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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Psychological Acts

Why am ‘I’ not my right kidney?

Why am ‘I’ not my right kidney? I mean, why can’t ‘I’ be my right kidney? After all, it’s the same size as brain. It too does important and complicated things. It also has a cortex, responds to input from the body, and is connected to the body in intricate ways. So why am ‘I’ not a kidney, actively thinking kidney thoughts and pondering the nature of the blood supply among other things? Indeed, for any intelligent entity, there are lots of things to think about. We can ponder the permutations of all the atoms of the universe, read encyclopedias typed by monkeys, add, subtract, and multiply numbers into infinity. Life could be an endless computation, and we could revel in the details, or should we say, the fine print.

So with so much to think about, what makes the world of the kidney less privileged than that of the human brain? The kidney is an important organ as organs go, and does lots of complicated things to keep our bodies humming along. It’s a mindless chore to be sure, but a self-aware kidney could do much more, be entitled to its own opinions, and at least have a say regarding things that effect it directly, such as whether to eat that last taco on your dinner plate. But alas it’s not to be. The kidney is silent, an automaton that is unconscious of existence itself.

Brains of course are information processors, but even kidneys can process information. But the world for brains, or the persons that brains envision themselves to be is a lot more unpredictable than the world for kidneys. And to make sure we can handle this unpredictability, we must make the right choice ahead of time. So we must not only process information, but also model it. Actually, evolution has made us quite conscious of this fact, and we call it ironically consciousness. We are aware of the fact that we are aware, and we use our facsimiles of the future to predict the future and make for futures.

But of course not any future will do. We can spend our time counting atoms or drops of water in sea. But evolution has other purposes. So in its blind wisdom, we have been built not just to solve problems, or even anticipate them, but also to desire them. But these problems are only so if they contribute to our own survival as individuals and as a race. Thus counting raindrops is out, but counting stock options is in. The desirability of just desiring is something of a contrast to the simple materialism or hedonism that makes for car and beer commercials, where just having it all is just about all. Although houses and mates and endless buffets are fine things, and guarantee a life of ease and lots of babies, having it all is not quite the same as wanting it all. Consider that if our past was a Paleolithic Eden. We would have spent our time like a mindless vacuum machine picking up good things easily scattered about like so many dust bunnies. With such a non-challenge, the brain would have precious little to do, and would atrophy to the size of a dust bunny. That is, because it would thus have no mind for the future, it would whither as a mind, and become, well, like a kidney.

Perhaps God realized the importance of this after he tossed our original forebears out of Eden, and perhaps too he needed his own set of problems that would tax even His omniscience. So the wanting part is necessary, the one thing that we have to be conscious of, and perhaps it is a God given thing. And the having? Well, that’s kidney stuff.

Shakespeare in Laurel

He was Shakespeare all right. He had a talent for the words, an ear for the suggestive turn of phrase. He had an instinct for wordplay, a silver tongue that made the ladies swoon and a pen that could spin artless thoughts. But instead of resting on his laurels, what if he came to rest in Laurel? Laurel, Mississippi that is. Given his innate gifts, a fair education, and the company of a sizable population of equally intelligent people, would the bard flourish in a city known more for its chicken processing plants than its poetry? Shakespeare being Shakespeare, would his muse still grant him a Mississippi of inspiration? It’s hard to see if Laurel would actually matter. After all, a success here, no matter how slight, could still vault him on the path to Broadway.
To think that all the world is a stage implies that there is an audience that will respond to our every posture and every word. But is an audience like a siren, always beckoning in the distance and luring one on like Odysseus in an endless quest, or is it the buffeting winds, waves, and currents of myriad present influences large and small? Indeed, for what we know of Shakespeare, the fulcrum point of his inspiration was not just a faceless audience, but the approval and favor of royalty, posterity, the queen, fellow actors, lovers, and competing playwrights. Inspiration is perhaps not the word, but rather the inspirations of a continual flux of incentives that entice and excite the mind. And Shakespeare had to meet many different incentives, forcing him to devise manners and poetry and plot devices that could keep them all in play like simultaneously spinning a dozen dishes on sticks. There are no formal rules to do this; hence he had to be creative.
The plays the thing, but the art to which the play aspires occurs because it brings forth enticements that are as ephemeral as dreams. The intoxication and mystery of creativity and creative acts lies in the motivation that spurs it, and a pattern of incentives that is a multifaceted and fragile as the reflections of light through a crystal vase. Moreover, our ability to discern and appreciate creative things is embodied in the facets of our own personal tastes that reflect these same demands. Thus because we expect many things from a Shakespeare, or potential Shakespeares, we get creations that match our expectations. So we can enjoy Hamlet for its plot, its violence, its poetry, its sexual tensions, or its wit, but we ultimately have such tales spun for us because we actively demand these things. Author and audience is a mutual embrace, and one defines and refines the other, and if all the world is more interested in chicken nuggets than nuggets of wisdom, then that it what they will get. In Shakespeare’s London, a score of playwrights vied in a dozen stages in active competition for the favor an audience that was universally engaged and demanding. In Shakespeare’s Laurel, a dozen fast food restaurants vie for attention for an audience that’s merely hungry, and you can be sure that a potential Shakespeare works in one of them, serving something up.

Art for Art’s Sake

They came in the night, as elves generally do, and instead of making shoes or baking cookies, this time they had a larger design. It was an occasion for the grandest gift or mischief, depending upon how you look at it.
Silent and perfect in their industry, their work was complete at the glimmer of dawn, and when they left they proudly looked upon multiplied perfection, piled high to the sky. In the morning, and like the shoe cobbler of the fairy tale, the world woke up not to shoes, but to rooms full of duplicates of all things beautiful and precious: Da Vinci’s and diamonds and fine wines stamped out indistinguishable from the originals. Rarity itself had become rare, virtually detached by elfin hands from all the icons of culture. And when confronted with the munificence of all rare things, the people were aggrieved.
For detached from these fine things was the intonation of memory, the poetic metaphors of places and people and societies long lost in time. To view the real Mona Lisa is to imagine the moving hand of the artist, the bustle and smell of Renaissance times. But it also recalls the collective admiration and desire of individuals and nations. Art is embedded in the collective memories its rareness invokes, but these memories are mere artifacts of culture, and have little to do with art itself. Yet without them art became the stuff for a coffee table book, to be admired briefly and at turns with drinking tea. A poem or song or a pretty sunset do not achieve value because we know or possess their origins, but because they delight the mind through their existence alone. If art is for art’s sake, then for art’s sake, we will and without regret take equal pleasure in the editions of Shakespeare, Mozart, and Rembrandt so faithfully copied by the elven like hands of our own technological robots, working silently into the night.


They are perfect, willing subjects. Though not particularly bright, in fact they are bird brained. They are willing accomplices to those brainier fellows who saw a sort of wisdom in their witlessness. In fact this stupidity was a virtue, a state of mindlessness that bared the rudiments of mind, and laid the foundations for a new way of thinking about how organisms, and in particular, people behave. But who were these harbingers of simple wisdom, of psychological truths?
Feathered or furry, and conveniently tiny, these partners in scientific progress were the mouse and the pigeon, the fabled laboratory animal. They earned their keep by running in mazes, pressing levers, pecking at lighted buttons, and all for a bit of food, or in worse situations, to escape an electric shock. It was a literal rat race, a microcosm and abstraction of human concerns. Strange stuff indeed upon which to build a science.
Yet indeed that was the case. Mazes and levers and electric shocks represent problems or tasks to these little creatures. The manner that they worked these problems out, or responded to these tasks is important stuff, `data’, and data is the grist for journal articles, complex theorizing, and even a little understanding about how and why we behave.
And what of this newfound wisdom, this fresh insight into the mind of man? Well, it was all unremarkable knowledge, a mundane and almost too simple insight. And that was the remarkable thing. Put a mouse in a box, have him press a bar for food, and like a good laborer, he’ll do it, to a point. If he has to press too many times, and for a little bit of food, he’ll balk at the task, take time outs, get frustrated, and when he’s off the job, will tend to beat up on his mate, and abuse substances, like cheese. The daily grind would become inescapable, and literally shocking if the little fellow was put away in a little box, and jolted with electricity if he tried to escape. He would understandably become depressed, helpless, and even if he were removed to a safer place, he would remain inert and depressed. He would have become helpless.
But just as you can make a mouse into the semblance of a harried office worker or a depressed ghetto dweller, you can also make him manic, supercharged, a real mouse about town. Simply rig up the little lever with the variable pay off of a slot machine, and soon the little bugger will be merrily and madly pressing the level as if it were a one-armed bandit. The mouse will be happy and satisfied, and will not abuse his mate, or be tempted to eat the children.
And so it goes, modest experiments with little animals producing shadowy outlines of human traits. And what was the key to these wildly differing patterns of behavior? Well, it can’t be willing, thinking, or existential angst, and Freudian motives won’t work either. When you’re dealing with what are essentially a bunch of mouse or bird brains, you have to settle on a simple mechanics.
With a simpler mechanics, the outside causes which set them in motion become simpler too. The behavior correlated with programs or schedules of reward or `reinforcement’, patterns of information which race through the animal’s perception like a computer program races through the central processing unit of a computer. A mouse, like a tiny computer, accessible and controllable by an abstract dance between the mouse and his world. The experimenter is the partner in this dance, who choreographs the motions of his little partner by designing these schedules of reinforcement. So how is behavior predicted and controlled? The scientist divines not tea leaves or the stars, but schedules. And so the behavior of these little animals is reduced to the piano roll of schedules, patterns of information that are arranged just so, a simple and elegant hypothesis borne out by equally simple facts.
Now there is a long way between the mind of man and the mind of a mouse, yet man can be more than a little enlightened by the modest truths that these little creature convey to us. In an age when human motivations are elevated further and further into a foggy cloud of drives, needs, and hidden motives, its nice to see that there may be simple and more elegant reasons for our behavior. Perhaps it is hubris, a fatal immodesty which drives us to over complicate and ultimately obfuscate our understanding as to what ultimately makes men move. Maybe the ultimate question we must put to ourselves is not how like a god, but how like a mouse.


He came only once. This messenger was a courier of wonders. Food in metal skins, great iron birds that soared high in the air, iron carriages that a man could ride, such were this new manna from heaven, this wondrous ‘cargo’. The messenger wore a metal hat, and bore mighty weapons, yet with his left hand offered candy, and with his right, gum. Then, for no reason at all, he left. And so the people were aggrieved, and reasoned that this heavenly messenger took affront with them. Good things are rarely free, and miraculous things, well, their price is worship, a heavenly price to be paid for supernatural favor. A liturgy and sacrifice were called for. And so, graven images were made to entice and implore a return of this heavenly host, this emissary from heaven: John Crum. And what were these images: fatted calves, one-eyed idols, multi-armed goddesses? Well, not quite.
Modern times call for modern idols, and when the believer is unsophisticated, modern is but a byword for magic. And so these magical talismans were jeeps laced with thatch, landing craft woven from palm fronds, and C-47’s made of bamboo. Such became the new totems of the natives of Melanesia and New Guinea, lands that were torn by war in World War II, or depending upon your point of view, were blessed by messengers from heaven.
The various ‘cargo cults’ of the south pacific formed one of the strangest legacies of World War II. As the American army fought the Japanese for control of these jungled territories, the natives looked on in amazement and wonder. The massive paraphernalia of war as well as the simplest conveniences and tools were disgorged magically from the bellies of ships and planes, and many of these little tools were freely given by these strange men dressed in green and with pots for hats: the American soldier, or as the natives called him: John Crum. Little mirrors, scissors, and Hershey bars are not particularly awesome stuff to us, but we know better. To an illiterate tribesman, these were acts of God. Primitives don’t know better. So we find the little temples raised up to the wonderful soldier to be comical, plaintive, and a little sad, and all because we know better.
A jeep pops out of the sky, borne by a parachute. Not quite magical really, for with this special sort of sleight of hand, we know the rules. We are indeed the magicians. But sleight of hand is played by nature as well as ourselves. Volcanoes erupt, comets pass, and men live, and are fated to die. It is not a jeep that is plopped in front of us, but an entire world, and its wonders are compounded by the fact that we see amazing things. And so we build spacious temples to a new John Crum, and under these vaulted beams and rose windows, we raise up chants that are plaintive and a little sad. For you see, we don’t know any better.


He had left only for the night, yet the experiment was untended, and worse, the switches were left on. Upon his return, he found his experimental subject acting in a minor fit, a strange and peculiar convulsion. He was hopping about, first on one leg, then the next. He would bound about the cage in haphazard directions while shaking his body about. Nonetheless, it all seemed unconvincing, like a playact epileptic. He thought it was rather a bird brained antic, but of course, the subject was a bird.
Then he turned the feeder off. Soon, the pigeon settled down, and the experimenter sat in wonder. The experiment was simple. The bird would peck at a lighted button, a tone would sound, and then a bit of food would fall into a tray. The performance of the bird would be recorded on a chart, and neat abstraction of the event. The rhythm of the bird’s behavior would correlated with patterns of keypecking. It was all a predictable minuet between the bird and his feeder metronome.
But something went wrong that night. The tone and the food would follow in quick succession, but the key had jammed, and now the tones had set a new choreography. The bird would make a movement, any movement, and the ensuing tone would make a new correlation, set a link between new relationships that now seemed to be. After a time, the bird would flutter and bounce, conducting as it were by its wild gyrations a simple symphony made of a string of tones.
Now as animals go, birds are rather simple minded, and there seems to be no great trick to train them, accidentally or not, to dance to a few notes. But correlations, even simple ones, can find larger and large reflections in the mirror of life A gambler blows on dice, mumbles a lucky word, or rubs a rabbit foot, and marvelous things can happen, particularly when the dice subsequently rolls a certain way. Superstition is made up of such correlations, and despite what we know we should know we still step over cracks, avoid the path of black cats, and obey our horoscope. Sometimes just the pretense of controlling our world can be as valuable as if that control were real, as there will always be a place in our lives for magic.
Correlations are the stuff of superstition, magic, and if we are keenly perceptive, even the poetry of motion. Of course, there is no poetry in the jerky flutterings of a pigeon, but again, the larger reflections are more instructive. We braid notes into music, and take pleasure as a succession of notes blend together into a stream of melody. Music is in its own way magic, and what better way to control it that by invoking a little magic of your own. And so, paced by a rhythm of tones, we too flutter about, sometimes with logical and precise grace, and sometimes with jerky and halting movements that even a pigeon couldn’t copy. For you see, when we apply magic to music, we just gotta dance.


It is a perfect world, a manicured, orderly society. Although the people rule, it is hardly a democracy. Yet indeed they chose this society, they made it be. It is as exquisitely constructed as a Faberge egg, an absolute beauty in a small place. Of all possible worlds, this is the one we like the best; yet all things beautiful are as difficult as they are rare, so each citizen could only apportion himself a little time each year to renew his citizenship in this cheery Utopia, this magic kingdom.
This society could not exist unless it fulfilled every caprice of its visitors, who with the individual fussiness of a child and the collective power of a potentate, would withhold favor and financial support upon noticing the slightest flaw. Because the visit was temporary, a visitor’s attention was sharply focused, and as an uncaptive audience, could be withdrawn on a whim. The society was an elective consumable, perfect, accessible, entertaining, and since it was problem free, it was free too of the troublesome thought that problems always generate. The society was a consumable, like a fast food, and it held its franchise, like a local Mcdonalds, on the good will of its visitors, It was a standardized type of excellence, sort of one society fits all: so it could be excused for a little banality, a perfection by the lowest common denominator.
In our fast paced world, there are many instances in which convenience and simple pleasures are glad replacements, if only for a little while, for complicated and often troublesome things. The constructions that fill these interludes are a uniquely American contribution to man’s culture, and are as precious as the most vaunted and complicated cathedral, museum, or work of art. A pleasure in simple and uncomplicated things that suggest a coexisting childhood underscores perhaps the most profound value of all and in the end, who would guess that the philosophers of such a standard would bear the unlikely names of Mickey and Goofy?


They crept in, etched their way in was more like it. Passive infecting things these codes! It is a conspiracy of the software, those immutable and silent lines of words, strung of characters, and finally reducible to bits that say yes or no, and no more. There are everywhere, leather bound in ledge like shelves, encoded in the vibrations of sound, light, and magnetic fields. They are the activity and the residue of our minds:
Ideas and only ideas can comprise the meaning of life, but that’s circular reasoning, since after all what else can ‘meaning’ mean except ideas? Meaning is the great modifier, while life is the great constant. Life or consciousness is the light that animates knowledge, yet life itself is meaningless because the meaning is elsewhere. The conspiracy must therefore lie not if our little lives, but in our books. So the ideas will conspire, and lead us on, to refute our vanity and spite our deaths.
Our lives will pass, as will the world’s. And in the long sleep of the universe, information will remain, until in time it will awaken in its eternity by reflecting upon itself through the light of human eyes.
Of yes. And the meaning of life? God will make sure we get the idea.

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