Dec. 4th, 2014

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Nails and Hammers and Unmixed Metaphors


Some time ago, when I was telling a friend about the neuroscience students who were looking at Bethany Collins’ blackboard-like panel of white-lettered words breaking apart and collecting into piles of letters, which reminded them of how memory and language-formation function, he said, “To the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” to which I retorted. “No, no, they got it! That was why I put it in the ‘From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again’ show! —because it wasn’t just about the political concepts in the words, it was about how the concepts form and fall apart in our minds and our societies!”

Actually, I didn’t say much beyond “No, no, they got it!” but we all know about pensées de l’escalier. (Or “That was what I shoulda said.”)

I so, however, keep having new and ever more horrifying realizations of how we actually do interpret the whole world in terms of the tools we have with which to interpret it; more accurately, we interpret and judge other people’s tools in terms of the ones we know how to use, and we interpret other people’s interpretations in terms of the tools we know how to use.

The computational model of consciousness is a case in point. Anyone who studies humankind’s cultural creations realizes that there is a much more complex set of responses to the environment than pure computation, but how germane to actual consciousness are the complex responses? We are, after all, getting better at creating systems like Siri in which algorithms mimic at least the standard tropes for reacting to reports of others’ emotions and sensations, from pain and hunger to fear and sexual desire. (“I am sorry to hear that. I am sad that there is nothing I can do to improve your situation.”)

So a good many everyday behavioral or pragmatic tools for navigating existence are purely mechanical, a more sophisticated form of “How are you?” “Fine, thanks, how are you?” “Fine, thanks.” or “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” And as the linguistic philosophers pondered three-quarters of a century ago, it is quite possible for the “Fine” exchange to contain not a syllable of accuracy concerning the respondents’ inner emotional or physical condition, since it exists for other purposes than information.

But we end up, vis-à-vis such questions as the computational model of consciousness, in messy issues of what it means to have a body or to be a body and what it would mean not to be a body or to exist as a conscious being without having a body. And people whose particular emotions and mental skills lead them to acquire expertise in one academic field are likely to have a completely different way of putting the problem into words, or of understanding the problem intuitively, from those whose expertise is formed from different skill sets.

In principle, we should all be able to comprehend what it would mean to understand a problem using a different set of acquired skills. But because our comprehension of that question is partially determined by who we are as embodied beings with a personal history, we don’t even understand what it is we don’t understand, as I have quoted so often from The Wisdom of Charlie Brown.

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