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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Achilles and the Turtle Soup

Or why halfway getting there is all the fun.

A simple fact not normally understood is that most of our thought is not literal but metaphorical. That is, we understand much of our world through images or pictures that when combined into metaphors become the aphorisms, maxims, fables, parables, and mind experiments that teach us in simple and near visual terms the ways of the world. Generally our pictures of the world and the real world are kept in close interplay. Thus if you think of pie in the sky, pies and skies refer to real world events or act as metaphors for behavioral events that are understood and agreed upon by large groups of people.

When we deal with the subtle behavior of objects, such as those physical events that fall beneath our perceptual radar, we use instruments that allow us to describe their minute details, but these details when revealed are still visualized as metaphors. Thus we envision TV signals, radio waves, black holes, cosmic radiation, contagious viruses and so forth through mental pictures, not mental equations. Unfortunately, when we deal with the behavior of people, and in particular the subtle neural or covert behavior that also falls beneath our perceptual radar, we have not until the last decade or so been able to so easily visualize and render metaphorically what we see.

Physical and biological scientists have thus a big advantage over psychologists, since they've got better and more realistic metaphors to work with. That metaphors are the key to understanding our physical and psychological universe is surprising but true. Even Einstein could not keep track of his calculations, and thought instead in terms of mind experiments. A popular conception about great scientists is that they are constantly tossing about in their mind scads of convoluted mathematical formulae. But this is not true. Physicists are not different from most of us except in the types of physical structures they imagine. To demonstrate this, let's consider a housewife as physicist. Let's say she is planning the d├ęcor for a new house. She thinks in terms of the myriad types of things such as flowers, clocks, ottomans, paintings, and chairs that she can acquire, and the near infinite permutations that they can be arranged. She doesn't think of the exact physical measures, descriptions, or other criteria that fully define things like clocks and sofas. That's merely detail, and can easily be filled in when she writes down the specifications to give to her interior designer. The devil of course is in the details, but for the housewife its mainly the busy work that follows getting her plan 'right' in her head. She after all knows the mathematics that can describe the dimensions of the objects she is moving about in her mind, but finalizes the 'measurements' when the picture of her final creation is made up in her head.

Physicists are no different in essence from the housewife, except that the objects they think of range from the macroscopic (universes, black holes, galaxies) to microscopic (atoms, photons, gravity waves), and use a mathematical language only to put the final details down. Of course, that language is a whole lot more complex than the simple measurements the housewife used, but the principle is the same.

So one might ask, how can one apply a scientist's imagination to thinking about the real world if one doesn't have the time to master advanced calculus? Easy! You start not with answers, but with questions. Einstein of course is the par excellence of the inquiring mind, and of course he started with simple metaphorical questions that involved such prosaic things as trains, elevators, and speeding bullets. But the guy who really got the mind experiment business going, and can be called the father of scientific imagination lived almost 2500 years ago in Ancient Greece. In classical Greece, you didn't have instruments to help you dissect the world, but you did have imagination in abundance, and simple daydreams, like simple levers could move worlds.

No one knew this better than the ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno of Elea, who demonstrated the contrariness of nature by showing how our pictures of nature lead us to paradoxes. Among many of his unique beliefs, Zeno didn't have much regard for time, and in fact doubted it's existence. In lieu of a mathematical proof in an age when mathematics was just getting started, a simple mind experiment had to fill the bill. So begins the tale of Achilles and the turtle.
It's your classic race of course, ages before Bugs Bunny made it a true fixture in the imagination. The turtle challenged Achilles to a race, who in his confidence, obliged the turtle a modest head start. Now if time was a continuous rather than discrete thing, as our experience holds, then every time Achilles got to the place where the turtle was, the turtle would have been gone. And every time Achilles got to where the turtle was last, the little bugger would likewise be gone. Now this would occur ad finitum, thus proving that the view of a continuous time made for some very long races, and that Achilles took a sucker's bet.
Zeno's paradoxes continue to bedevil physics, which has responded by dismissing them or by embracing them. This latter point of view, eloquently expounded by the physicist Julian Barbour in particular, is that time doesn't exist at all. But of course, I digress, since its in psychology where Zeno can come to play, and similarly shake's things up a bit.

So here's a simple question. How come we want things, but never want to have things? For example, we love sports teams that win championships, meals that taste good, and orgasms that make our hair stand on end. So how come if we want them so much, why not just have them now, and without waiting about?

Enter Zeno.

Who would say that the answer lies in a paradox derived from a faulty common sense approximation of the world. In other words, motivation, like time, is not what you think it is. Lets say, following the master's reasoning that Achilles was after the turtle not to win a race, but to grab him as an essential ingredient for a good bowl of turtle soup. Avoiding the temporal argument for the time being (or being is not in time, as Zeno would have it), then we note that if we are motivated by objective things like orgasms, trophies, and turtle soup, it would be immensely gratifying to rid our selves of the wait and get on to the main course. But of course, that doesn't happen, as getting there is half the fun, or rather our knowledge that we are getting there. So the answer is that Achilles, to be really on top of the world, will never actually be on top of the turtle. He's just having too much fun in the chase.

We can encapsulate this fact in a joke from the old Dick Van Dyke TV show in the mid 1960's. The scene pictured our hero eating a piece of cake. "What was that darling, that's pretty good!" "Its your favorite dessert" came the reply. He responded in agony, "Why didn't you tell me before, I love that cake!" In other words, by depriving him the opportunity to look forward to the cake, the very dessert was wasted.

By being able to 'look forward' to positive events, whether merely informative or sensual, we often feel energized, pleasant, and often rather ecstatic. The vast majority of contemporary psychologists, in their myopic idiocy, attribute obscure mentalistic processes like flow, intrinsic motivation, and so on to this fact. But for those psychologists who take the trouble to look beyond the fuzzy metaphors to the subtle activity of the human brain, two separate motivational processes have been distinguished that truly explain the phenomenon. The looking forward part is due to the release of neurochemicals or 'neuromodulators' that activate or modulate global areas of the brain. They make us more alert, attentive, make the brain think better, and feel good to boot. The consumnatory part, or when we eat the soup or get the girl activate entirely different parts of the brain entirely. Thus we come to a strange bifurcation of our everyday motivations into 'wanting' or 'looking forward to' parts and 'liking' parts when we actually achieve the object of our desire. The philosophical and practical implications of this are legion, and make up the bulk of my serious as well as not so serious articles on my site. But for those who take their psychology straight up, unadulterated by humor or fancy prose, I would recommend the web site of the neuro-psychologist Kent Berridge, who has posted to the web quite a few articles that represent what good psychology is all about.

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