rule out the quantum mechanics that many scientists have seen in the mix here, not mentioned by McCarthy. Just saying.

    • This reply was modified 9 months ago by  Richard L..
    22 Apr 2017 at 6:45 pm #9177


    Hi Richard – Indeed it was there and went away. I don’t know why, but I’ve been able to post it again now. So… Cheers to you! I think my post has less to do with testing what McCathy has to say than it does with just addressing or sorting out what’s going on there… He’s certainly taking on a whole heck of lot in a significantly short amount of space. Particularly with regard to seemingly addressing Noam Chomsky almost directly, indirectly. Certainly a very compelling and curious essay. I found it remarkably complimentary to his literary logic, for lack of a better word. Or maybe his literary magnetics. And a weird sort of evidence based certainty of something which he kind of simultaneously declares we can’t be certain. I guess that’s the nature of it… Yet plow through it he does.

    22 Apr 2017 at 6:55 pm #9179


    Crazy- it won’t let me edit.
    I’ll try again….

    22 Apr 2017 at 6:57 pm #9180


    Hi all- have just finally encountered the essay, and this consequent thread, today. I am not a linguist or a scholar (of any kind) so this will be light on argumentative detail but from what I can tell some of the basic initial questions posed have not been addressed yet – so I thought I’d throw out there what seems evident to me.

    It seems fairly clear that McCarthy is referring to Chomsky in no uncertain terms. Chomsky’s career-long model of “Universal Grammar” places quite a heavy emphasis on an innate biological structure that gives rise to the structure of language. Not the “capacity” for language, but the actual structure of language: noun, verb, adjective. With this heavy emphasis on biological structure, it is by extension subject to biological evolution, ie language evolved as an innate biological function; and that language itself arises from the biological structure, as an evolutionary result.

    McCarthy is arguing the opposite: that language was invented. The “capacity” for language might be biological (obviously it is, just as biological hands have the seemingly pre-disposed capacity to use a piano or computer keyboard). But McCarthy is arguing that language itself, like the keyboard, is not biological. He goes about making this argument in many ways, in his own roundabout way, but primarily through his discussion of the unconscious, geologic or evolutionary time, and his almost odd mention of Lamarkianism.

    His assessment of the unconscious is that while language, like other tools, may shine a light into the unconscious, and even be used to interpret it, language is not capable of proactively altering, or engaging the unconscious. Language, though a profoundly planet-altering tool, is secondary – biologically – to the unconscious. And in fact it is NOT rooted in the unconscious. His comparison of images as the language of the unconscious, with words as an non-biological invention is evident when he refers to the “linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.” Linguistic origin being extra-biological. An invention at the confluence of sound and symbol. For McCarthy, though language is clearly as useful, potent, brilliant as the invention the arrowhead, money, or the steamship, it is quite rather like those things, a highly elaborate currency. The image-based vocabulary of the unconscious and linguistic-based invention of language are like twin stars shining at each other.

    With his references to time, McCarthy proposes that compared with all other biological functions, language has arisen extremely rapidly, and has not been subject to the usual biological conditions. In fact it has ignored them. “It crossed mountains and oceans as if they weren’t there.” Like trade.

    By my understanding of his reference to Lamarkianism is murky. But he seems to be saying that while Lamarkian inheritance of physical characteristics has been thoroughly abandoned, the inheritance of ideas, unconscious ideas, is harder, if not impossible to determine. This seems to be an argument for the possibility that learned ideas may indeed be passed on in the contents of the unconscious, not as language, thereby rendering language distinct. He seems to be arguing here, against Chomsky, that language is exclusively learned, again, and not remotely the domain of the biological unconscious. Like playing the piano. Our brains might be predisposed to it, and very very good at it, but yet still, it is learned. ALL OF IT. IDEAS, might yet be passed on biologically even though language is not.

    There seems to be some commotion over the over the notion that “one thing can be another thing.” While this is no doubt a bit of a McCarthy koan-like mind-bender, he’s making a clear distinction between “language” as signaling, and language as representation. This is the usefulness of the Helen Keller anecdote. One can indicate toward a material glass of water with the linguistic signal “glass of water” but one can also talk about or write “glass of water” independent of a material reference point. In this case, the language structure “glass of water” IS the glass of water.

    This is pretty profoundly deep stuff, pedestrian to all of us, that McCarthy manages in just a few paragraphs. He’s not exactly clear about it, or substantially evidentiary about, and while I can’t in any way defend it, his argument seems to me sound.

    It is here, in the event that “one thing can be another thing” that he leaves a pretty big opening for language as “not yet” a biological operative. Here, and also in his viral analogies. This is the somewhat cryptic allusion to inviting Descartes to the table. While McCarthy argues that language is not biologically operative (as viruses are), he is also, unsurprisingly, not willing to say what language is not capable of. Any more than he’d be willing to say what AI might be capable of. Or fire. His certainty is with regard to the biological operation of the biological individual. Early on, McCarthy argues that language is not instrumental to the unconscious thinking processes which are responsible for problem solving, even math problems. This is NOT the same as saying that a car or a city may be built through the inscribing and sharing of language; that an entire continent may be mapped; a planet fled or salvaged or destroyed; or the whole world of a novel rendered, and with biological consequences. It’s also not to say that language is not in some way interactive with internal problem solving processes, perhaps more than he’s willing to allow here. I talk myself through internal problems using language all the time, much the way one might move through the forest at night with a flashlight. And yet neither does this refute his certainty that language is not biologically operative any more than the flashlight. The flashlight is undeniably helpful, with biological consequences, yet who knows, he seems to say, how my decision was ultimately made.

    The real opening he leaves beyond his argument is in the extra-biological condition of language itself – the virus which may not be biologically operative, and is yet not not alive, or with properties which when rendered active by the biological user, are as being alive, as magically animate. What’s most interesting about this essay is that McCarthy is not a linguist, he’s merely a master of language.

    Like many readers here, in my multiple readings of Blood Meridian, I began to detect something very special, and curious, in the structure and language of the text itself and in relation to the content that it represents. On the one hand the two things are inseparable. On the other hand the language of Blood Meridian is not a zero-sum game. It produces a total which is greater than the sum of its structure, its style, its vocabulary and the narrative “content” it represents. It is the book, and it is “something else.” It is certainly not the only book of this talent, but it is a particularly exemplary one. As with all great books, it is a thing “of power” unto itself – not merely the sign which points to the actual glass of water. It is the glass of water.

    To a certain extent, this goes without saying, particularly to readers here. Where I think it becomes extraordinary is with regard to his essay, and in light of an experience I had with the text. When I memorized all of Ch. 10 – the gunpowder story, which is the only part of the book told in the first person – for a solo performance of it, there where moments when far out into the performance of the memorized text, there was no turning back, no where to hide and no tools with which to recover pieces of text that I may have forgotten. I if drew a blank on some large swath of text, what would I do? Perhaps it would never be recovered, and that would be it. End of show. In those moments, I could see the text outside of my body, very clearly as this sort of swarm of hornets, or this viral globe. It was not inside. It was a thing between me and the audience and I had nothing to do with it. It was not only extra-biological, it was extra-corporeal. It was a thing of its own, like a watch I might wear, happening – “alive” with “aliveness” and autonomy. A thing happening by on its own terms, by its own logic. Once set in motion. I can’t vouch for McCarthy’s linguistic arguments, but I can vouch for the extra-biological arrangement, habitation and machination of his text, once set in motion. Whether invented, found, learned, or received – it is “the other thing” unto itself.

    At the end of his essay he, strangely, leaves the issue of language behind and returns to the unconscious. But of course it’s not strange for McCarthy. The flashlight after-all is designed for looking into the dark wood, not for looking at itself. But by leaving us there, rather than in the daylight of language, he seems to say: The unconscious may produce an image of a glass of water. Words may produce an image of a glass of water. They’re both really good at it. So good that we might actually mistake a glass of water for a glass of water.

    After that I need a drink.

    My 5 cents. (Not to be mistaken for a nickel.)

    What a day this year has been!

    Fire away.

    • This reply was modified 9 months ago by  Driftwood70.
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