The Kekule Problem: Language and Consciousness

This topic contains 205 replies, has 17 voices, and was last updated by  Richard L. 5 months, 3 weeks ago.

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  • 17 May 2017 at 4:09 am #9444

    Richard L.

    Re: “old man fight”

    Thanks for that.

    However, I think that McCarthy would shrink from such a fight. That he used the phrase “influential persons” instead of naming names shows that he really doesn’t want to engage anyone. His manner is conversational, no doubt much like his manner at the Santa Fe Institute, where he is Plato just listening in.

    I at first thought that there was no difference between the first on-line version of the article and the published version, but I seem to recollect a misstep, McCarthy saying something about an inherited moral sense or “Is he crazy?” or something else that got edited out. Maybe I dreamed it.

    Anyway, I think that this essay was reactive against Oprah’s misunderstanding in the interview rather than proactively trying to engage Chomsky or other influential persons. Chomsky has painted himself into some corners, yet when he is on his game he is brilliant. McCarthy seems the more frail of the two.

    The Oprah interview happened long ago, but it is there every day on youtube. It is that man’s soft voice that I hear in the article. If he thinks that interviews aren’t good for your head, he probably will not enjoy the controversies stirred up by the article.

    17 May 2017 at 8:27 am #9445

    Candy Minx

    I’m sure he knew he might stir up controversies. He most certainly was catty on purpose. But I see your point Richard that maybe he will not enjoy those controversies stirred up after the fact. Has there been much of a backlash or response? Most reviews I saw of the article seemed fairly positive and tepid.

    Here is one for the sausage fest around here….an old man fight…

    17 May 2017 at 8:30 am #9446

    Candy Minx

    Interesting…Richard are you saying there is a difference between the online version and the magazine hard copy? Of this particular section…

    “What is at work here? And how does the unconscious know we’re not getting it? What doesnt it know? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?)”

    How interesting that that isn’t in the printed version!

    (I have not got my printed version yet)

    17 May 2017 at 11:37 am #9447


    Candy and Richard: The paragraph Candy quoted above appears in both my hard copy and the digital copy that I downloaded earlier from the Nautilus website. However, the indented sentence just preceding it in the digital version does not appear in the printed version. It reads:

    “To put it as pithily as possibly–and as accurately–the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.”

    There is another earlier indented paragraph in the digital version that was also missing from the hard copy. It immediately follows the sentence, “Everything from scratching an itch to solving math problems” (p. 25). The omitted sentences read:

    “Did language meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.”

    I have not closely compared the two versions so there could well be other differences.

    17 May 2017 at 2:25 pm #9449

    Richard L.

    Thank you Candy and Wes. I was wrong. The passage Candy quoted is indeed on page 28, next to last paragraph, and the “the unconscious is a machine” sentence is on page 25. Sorry to raise such an unnecessary question.

    This is the passage I was thinking of:

    “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?).”

    18 May 2017 at 6:48 am #9454


    Hi all-
    First let me say again that I am absolutely unqualified to be formally debating this topic with any authority, or perhaps even usefulness, but I do find it to be compelling from a literary and cultural perspective.

    So while that certainly doesn’t imply that there isn’t anything to discuss, mother_he, I’m not sure we have the man-fight you are looking for. At least not exactly as we imagined. After reviewing the essay, again; my correspondence with Chomsky; and “Chomsky” – I believe I was wrong.

    Certainly not wrong to reach out to Chomsky; or wrong that there might be some compelling disagreement or debate there. And I’m definitely not mistaken in Chomsky’s dismissal of McCarthy’s essay having proposed anything that might be scientifically worth paying attention to (in Chomsky’s view).

    McCarthy clearly refers to language as an invention.
    Chomsky in turn states that the idea that language was ‘invented’ is preposterous.

    Yet on closer examination I think they are in agreement on quite a few points, even around the circumstances of the arrival of language, invented or not:

    – That language is only found in humans, among the animal kingdom (prairie dogs notwithstanding).
    – That it arose quite suddenly somewhere in the ballpark of 100,000 years ago.
    – That the factors that enabled it to arise must have been evolutionary (biological) in so far as it is being used by an animal; and that while the capacity for its usage is most certainly biological; but that the language system itself is not biological – it was not evolved over millennia, but flowered extraordinarily fast.

    Interestingly, the sudden arrival of language (greatly disputed by others, and apparently the others to whom McCarthy refers) seems by Chomsky to be posited as biologically arising out of a sudden mutation. While McCarthy seems to be suggesting that ‘invention’ of language arose as a result of cognitive ontology (that one thing can be another thing) and that the physical mechanism for its usage (lowering of the larynx) seems to have subsequently evolved via natural selection quite rapidly, as language perhaps gave an advantage.

    Still – Where they might most evidently be in disagreement is in whether the characteristic structural constraints on language are internal or external. And whether the language faculty emerged from an unconscious structure, or if the faculty for language has rather been embedded as an unconscious structure – an acquired trait.

    This is interesting:

    “We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. I suggested once in conversation at the Santa Fe Institute that language had acted very much like a parasitic invasion and David Krakauer—our president—said that the same idea had occurred to him. Which pleased me a good deal because David is very smart. This is not to say of course that the human brain was not in any way structured for the reception of language. Where else would it go?”

    This seems to be a slight tango with Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device (LAD), the cognitive, unconscious mechanism that biologically ‘receives’ language and also biologically constrains language to its rules. McCarthy’s statement at first seems to contradict the LAD, yet ultimately allows for the fact the brain was most certainly structured for reception of language in some way.

    But from what I can tell McCarthy and Chomsky are mostly in agreement on these things. SO- in that light I must retract my certainty that McCarthy was referring to Chomsky as “certain influential persons.” It seems rather that he was very well not referring to Chomsky. So that still seems open.

    In any case, McCarthy does seem to take his up his position of language as an extra-biological tool quite strongly and in many ways. To that end it is plausible that he may dispute Chomsky’s reliance in the biological imperative of the LAD. He might entertain for example that while there are rules to language, those rules are to be found within the emergent crystalline structure of language itself, and not within a pre-set of constraints found within the biological animal. It seems to me that he might lean this way. He does say, “The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements.” That seems quite clear. Beyond that he doesn’t give us more. He’s not a linguist after all, he’s speculating on the relationship between language and the unconscious, two domains with which he is quite professionally engaged.

    So while a McCarthy-Chomsky dialectic might not be as confrontational as I supposed, there is certainly a lot to be gleaned by placing them in each other’s orbits. I keep coming back to my own mini-Kekule anecdote. In comparing Chomsky’s position that language flowered suddenly via the unlocking of a gene, with McCarthy’s speculation of the ‘invention’ of language as being useful but in no way ‘necessary’ – I keep coming back to the image of fingers on a piano keyboard (which could just as well be a typewriter). Fingers which were most perfectly suited to the operation of a piano were followed by the invention and development of the piano itself. Did the tones of the keys precede the machine? Most certainly. Were they organized as such? Certainly not. Yet did the circle of fifths exist prior to it’s elucidation by the technology. Well, yes and no. Certainly, yes, tonally the circle of fifths precedes its technological articulation. And also, no, the circle of fifths did not exist until it existed on paper. This seems to me to be getting at a certain respect for the Platonic that mother_he mentions McCarthy might harbor.

    Here, McCarthy seems to take his position with regard to the extra-biological condition of language quite far, interestingly, almost as radically far as to leave it open where language might have actually come from in so short of a time, so quickly and fully formed. What is striking about this (short of going the Terrence McKenna psilocybin route, for example) is the Platonic ‘nature’ of something which exists before it exists but does not yet exist until it does – or Plato’s Chair. This strikes me as being inversely homologous with the notion that one thing is also another thing, or Helen Keller’s glass of water: the glass of water is one thing; and the symbol for glass of water is another thing, indicating the request for the first thing, but her epiphany came in realizing that the symbol for a glass water was also a ‘glass of water.’

    Or: That one thing can one can wait for another thing to actualize the first thing. And yet how can the first thing wait for the second thing if it has not yet been actualized.

    If we take a music and a Platonic structure to be applicable here, we might paraphrase McCarthy as we already have: “Before man was, language waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

    I might apply the same koan to the iPhone. And believe me, my two year old son figured out how to swipe it open and take pictures without needing the code as quickly and deftly as he learned English, Portuguese and German by the time he was two and a half.

    So does usability confer imminent necessity? No.

    Does it confer teleology? Maybe. It might. Once a technology has decided it’s not going away and has decided so very quickly. Here the Platonic Form precedes the expressed form as it becomes the expressed form’s purposed to archive its corner of the world – to name; to abstract purpose. To form purpose as if it had preceded itself; the pre-destination of what things actually become.

    Above all it seems to me McCarthy is using his assessment of the unconscious animal-operating machine as a very strong informal argument for the extremely recent emergence of language. The implications of that hypothesis, of which he seems absolutely confident, are its extra-biological characteristics. And what it CANT tell us about the unconscious.

    He here leaves another opening that is potentially quite radical and seems to reference his early remark with regard to Lamarkianism. Toward the end of the essay he says something almost easy to overlook: “To repeat. The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not. Or not yet…. The case for language is pretty clear. In the facility with which young children learn its complex and difficult rules we see the slow incorporation of the acquired.”

    I can only take this to mean that the tool is involving, or being evolved from the outside-in rather than from than inside out. Language itself has become the environmental condition to which the biological organism is subjected through natural selection. Language has rendered itself teleological as the biological organism has acquired it as a deep non-localized structure.

    Which leads me to my own question: Is it language which, fairly recently, has in fact made the unconscious unconscious?

    • This reply was modified 9 months, 1 week ago by  Driftwood70.
    • This reply was modified 9 months, 1 week ago by  Driftwood70.
    • This reply was modified 9 months, 1 week ago by  Driftwood70.
    18 May 2017 at 12:23 pm #9458

    Richard L.

    What is life?

    Well, we don’t know, but we know certain things about it. We know that life changes, it adapts, it shape-shifts. The mitochondria DNA may be alien, but it has Borg’d with us; our interests are now its interests. It decides certain things for us.

    The scientists who write books about the experiments performed on the octopus and its relatives tell us that consciousness has existed in these critters since the world was covered with water. Consciousness is thus much older than we are, though it is not exactly our consciousness. We don’t think it is, anyway, though as McCarthy says, how are we to know for sure?

    How does life shape-shift? The DNA has a predisposition to change according to whatever conditions or triggers exist. If c=ytr, say, the DNA responds with x. If c=yts, the DNA responds with y. The x still lies dormant in the DNA until if and when ytr should come along. This equation is just an example of a multitude of others encoded in DNA. Minute changes that act just as an algorithm acts in a computer, which then affect other changes, which then affect other changes, and so on.

    It is a mathematics that does not need our permission or observation to work. It is hardwired. It went on when we were ignorant about it, just as it does now when we question it. But this mathematics is even older than the octopus, this same DNA which eventually made the human predisposition for math and language.

    When people argue otherwise, against Plato, it seems to me that they always shift the argument into finite terms. Martin Gardner, I believe it was, argued that mathematics was a human invention not a discovery, and the metaphor that he used was that a block of stone could be made into anything by a sculptor’s Art. It existed before the sculptor made it into a statue, but it is only because of the human art that it became meaningful. Mathematics is like that, he said, just meaningless like the stone until human art creates meaning and sees design into it.

    Otherwise, he claimed, it is just meaningless numbers.

    I disagree. Mathematics is in us and all around us and it works whether we are aware of it or not. The numbers aren’t ever meaningless any more than “junk” DNA is meaningless.

    18 May 2017 at 12:53 pm #9459

    Candy Minx

    I don’t have a lot of time to post anything….but wanted to quicklystate my side of the fence…about other animals.

    I’ve sort of stayed away from the topic of animals having language because I already know you guys all think Im crazy. And…I am crazy no doubt.

    Um…animals do have language. All kinds of language. All kinds of animals have some language.

    I suspect that part of the way for European, United States areas that don’t know about animals communicating or language is because of Christianity. There might be a cultural taboo against knowing animals not only have emotions but language is one….because of the whole “Adam named all the animals so humans are supoerior” and the idea that language manifests in only one form.

    Whales, dogs, cats, birds (not mimicking I don’t mean that) bats, bees all have very interesting developed communication some of which will eventually be understood by cultural-christians….and scientists based in cultural-christian societies empirical societies will eventually learn what those of us outside of those paradigms already know about animals. We already know animals can use language or adopt languages taught to them.

    18 May 2017 at 12:55 pm #9460

    Candy Minx

    In short…the word language is prejudicial and human-centric.

    18 May 2017 at 1:30 pm #9461


    Of course they do. To put it inversely. All animals have individual-to-individual communications vocabularies which function as collective regulatory mechanisms. This is another way of saying that human communications are no different than a termite or honeybee colony’s, or a pod of dolphins. Alternately, referring to McCarthy’s observation that the unconscious is quite good at math and doesn’t even need numbers: it is acknowledged that honey bees are capable of producing perfect hexagons because the simply “know” that this is absolutely the most geometrically efficient storage system. When in fact the majority of human communications or language usage, on the other hand, serves a purpose no other than social nervous systems regulation – network building and individual nervous system maintenance – not biological survival.

    What differentiates humans – what other animals lack – is not language, but a language that has networked itself into a function that serves its own extra-biological purpose. We have adapted to its behavior, and are continuing to do so, not the other way around. Human language has conferred upon itself teleological qualities as it evolves toward maximum fractal novelty and specialization.

    How then is the Logos also biological? The leap from biological system to extra-biological system seems as pivotal an event in the cosmos as any other.

    Right now – we use it so that the network may use us, so that it may function, no? So that it may network. The teleology is emergent.

    What seems more pertinent to this discussion perhaps is the array of representation (or ‘one thing can be another thing’) that many speculate arose around the same time. McCarthy indicates this in his essay: “These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didnt precede it by much.”

    The representation externally of what the unconscious had already represented in one iteration internally. Which again causes me to wonder if it this external or extra-biological representation – and perhaps language specifically – has over time precisely rendered consciousness conscious, or as I already put it – rendered the unconscious unconscious, through acquired repression.

    In there things which have not yet been wait, even though they be as yet unformed.

    • This reply was modified 9 months, 1 week ago by  Driftwood70.
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