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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Utopia is Nowhere: Thank Goodness!

It is a perfect world, having what we please. It is unknown to man, yet the object of an eternal and futile quest. It is Utopia, literally nowhere. Not so for our mammalian cousins, where only abundant fields will do. It is all a matter of incentive, and with animals it becomes transparently clear. The ability to forage, to roam, and to anticipate are rudimentary yet crucial ingredients for survival. But even for simple brains, perceptions have to shine above others, otherwise one would focus on everything, and get quite literally, nowhere. And so the simple cognitive maps, illuminated and selected by attention are necessary novel and positive things. Experience or learning is molded by such ideas that to our animal cousins can be configured into points on a grid. Thus B follows A, a mouse follows a scent, explores an unkown trail, and maps out the world in simple dimensions. Thus a happy animal in its heaven of heavens is an eternal forager, continually projecting forward, perhaps for a millisecond, an enticing and expectant future.

If it were only so simple for homo-sapiens. We are, or seem to be, entirely different. What's the difference between us and our pet cat? A bigger brain of course, but more specifically, a bigger part of our brain. An expanded cerebral cortex, or forebrain, provides us with the computational space not just to ponder, but to render. Thus the dreamer could dream he was dreaming in infinite recursion. Yet the emotional circuitry that governs our drives remained deeply embedded and essentially unchanged. Value, and in particular human value, was carved out of this thinking stuff and became unique to all the world. We think of it as emergent, like a bubble ascending from froth, or consciousness arising from the dance of a billion neurons. But is value indeed something new and emergent, or is it a foraging response that is twisted in time and place by the metaphors of thought?


Consider a torus, a continuous three dimensional loop. Twist it like a balloon into a plaything, and it emerges as a dog, but its topology or essential state remains the same.

Toruses Among Us

For our mammalian cousins, the topology of motivation is simple: time, motion, and circumstance occur as a fixed arrow. Thre is no contemplation of alternatives, no rumination over lost opportunities, no measure of the branching possibilities that could be. Behavior is unremarkable, predictable, and the circle of life is a continuous recursion, moving in an eternal circle at once and never the same.

For humans, circles are dull things; we prefer instead a more convoluted path that we can twist backwards and forwards in time, map multiplying possibilities that elude apprehension, and see untold futures even in the movements of stars. With a larger brain, nature has given us the opportunity to virtualize the possibilities, and to act in mind all eventualities as if they were real. Like a torus twisted into an animal, a foraging field becomes a field of dreams, and though it may seem a distinctive thing as a giraffe emerging from a twisted balloon, its topology or essence remains the same.

Fields of Dreams

Consider a bear running in a field a hundred by thirty yards square. He can see ahead perhaps for a second, and map in his mind a limited set of moves that are suggested and constrained by a scent, a sound, or the notice of a rustle in the leaves. But what if in his minds eye he could see more? Spontaneous movements can become coordinated tactics, all played out as what-ifs in the bears mind. Run right, run left, fake out prey with a sudden move, elude rivals with a dodge and a spurt of speed, and all replayable in memory for future edification and regret. And all of this measured against a host of imponderables faintly modeled that suggest future mating success, a suitable cave, and the regard of other bears and animals in the forest. The ability to render mere possibilities twists a simple sensitivity to new and important things into a game, a sport, or an entire culture, as the bear if it had a mind morphs into a Chicago Bear. With the virtual possibilites bestowed by a mind, all things delightful become illuminated by the mere contortion of a tease, which for mammals with a mind stirs the grandest dreams of a forager eternal.

From bear

to Chicago Bear

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