The Kekule Problem: Language and Consciousness

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  • 20 May 2017 at 12:00 pm #9463

    Candy Minx
    Member

    I have to proceed with caution…because for me…I’m losing track of the bends and curves in this discussion.

    The thing about language is….ugh…this is hard to write about here…language is coming and related to gesture, dance, time, memory. This idea that somehow framing language whether it emerged from consciousness, unconsciousness is the confusing sort of framework. Language is from community and gesture….with time. It emerges within a distributed cognitive situation of community. And perhaps might be more complex in humans than other animals because of neoteny, and hand-to-eye development due to humans needing to be so terribly dependent on caregivers for the first years of their life. They are helpless animals and the bonding between a newborn, with it’s huge brain and eye contact, sounds, gestures…..to the rituals of play and communication… All of these are wound up and part of the emergence of language. If brain scientists “proved” that language began here or there….it wouldn’t be as revolutionary as the comprehension we can have right now…with or without scientific resolution of the community basis of language born out of gestures and hand to eye development. Add time to that then language becomes meaningful in a new way.

    And I think this is the same with mathematics. It’s not that I have any argument with your enthusiasm to frame the world as “mathematics is everything and meaningful” Richard….I respect your enthusiasm. Mathematics isn’t meaningful on it’s own. It has value because of humans having pattern recognition. Again back to the wee baby vulnerable and dependent on it’s caregivers….fragile and helpless. The human baby must be moved, transported, it can not be autonomous like almost every other newborn. That created a powerful communal environment for patterns, gestures, sounds for the human.

    Mathematics truly isn’t meaningful in its own without having the witness to the patterns. The patterns exist. But so does breath. Breath and breathing doesn’t have meaning. We give our breathing meaning in poetry and song. Breath is so much more valuable and important that mathematics….but that doesn’t mean it is meaningful.

    How could any self-respecting mathematician or scientist insist on framing math….or culture only in religious or globalized terms? The very comprehension of mathematics as an enduring structure should force us to refuse to apply a human emotion of “all meaningful” onto it, no? In so many ways it’s much more interesting that mathematics (and language) are meaningless. It’s humans who are meaning machines.


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    20 May 2017 at 2:22 pm #9464

    Richard L.
    Member

    Re: Candy, ““mathematics is everything and meaningful” Richard….I respect your enthusiasm. Mathematics isn’t meaningful on it’s own. It has value because of humans having pattern recognition. . .”

    Whoa, hoss, I never said that mathematics is meaningful, as in human values. What I said, backed by the scientific sources I’ve named, is that complicated mathematics underlies everything. I said the numbers had meaningful significance, which is not the same as having meaning in the sense you use the term.

    The algorithms are built in, and one of them underlies the syntax that springs in us to be able to build a language as well as a system for discovering mathematics. Meaning comes from the software we build ourselves in our prefrontal cortex reflecting our experience, if we’re lucky.

    An infant stranded and growing up alone on a desert island with no other creatures would have no social structure nor language, but he would still have a dormant capacity for such things. His hardwired predisposition might yet spring into action if the right conditions presented themselves.


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    • This reply was modified 1 month ago by  Richard L..
    20 May 2017 at 3:04 pm #9466

    Richard L.
    Member

    Back in 1957, Chomsky published a book entitled Syntactic Structures, which presented a large number of syntacic rules common to all languages and he expressed them in algebra-like notation. For instance,

    NPs VPs = S

    This says that a singular noun phrase followed by a singular verb phrase gives a sentence. Additional rules cover the use of a, the, to, directives and expressives, noun phrases, verb phrases, and other such things, common to the world’s languages of which there are 5,000 or thereabouts, since the difference between some individual languages and associated dialects is arguable.

    It is possible to build something like a language in groundhogese, I’ve no doubt of it, and possibly one day we can ask a groundhog how long he thinks winter will last. But Chomsky was not talking about anything but human languages, all of which share the same syntax rules and vary only in vocabulary and word placement.


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    20 May 2017 at 3:31 pm #9467

    Candy Minx
    Member

    I said I was losing track of the bends and curves this discussion has been taking. Heh heh

    I certainly believe that your enthusiasm and perspective is a good representation of one argument about mathematics. I appreciate you taking a stand on what argument you side with Richard, makes for a lot of fun thoughts and discussions. I suspect the various theories will continue to enchant for a long time.

    I have to think about the infant scenario for a bit. Would the infant have an automatic food source? Like if it was under 6 months old it would die unless it had some sort of feeding machine. If the infant is abandoned later than 6 months old…did it have a society of caregivers? If the infant is still a helpless baby, with a feeding machine, and shelter, and then a source of food…but no other creatures…would it have plants to eat? I’m not sure how one would be able to observe and test this scenario. I find myself remembering the experiment “pit of despair” where a baby monkey is given very few lifestyle options. A trough for food. What would happen? I believe there wasn’t a newborn monkey….but very young monkeys and basically they just went into fetal positions. They were considered isolated beings and they behaved very disturbed. these experiments ended very very badly.

    Do we have a mathematical formula or equation for abject depression?

    There’s a kind of common sense thing here….hanging out with babies one can see almost right away they love incantatory sounds and counting or rhyming. I’m not trying to say anything about meaningfulness or significance. I think numbers are meaningless. They have to be in order to be mathematical Ha ha ha. I mean it this idea of globalizing mathematics in a way other than human and animals find patterns and use them. Like we find food and forage.

    I resisting the temptation to glorify or dismiss math. It’s not either. It’s numbers and they are meaningless. Meaningless not in the way I might be trying to say…but exactly the way Martin Gardiner was trying to say. Food is meaningless. Everything is meaningless. Breathing is meaningless. Until we apply poetics and aesthetics to these things in the world. When we decide to make math as pretty as nature is with our game theories. Breath is something animals do….but we have also made it sacred and profound because we understand our life is connected to it. Math is profound because we decided it was profound and needed to be ritualized. language is ritualized too because ritual makes things stronger. making things one thing as well as another makes them diverse, ritualized and stronger.

    so really…ritual is way more valuable to human life than mathematics.


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    24 May 2017 at 1:52 pm #9469

    Richard L.
    Member

    Earlier in the thread I mentioned the Science Channel’s THROUGH THE WORMHOLE series starring Morgan Freeman. I wouldn’t expect anyone who places ritual and superstition above mathematics to tune in, but I daresay the average reader of this thread might be interested.

    McCarthy’s metaphor of language spreading like a virus is not unlike Devlin’s metaphor that says language spreads like gossip. Morgan Freeman used the metaphor recently in saying that gun violence spreads like a virus. And then he brings on scientists who say that it does exactly that.

    It spreads from clusters of violence. This is mapped and used in accordance with data collected by scientists. Statistically it is safer to go without a gun than to carry a gun, the mere presence of guns affecting our propensity to use them and our aggressiveness in general. This is not philosophy, but the results of experiments conducted by scientists.

    I thought again of the many guns in the movie HELL OR HIGH WATER and I wondered if this McCarthyesque movie wanted to make a point of it or just play it for laughs.

    It will be interesting to see what positions McCarthy takes in THE PASSENGER, but I think we can be fairly certain that he will again side with Plato on the subject of numbers and mathematics


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    01 Jun 2017 at 1:18 pm #9489

    efscerbo
    Member

    Haven’t been around for a bit, been busy. Have people seen this?

    http://nautil.us/issue/48/chaos/a-linguist-responds-to-cormac-mccarthy


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    01 Jun 2017 at 3:38 pm #9498

    Driftwood70
    Member

    Thanks for throwing that up. Just what I’d been hoping and waiting for. Great stuff.

    Her argument against McCarthy’s “characterization of the unconscious mind as fundamentally non-verbal” is clear. Particularly with regard to the operant unconscious structure such as language is used by the physical body: the bulk of language operation being unconscious operation. Or, as she states, “it has swallowed language up in itself.”

    And yet I still suspect that McCarthy is referring to a functioning quality of the unconscious that precedes the modern language-using unconscious, and yet persists in spite of the language faculty. Or as he seemed to enjoy saying, got along just fine without it – (and still does).

    While the unconscious assumes control of the bulk of language processes, and may be illuminated, elaborated upon, and even relieved (managed) by the use of language, I still must wonder if the directional stratification to which he refers is quite significant – and significant with regard to its relatively recent and perhaps viral occurrence – as significant as he intends to proposes in his essay even if he has not proposed it in a categorically rigorous method:

    I wonder if the unconscious when seen from the perspective of language – as from an aerial view – is as a duality wholly antithetical to the language architecture. I wonder if McCarthy is seeing the unconscious from this perspective, as its opposition, because he himself has posited it as such. Such as it is – the further away the one thing gets from the other thing.

    That view – that lighthouse – seems to me to be on the order of the effort, for example, to characterize or archive all of the primal history of violence, on its geologic ground…. as its opposite… as a book. The sleight of hand is to render the inescapable fate of horrendous and savage unconscious machinations as its opposite, as origin myth, as reflected in the architecture of consciousness – as language.

    Malevich reverse engineered that same view, but in the opposite direction, by substituting a Black Square, or the symbolizing of the total density and absence of meaning, in place of the carnal and corrupted iconogrphay of the Virgin, as the cosmic semiotic interface.

    I’m increasingly curious what the difference in meaning is between:

    The image of a snake eating its own tail.

    And the sentence “a snake eating its own tail.”

    The first (the image) need not refer to anything other than itself in order to convey its meaning. It can be explained and interpreted, but that is not necessary. And while it might seem that the meaning of the second (the sentence) must refer to the first (the image) in order to convey its meaning, I’m not so sure it does.

    It seems to me that if the premodern (pre-language) unconscious mind would be perfectly comfortable with the first, the post-modern unconscious mind has become perfectly comfortable (or perhaps perfectly uncomfortable) with the second: the symbol set-divorced from its referent. Which would certainly find them in intense opposition from time to time, from certain perspectives, and under the conditions of certain psychological and social conflicts.

    One observation as to their contemporary (or modernist) characters:

    If you want to inflame and rally the mob, deploy the picture symbol.
    If you want to organize them and weaponize them, feed them the lines.

    [By the way, that comments forum over on the Nautilus site is hot! Ouch!]


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    01 Jun 2017 at 6:36 pm #9501

    JVH5
    Member

    I really enjoyed the linguist’s response, thanks for the link efscerbo.

    Great thoughts Driftwood.

    One thing the Canadian linguist may not have mentioned, but probably could have, was the part in McCarthy’s essay where he is talking about speaking. It’s a strange passage, for he is clearly talking about how speaking is an unconscious activity, or an activity that must surely be handled by the unconscious qua “machine for operating an animal.” He does distinguish between autonomic functions like breathing and unconscious functions like scratching itches and solving math problems. I can’t imagine he thinks that speaking is an autonomic function like breathing, so it must be an unconscious function. The unconscious “solves” the speaking problem for the conscious animal by interpreting its communicative desire in rapid-fire verbal combinations? So the unconscious must know language quite well, no?

    Kekule’s dream itself suggests as much. McCarthy argues that this dream demonstrates how the unconscious functions to solve both practical and theoretical problems that the human animal faces. But isn’t the suggestion that the ouroboros image works to solve Kekule’s problem via the same substitutive logic that McCarthy attributes to language? “One thing can be another”: the ouroboros can be the ring-structure of benzene. So the unconscious appears to be using a pictorial language that is pretty much identical to verbal language. Then wherein lies the difference between language and the unconscious?

    In the essay, language is understood completely in terms of its descriptive or denotative function. Language describes everything that is the case, but the unconscious solves theoretical and practical problems in the real time of the animal.

    One thing that baffles me is why McCarthy insists on making the unconscious an animal function only, and refuses to attribute an unconscious to plants. Aren’t plants living beings that face problems too? Is his unconscious somehow a function of the animal capacity for detached movement, for mobile as well as stationary voyages?


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    01 Jun 2017 at 6:55 pm #9504

    efscerbo
    Member

    JVH5,

    “But isn’t the suggestion that the ouroboros image works to solve Kekule’s problem via the same substitutive logic that McCarthy attributes to language? “One thing can be another”: the ouroboros can be the ring-structure of benzene. So the unconscious appears to be using a pictorial language that is pretty much identical to verbal language.”

    Yup. My thoughts exactly. Candy and I were talking about this several pages back maybe a month ago: How exactly does McCarthy distinguish the symbolizing capacity of pictures from that of language? It seems to me that symbolizing is symbolizing. I’m not sure whether McCarthy has a nuance in mind that eludes me or if he’s just incoherent. I suspect it’s the former, but I haven’t been able to see it.


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    01 Jun 2017 at 7:03 pm #9505

    JVH5
    Member

    An animal without an unconscious is a plant. An animal is not rooted in a single spatial location, but may move about in space in ways a plant cannot. Does McCarthy think the unconscious has something to do with the animal’s relationship to space? Is determining the structure of benzene as spatial a problem as locating the itch to scratch? But is this to say that plants have no sense of space? But they must; trees of the same species can signal each other to secrete things if a certain insect is sensed. They must have a sense of space, not to mention time: the signal to secrete a toxin is a recognition of both urgency in time and threat in space. It also appears as a recognition of community: of extended self and other.

    Anyway, why plants don’t qualify for an unconscious is a bit unclear to me. I still think too much is left implicated in the essay that should have been made explicit.


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