Archives for category: limited rationality

Things consist of what makes them what they are.
These very constituents impose upon things their definitive limits.

Take life, for instance. It’s exactly that which makes the difference between a collection of inanimate chemical substances and a living organism which leads to its eventual demise.

Or our skeletons. And all our organs. They make us what we are and, simultaneously, set the limits of our existence.
Each of us can grow only that high, eat and drink only that much, sprint only that fast and live only that long.

Take our brains.
That’s what we think with. And we make errors with.
That we remember and forget with.
That we love and hate with.
That makes us aware of some things and leave so many others out of our knowledge.

That is capable to understand the nature of our limits and, too often, chooses to ignore that opportunity.

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I just finished reading an excellent article about AI.

And it hit me.

We are simultaneously capable of noticing our limits and utterly incapable of dealing with them.

Well… if you think of it, this is the very definition of a ‘limit’.
Something which cannot be overcome…

We have a limited understanding of the world, we know this and yet we’re arrogant enough to embark on building  autonomous mechanisms to help us react to something we haven’t yet fully understood ourselves…

Archimedes was famous for “give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I’ll move the Earth”.
Robert K Merton warned us about the ‘Law of the unintended consequences’.
The last financial melt down was yet another proof of what happens when highly leveraged instruments are used without any shred of ‘modesty’.
All major religions warn us about the consequences of building our own idols.

Despite all this, we barrel on.
Regardless.

Scientists haven’t made up their minds yet. They cannot agree whether viruses are actually alive or not.
They do pass over their genetic information to the next generation but that’s it.
They don’t do anything else of what all other living organisms do. Viruses don’t ‘eat’, don’t excrete, don’t feel anything…
A virus doesn’t do anything else but somehow injects itself into a ‘host’, hijacks its ‘control mechanism’ and ‘coerces’ the host to ‘mass produce’ another generation of future invaders.

Same difference exists between regular people and ‘ideologues’.

Regular people ‘earn’ their keep by being useful. The more they do for their communities, the more comfortable is the life they lead.
OK, for this to happen as described here the market would have to be actually free… I’m discussing principles here…. you get my drift.

On the other hand, ideologues act very much like viruses.
They get inside the heads of the unsuspecting and convince them to change their behavior according to the ‘ideological’ view of the world.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Some of the viruses have been useful for the living world
The problem is that most of the time the process takes place ‘under the table’. Most of the people don’t even know what’s being done to them. Hence they have nothing to say about it.
Because they have been kept in the dark, people are being denied their most important function.
Because they’ve been kept in the dark, the people have been robbed of their ability/opportunity to choose.

As much as we’d like it to be unique, reality is a spectrum.

Varying from factual to ‘seat of the pants’. And everything in between.

But what is this thing we call ‘reality’?

The key word here being “we”, of course!

First of all, reality is a concept. Which covers everything we know it exists ‘out there’.
Mind you, not everything ’which exists out there’, only ‘what we know about’.

We know about how?
Here’s where things become really interesting.

Maturana says that we, humans, are the first animals able to ‘observe themselves observing’ – his definition of ‘self-awareness’.
We not only observe things, we’ve developed the ability to set them apart from us. To understand that ‘things’ are both separated from us and still connected to us.
Even this understanding of ours comes in various degrees.
Some of us behave as if there is no tomorrow while others have developed intricate thought systems which connect our past actions (a.k.a. ‘sins’) with our future (a.k.a. ‘redemption’).

‘But most of the religious people base their faith on myths rather than facts!’

Well… myths are facts too.
Not in the sense that all the content of all myths had necessarily happened!
My point being that a story becomes a myth/fact as soon as enough people believe in it. Regardless of that story being a factual description of a real incident, an interpretation thereof or even the figment of somebody’s imagination.

Too much confusion… facts are no longer factual, reality is no longer real… everything is in a sort of limbo…

Yep. You’ve got the gist of it.
Our own consciousness has thrown us in limbo. Which, obviously, is yet another of our own inventions…
The funniest thing being that our consciousness hates being in limbo. And tries to explain everything it comes in contact with. Which explains why we have so many myths.

Now, if we want to explain the difference between the factual and the seat of the pants realities, we need to retrace the whole argument.

We have the ‘real’ reality – everything that exists out there, and the conceptual one. Everything that actually exists versus what we know it exists. Or it may exist.
What we know it exists can be further divided into things we think we have completely understood, things we ‘know’ but we still cannot fully explain and things which continue to baffle us.
For instance, we think we know everything there is to be known about internal combustion engines, we know when we are in love but we cannot explain ‘love’ and we are completely baffled by the callousness of some of our brethren.

Chapter 1.
Feelings, perceptions, facts.

Everything starts with a feeling.
Followed by a reaction.
Which, in biology/psychology/sociology is whatever the feeling organism does after it has been ‘poked’.
At this level, everything happens ‘mechanically’. Even for the most ‘sophisticated’. None of us is aware of what’s going on inside out gut yet a lot of information is being exchanged during the digestion process. We might ‘be there’ when we eat but our presence is not requested while our digestive tracts break down our food into usable ‘chemicals’.

Organisms which are capable of learning sometimes transform their feelings into perceptions.
In the sense that their reactions are no longer determined exclusively by their genes. In some instances they use their learned knowledge to improve their reactions, hence their chances to survive.
Think, for instance, of the many things our dogs do for us. Without having a clear understanding of whats going on but, nevertheless, faring a lot better than their wild cousins, the wolves. Or about the huge amount of data passed from one generation of elephant matriarchs to the other.

Further up the decision chain are the conscious species.
Those whose individuals are capable of ‘observing themselves observing’.
This self awareness is what makes the difference between being capable of being trained and that of actually being able to learn. To choose what you consider to be important and to decide according to that particular piece of information.

This being how facts are born.
We, self aware intelligent individuals, notice something. Deem it to be of a certain importance and, hence, call it a ‘fact’.
Regardless of that something actually having happened or being nothing more than a figment of our imagination.

 

DSC_0007

The way I see it, this lady is freer, in body and mind, than most of us will ever be.

Authoritarianism, of all ‘flavors’, depends on the ‘father figure’ being absolutely convinced that he is well above the rest. And it is this height which enables him to despise the rest, to the tune of not caring, at all, about how they feel about things.

‘I’m calling the shots, because I can, and the rest of you would better suck it up!’

Democracy, on the other hand, depends on people relying on each other. Enough of them are convinced that none of them is above error. Regardless of their ideological convictions, people who are convinced that democracy works are willing to accept advice from their peers. Or, at least, they listen carefully to what their peers have to say about issues.

The key word here being ‘peers’.

Nobody pays real attention to ideas coming from below or from above. If from below, that idea has to be almost obvious to pass the filter while everything coming from above is interpreted as an order. And executed if there’s no alternative or stalled/ignored whenever possible.

Both authoritarianism and democracy have proved themselves useful.

No war has ever been won by a democratically led army and no authoritarian regime has ever resisted for long. Meanwhile no democracy has ever crumbled as long as it has retained enough of its democratic spirit.
Yes, there are many examples of democracies becoming corrupted and eventually failing. Only this had happened after the democratic spirit had vanished into the smoke of ‘politics’.

Let me remind you that Alexandre the Great, one of the most admired generals and state-men of the world, was educated by Aristotle. Who was the favorite pupil of Plato. The esteemed philosopher who had invented the concept of ‘priest-kings’ – specially educated individuals who were meant to rule the rest.
Needless to add that Plato had witnessed Pericles simultaneously building the Parthenon and burying the Athenian democracy.
While Aristotle (384-322 BC) had lived long enough to witness his pupil conquering the entire ‘civilized world’ and dying an abject drunkard.
Greece, one of the places which had nurtured an enormously important part of the human culture, never fully recovered from the consequences of Plato’s ideas being put in practice.

Are we going down the same chute?
Is this the proper manner in which to engage those ‘on the other side of the isle’?

giving birth to a democrat

Well, this is yet another perfect example of a sentence simultaneously true, false and indeterminable …

First of all, it is indeterminable simply because we’ll never know, let alone ‘for sure’, everything ‘under the sun’.
It is obviously false because we continuously discover things previously unknown to us. From another trench on the bottom of the ocean to a new satellite circling around Jupiter. Not to mention the huge number of materials and gadgets which have not ‘seen the light of day’ until the moment they have been invented by us. And they might have been made starting with raw materials which had previously existed… but denying their novelty would be shortsighted… to say the least.
And it is obviously true because no matter how many things we have discovered/invented, we have remained practically the same. We entertain the same passions and fears, we continue to behave in certain ways…

And the worst part is our refusal to learn from past experiences…

We’ve experienced the malignant consequences of the extreme ‘propaganda’ used by the nazis during WWII.
By the communist regimes trying to build ‘the new man’.
And we’re currently ‘repackaging’ the same king of destructive propaganda into ‘fake news‘…

Are we nuts?

Specially that we already know that what we learn actually changes our brain

As I mentioned before, life is about individual organisms being able to interact with their environment and species being able to evolve as a reaction to what happens in the same environment.

Interaction between environment and individual organisms is based on sensations.
The organism ‘feels’ itself and its environment and (re)acts  based on the gathered information.

The (re)action ca be very basic – as in voluntarily abstaining from breathing when submerged in water, to utterly sublime. Writing a love poem or saving a toddler from a burning house.

Please note that only writing a love poem ‘demands’ a human being. Abstaining from breathing while under water comes naturally for all animals which don’t have gills while saving a toddler from a burning house can be very well ‘performed’ by a dog.

I mentioned earlier that (re)actions can be grouped in three large categories. ‘Mechanical’, ‘learned’ and ‘self-supervised’, a.k.a intentional.

The ‘mechanical’ ones being those also known as ‘instinctive’. They are practically inscribed in our DNA and constitute our default mode. None of us – plant, animal or human, needs any training whatsoever in order to ‘perform’ them.

The ‘learned’ – or ‘trained’, (re)actions are those which depend heavily on past experience. They start from the same kind of sensations as the instinctive ones but the organism takes the time to transform the sensation into a perception before (re)acting.
A very good example would be riding a bike. A child can learn to do it well before becoming able to entertain such complicated notions as ‘destination’ or ‘goal’. They are simply happy to do it. Same thing being valid for trained circus dogs or monkeys.

The really tricky (re)actions are the ‘intentional’ ones. Those which are performed under self supervision. Of which we are, at least perfunctorily, aware.

‘OK, very nice recap. You’ve already covered this ground. Get to the point!’

I’ve already reached it.
According to this ‘scheme’, given the fact that we pretend to be rational and that we all live in the same world, all of us should behave more or less in the same manner. Right?

‘Like bees? Or ants? Like a school of fish?’

Yeah, something along that line…

‘Or like Pol Pot/B.F. Skinner tried to teach their respective followers?’

You’re stretching it a little bit but yes, you could say that …

‘But this ain’t happening! Not even the most bigoted followers of any cult nor even the most disciplined soldiers will ever behave in such a manner…’

I told you we’d already reached ‘the point’! You made it yourself…

And here’s why:

Yes, we all live in the same world.
More or less…

But we shouldn’t forget the differences!

Biological ones come first.
Those which make each of us feel differently, even when all of us experience the very same conditions. Temperature, time past from the last meal, elevation from the sea level, etc., etc.

On top of those come the ‘social’ differences.
In this instance ‘social’ has a far wider meaning than in everyday life. Yes, there is a huge difference between individuals belonging to different social strata but that’s only a small part of what I have in mind.
‘Social’ differences means all differences consecutive to the ‘mere’ existence of human society.
Let’s make a thought experiment and evaluate the ‘social’ differences between a guy born in what we now call France some 20 000 years ago and another guy born in the same place 2 000 years later. What do you reckon?
OK. Now let’s consider a Frenchman born in 1920 – two years after the end of the WWI, and his son, born in 1947. Would it make any sense to compare the two sets of differences? Those between the conditions encountered by the two prehistoric guys separated by two almost inconsequential millennia and those encountered by the father and son born 27 years apart in the XX-th century?
Or we could compare a native of the Amazonian forest to a New Yorker. Both born in, say, 1999. Statistics have it that the Amazonian native might already be dead…

Small wonder then that perceptions are so different from one individual to another… given that individual perceptions depend on both our senses and our individual experiences – which, in their turn, depend heavily on where and when each of us have been born.

Right now I feel the need to insist on the difference between sensation and perception.
Sensation being, simply put, what we feel while perception is what reaches our conscious mind.

‘What?!?’

Yeah…  strange, isn’t it?
Let’s return to ‘riding a bike’ for a moment.
It was a big moment when your dad removed the ‘helper’ wheels and you soloed for the first time, right? Just as big as when you walked for the first time… only you can’t remember that, do you?…
You were paying very close attention to everything you were doing… while your father kept telling you ‘relax, you’ll be fine’…
And now – if you’re still riding, of course, you do it instinctively. You pay attention only to where you’re going, without bothering about maintaining the balance or other ‘mundane’ things like that. The whole process takes place ‘behind the scene’. It was you who had learned what to do. Consciously, of course. Only once learned, the whole ‘thinking process’ was moved ‘to the attic’. Out of the way, that is.
There are a lot of things which are done in this manner. Subconsciously and not unconsciously. Riding bikes, driving cars, operating machinery… perceiving the world…
We learn how to do it – according to some rules which depend on our culture, and then we continue to do it subconsciously. For all our lives or until something happens. For instance, until we move to a country where they drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. And we have to learn some new rules…

Otherwise put, ‘perceiving’ means subconsciously making sense of what we feel by using some previously acquired ‘rules of thumb’. Those who specialize in this field use ‘heuristics’ to describe them.
The problem with the rules of thumb being that they can very easily become ‘cognitive biases’. A.k.a. ‘fences’ which divert us from the ‘straight and narrow’. As in the situation when some of us feel uneasy in the presence of an unknown person with a different skin color.

‘But what happens when consciousness kicks in?’

I thought you’d never ask…

It depends.
On many things. Both ‘social’ and individual.
On the education experienced by each particular individual, on their ‘brain power’ and, last but not least, on something vaguely called ‘individual character’. Something which some people are convinced it can be educated, one way or another, while others are convinced it is ‘hard wired’ into each of us.
If you ask me, both are right. In various, individual, degrees. Character has as much to do with how each of us have internalized their particular experiences as it has with how much ‘spiritual stamina’ exists into each of our souls.

On the practical side of the matter, after each perception reaches the frontier of our consciousness, each of us starts digesting it in earnest. As in attributing ‘value’ to it. Determining whether what has just happened was a consequence of an intention or a happenstance.  Then whether that intention was good or bad. And, finally, the ‘judging’ consciousness establishes a plan of action.  Which can vary from ‘do nothing’ to ‘no holds barred’.

Which explains why no two people will ever react in exactly the same manner when confronted with the very same set of circumstances. There are no two individuals who feel exactly the same, have been exposed to the very same cultural influences AND internalized them in exactly the similar manner. Nor have exactly similar characters and amounts of brain-power.

But what was Mathew trying to tell us?
I’m afraid we are dealing  here with a badly translated metaphor.
‘Poor in spirit’ doesn’t make much sense… unless we consider it an attempt to dull our senses… which may make some sense in certain circumstances…
Only I’m more interested here to determine what Mathew tried to say rather than to interpret the intentions of those who had done the translation. And of those who had, manually, copied the many successive generations of Bibles which had been produced until Gutenberg had, for the first time, printed it in many identical copies.
So, the way I see it, Mathew was speaking of those who are able to stop their conscious mind from building far-flung ‘scenarios’ out of everything that happens to them. Or in their vicinity.

Very similar to the Buddhist concept of ‘non-attachment’?

Well… we do live in the same world, after-all… and we have been ‘made’, more or less, ‘the same’.
We might not be identical, nor having had the very same experiences during our lives… but we do have a lot in common. Despite our differences.

SPOKEN

According to Britannica.com, language is “a system of conventional spoken, manual, or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release.

Since we’re already dealing in conventions, I’m going to ask you to consider this:
How about we redefine language as ‘any manner in which information is transported across space and or time between two entities which have the possibility to interpret, act and or otherwise intervene on/influence the message, the situation described by the message or both at the same time’?

You’ll surely notice that the second definition is more inclusive that the first, of course. And you’ll also notice the differences. Which aren’t that dramatic, after-all…

– ‘Conventional’…
‘Classic’ languages – English, Chinese, French, Urdu, German,  etc., are more the result of ‘natural evolution’ than of any ‘straightforward’ convention… while Esperanto, the most conventional of the spoken languages, didn’t make it too far.
In this sense, the more natural languages which have evolved ‘on their own’ – without any intentional intervention from those who use it, are not that far away from the ‘classic’ languages. Birds have ‘vocal’ manners of sending distress and ‘sexual’ signals; monkeys and apes also; even social insects, ants and bees, dispose of an entire array of chemicals, sounds and gestures used to convey freshly gathered information from one individual to another.

– ‘by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves’.
Really? What’s all this brouhaha about ‘expressing one’s self’? A call for help, ‘expressed’ in any way, shape or form, remains a call for help… regardless of the manner in which it has been expressed. Articulated language, Morse code, sign language or a simple sob. Same thing is valid for a warning call. Most of the times, the caller does it ‘instinctively’ and not to gain any ‘social points’ by ‘expressing’ their care for the rest of the ‘cultural community’ ‘conversant’ in the language used to make the call. The magpie in the video above is one of the exceptions, not the rule. Otherwise, the whole signaling ‘industry’ would have been abandoned long ago… due to the very evolutionary forces which have made language what it is today.

Don't cry wolf

– ‘The functions of language include…”
Isn’t this funny?!? ‘The functions of language include…’ How about ‘some of functions we, users of language, have been able to identify are… “.
Or even ‘some of the uses we’ve been able to put language to are …’?

Quite a lot of confusion… isn’t it?

But language was supposed to make things clearer, not muddier… right?

Tell that to those dogs… the ones sent chasing ghosts by the fake distress calls ‘jokingly’ (?!?) emitted by the magpie in the video at the top of my post…

So…

– ‘Spoken’ language.
Or should I call it ‘extemporaneous’? The way I see it, most ‘spoken’ language is uttered on the spur of the moment… or used to be, anyway.
Nowadays, spoken words can be carefully prepared long time in advance… even made to ‘faithfully’ mimic an impromptu message…

– ‘Written’ language.
While ‘spoken’ messages’ have been used, extemporaneously, for a huge amount of time – and not only by humans, as I mentioned earlier, ‘writing’ has been a late invention. Ours.
Or, at least, this is how we like to believe…
The most important characteristic of ‘written’ – as opposed to ‘spoken’, being ‘verba volant, scripta manent’. ‘Spoken words fly away, written words remain’!
The earliest scripts, both cuneiform and hieroglyphic, were used to ‘transport’ information through time. At first, to conserve data rather than what we currently call ‘complex information’. Inventory and ‘identity’ rather than information which may – or even has to, be interpreted in order to make sense. The early cuneiform clay tablets contained ‘cargo manifests’ and only later some of them had been used to ‘conserve’ the Story of Gilgamesh.

– ‘Operational’ language.
Aren’t you tired of that magpie yet?
Have you even watched the video?
Did you notice how the dogs reacted to the fake distress calls? For the umpteenth time, probably…
For the purposes of the present post, it doesn’t matter whether the magpie actively/conscientiously makes fun of the dogs or just acts out of some sort of an instinctive boredom… something akin to the bright spots we sometimes see when ‘confronted’ by a pitch-black environment. It also doesn’t matter whether the dogs are actually fooled every-time they go out to chase the invented fox or they do it because they experience the same kind of boredom like the one which ‘fuels’ the magpie.
For me, all that counts is the consistent manner in which the target reacts to the message transported through the use of this particular kind of language. It is this kind of consistency which determines the ‘operational’ nature of certain languages.

And now, let’s get to the ‘fun’ part.

The calls emitted by the magpie can be construed as being ‘spoken’, right?
They are of a ‘vocal’ nature, are fleeing by definition – unless someone records them using some artificial devices… yet they are also ‘operational’… since the dogs faithfully execute what they are ‘told’ to do…
Now, if we think of it, most natural languages are ‘operational’ indeed.
Ants and bees use them to direct ‘practical’ action, not to ‘express themselves’…
Calls used by most animals relate to avoiding danger, signaling food or ‘expressing’ sexual ‘desire’… and have little or no connection with anything else.
In this respect, the magpie is an exception, not the rule. And even here, the message is ‘formulated’ ‘operationally’. Simply because magpies don’t ‘know’ any other kinds (uses) of language.

We, humans, have bucked the trend only in the sense that we’ve developed kinds of languages lax enough to allow ‘thinking’.

I’m sure that all of you have noticed that when considering the pros and the cons to something you think using a language, right?
A language ‘lax’ enough to accommodate ‘what if’!

Something which doesn’t ‘fit’ in the ‘language’ used by most nursing babies to ask for more milk…

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