Concepts as Handles

“Eras are conveniences, particularly for those who never experiencd them. We carve hisory from totalities beond our grasp. Bolt labels on the result. Handles. Then speak of the handles as though they were things in themselves.”
- Lowbeer

The Peripheral by William Gibson

What a nice statement of how we condense complex reality down to simple ideas. A few words provide a tool to manipulate ideas with the same ease as real objects. But often we forget that there is a reality behind the handle. In Gibson’s latest book, reviewed here, hackers from the future manipulate the past, creating alternate versions of history. Because the manipulation of their past make these worlds causally disconnected from those doing the manipulation, they become like fictional worlds, not at all real, and without consequences.

If we forget that our words are handles and not reality, we risk making mistakes by neglecting the consequences that come from action on complex systems. These interactions are not eliminated by using words; the map is not the terrain.

The reverse is true as well. In order to understand “totalities beyond our grasp”, we must reduce them to handles and map out the concepts. Doing the work and writing it down is the best aid to comprehension I know. I’m pleased to share the process here on ODB.

Book Review: The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral gives us a William Gibson that I’ve missed since The Diamond Age. As in earlier work, Gibson conflates the real and virtual worlds, allowing characters to move between physical reality and computer constructed virtual reality. When he did this in the 90’s, at the birth of the internet it was prophetic. I hope the The Peripheral isn’t as accurate a prediction of how reality might be controlled from the virtual world.

Here, Gibson uses virtualization to show how an entire world, economy and government in particular, might become a target of hackers with the right data and technology. The hackers happen to be 70 years in the future, using a mysterious Chinese server that provides a data connection into the past. Using a multiverse solution to time travel logical contradictions, the past becomes a stub. Thus the future doing the manipulation is necessarily different than the future of the manipulated world. It’s someone else’s future, and so without causal connection to those making the changes. Entire worlds can become virutual instances of reality with no consequences to the hacking. With his disarming, breezy, and venacular writing, Gibson provides a good story and enough philosophical contemplation of the information age to be worth the read.

Gibson moves a bit too far toward mind transfer, which I think is an impossibility. He allows devices that paralyze the user and transmit intention to peripheral devices. A band across the forehead allows sensation and intention to be transmitted. Gibson then goes beyond simple body control to allow new motor programs with novel ability to somehow also be remote.

In a theory of embodied mind, thought can’t be separated from the physicality of brain, from the sensorium and motor activity. Virtualization and remote action is clearly possible by transmitting sensory input and motor output back an forth. But thoughts and intent would have to found, transmitted and translated to allow remote thought control of a peripheral. It’s the kind of creeping dualism that’s allowed by theories of mind that separate thought from brain, but our current understanding of neuroscience appears to make this impossible. There’s no independent reality to thought; the activity leading to thought is not encoded, it just is the activity. One would have to transmit the brain itself which of course defeats the purpose of transmitting thought without the brain present. Fortunately, I enjoy science fiction stories about uploading minds or thought control of devices enough that I suspend disbelief and act as reader, not neuroscientist.

Book Review: 3 Books by Haruki Murakami

I don’t recall where I heard about Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I was either researching running or researching the role of habit in decision making. I know had just finished Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, but he doesn’t mention Murakami’s book about the running habit. Perhaps it was just time to meet Haruki Murakami through his essay and fiction.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running consists of diary like description of how Murakami lives, particularly his relationship to running and to writing. His reflections on how to live the creative life provide a view into the process of building the habit of art in an examined life. If running is what you do or if art is what you do, then there’s no need to approach making art or running. Lace up your shoes, grab your camera, or start typing. What you produce is just the result of living, not a product.

It makes sense that making a habit of art would both be freeing and an aid to stress-free work. We now know the brain relies on predetermined sequences of behavior to free up resources for activies that really require executive supervision. There’s no need to think about most of what we do. Coming from different directions, both Duhigg and Murakami make the point that the living the examined life must include the tracking and adjustment of habit. The feedback provided by uncovering our rituals allows those rituals to be adjusted in ways that move us toward our chosen goals. Being present may be recording what we eat in a food diary to be aware of caloric intake and nutrution or or it may be the creation of the time, space and environment to create.

Having spent some pleasant time learning from Murakami how improve my creative output, I felt I owed him a read of one of his books in return. I remembered hearing about his novel 1Q84 so I took advantage of our public library’s ever improving ebook system to read it on my Kindle. Wanting more, I read his latest: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Murakami’s novels are often described as dreamlike as they freely mix reality with fantastic elements. I don’t think the comparison to dreams is quite right, since dreams are generally without logic, reflecting internal states not bound by the structure of experience. What Murakami does is blur the boundry between the world “out there” and the feelings and fantasy we have “in here”, hypothetical states percieved in the mind only. In both books, Murakami plays with the uncertainty we have regarding the feelings and perceptions of others, an uncertainty that multiplies the possibilities of what may be true. These other people “out there” each have their own world of perception inside their heads. Those worlds are all “in there”, inaccessible to any one else unless they provide clues through action or words.

Fiction of this quality provides a guided experience into other ways to see, trading our thoughts for those of the author, presented in the guise of story and fictional character. Our own lives are necessarily limited in the world as it is “out there”, limiting the experience to shape how we see “in here”. Murakami allows us to journey to worlds that might be. Upon my return from these worlds, I’m open to a broader range of possibility, allowing more meaning in my own perception of the world.

Book Review: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker has studied cognitive phenomenon from a neuropsychological perspective, probing brain mechanisms by examing visual perception and speech. Simply by strongly arguing that languange is a specific, inborn human cognitive ability like vision, he places thinking as the result of brain function and structure rather than taking place in an abstract world of mind. His writing has been central to the school of thought I think of as “embodied mind”.

Beginning in 1994 with The Language Instinct, Pinker wrote accessable yet rigorous presentations of his views on brain, mind and cognitive phenomenon. Most important for my way of thinking was the idea that cognitive abilities tend to be adaptations of more fundamental physical precepts, grounding symbols as real perceptions, but in an internal representation that allows abstraction from the purely physical.

Compared to his previous books, The Sense of Style is more light weight from a theoretical perspective, but interesting as a practical application of neuropsychology and philosophy. There is always as sense that writing is a way to pattern other minds, so that written language should use cognitive structure to be most effective. For example, in discussions of sentence structure, the linear nature of sentence parsing is emphasized, with advice to prevent misleading the reader with punctuation misdirection. Sentences should be presented with the heaviest last to lead the thoughts of the reader from the given to the new. Much of this echoes advice from writers past, but we now see it from the cognitive perspective rather than from the “this is what works from my experience” view.

For my writing here at ODB, I took to heart the need to present work in “consistent thematic strings”, laying out a topic then supporting it with concepts that explain, enrich or comment on the thought. In The Sense of StyePinker emphasizes the need to refer to any particular idea in a consistent manner to build the reader’s ability to keep track of that idea as a single symbolic entity. Writing a blog as a “coherent text” is a huge challenge because of it’s episodic nature. A blog can’t be fully architected with an outline, it flows as a long discourse. Perhaps hypertext techniques are one solution to this problem. Links to previous writing can enforce a kind of discipline to create at least an emergent structure. This is difficult with a simple string of posts in a web content system like WordPress. Some organization of blog posts with notes like Tinderbox or in plain text a Zettelkasten system is probably necessary behind the scenes as a means of organizing the emergent structure of this style of writing.

In the end, The Sense of Style fulfills its purpose as a style manual for the 21st century. Its based on cognitive science and real world usage, not myths and formalisms. The final section, “Telling Right from Wrong” provides lists of usage advice, but turns more discursive and is often incomplete, feeling like a bit of a compromise in structure. As a two part book- a history and exposition on style and then some examples it succeeds well enough.

Thinking or Seeing?

Deep Deciding

Our subjective experience presents a very narrow view of the mind. We experience a sequential, slow train of thought. An image bubbles up, a symbol is manipulated, or a future is imagined. This is the the thinking, not the seeing. Knowing seems arises from some vast unconsious store of memory not currently in consciousness, but able to be loaded as needed. Brought to mind, but not part of it.

This conscious experience is misleading because it fails to capture everything going on in the brain. Cal Newport calls the broader enterprise of understanding by using all of the components of the brain deep working. I’ll call deciding using the whole brain deep deciding.

Deep deciding feels like intuition- decisions from the gut are based on internal models of the world. Its a deep understanding of other people that allows us to choose the right thing to say whether the goal is to convince or to comfort.

Our Models

The idea that the brain models the world and the models are used for deciding was, for me, a fundemental insight. It was where the brain science met decision making. These internal brain models are not directly accessabile to us and can’t be directly examined, yet they allow us to know what’s true without thinking at all. We make decisions with any explicit train of thought of weighing alternatives. We can tell ourselves a story about how the world got to be in its present state and what we can do to change it in an instant, without any process in consciousness. The mind is much deeper. In an “aha moment”, puzzlement changes instantly to deep and pervasive understanding … at least for a little while.

This deep thinking by the brain seems natural for the neuroscientist who understands the brain as a complex web of connections that build internal representions – the visual world, the rise and fall of a melody or the complex shades of meaning in a single choice of word. Deciding better depends on improving the quality of those internal representations. It’s in the seeing, not the thinking.

Beginning Again

Since this personal journal first appeared in 1999, I’ve restarted it many times. Here I am once again, at the start.

I’m at a new job, having spent the last two years as Chief Medical Officer at a biotech, I’m now back on the Contract Research Organization (CRO) side of drug development The work environment is more conducive to this long-term project I call “On Deciding … Better”.

It’s easy to declare a new start at these transition points. Just as every morning it should be easy to start again with the opportunity provided by a new day.

But realistically, what chance does a new beginning have against the weight of personal history? My beliefs that determine how I parse the world are not new today. The accumulated experiences that have shaped my mind can’t be put aside in the morning though a simple act of will, by any decision to start over.

Writing this journal has given me the opportunity to create a personal body of work in photography and in writing. There’s traction created by the act of publishing that puts what I’ve done in the past and creates a new blank page that challenges me to create once again. I don’t need the audience and I have no intention of making a living as an artist. But as Austin Kleon points out in Show Your Work!, the act of putting work out there on a blog or Flickr brings it into the world and allows for a communal process of creation. My work would be nothing if never shown.

Sharing these texts and photographs on the blog has marked my progress over time. Without the string of posts, the work is suspended in an eternal middle. And so I return in order to begin again, to rise up and start off down the road..

Can Reflection and Self-Examination Work?

This Plate For Now

Dave Rogers always reminds me what it’s like to be read.

It may seem that we’re caught in horrible solipsistic trap, interpreting the world via these brain maps. If we can only know our own mind, then the real world out there is really just illusion. Fortunately, the real world pushes back and asserts itself like the pain produced when banging the head against the wall. With our symbolic tools of language that abstract the maps into notes, conversations and blog posts, we can get out of our heads and team up with other minds to improve the usefulness of our internal maps, even to the point of knowing things that are beyond any ability to experience.

Even the lone mind, with reflection and self-examination, can see the world more clearly through a more accurate map of its own actions. Perhaps just the recognition of that these deep assumptions and models of the world are embodied in the brain, controlling actions without conscious consideration can help. We can free those higher aspirations to have just a few more degrees of freedom to choose more wisely.

On Mapping Better

Rug and Bricks

Intuitively, the idea that the brain is creating maps is appealing. Our language is full of the metaphor of the physical world, like distance (“We’re far apart on this issue” or “Lets take a step back and look at the whole picture”). Whether an idea is hot or cool, a company is big or small, there is an inescapable physicality to metaphor. And it may be inescapable for a very good reason- mind is embodied in a physical world.

Since there’s no direct contact with this physical world, these metaphors leave the world directly unknowable. We only experience maps of the world, rendering the metaphor as a subjective illusion. William James assumed the world should be out there, but as a neuropsychologist, realized it doesn’t really look like that, not the way we think it looks.

Fortunately, a world of illusion allows for creating better maps, better metaphors that work better. I think the journey to deciding better is learning better mapping methods, ones that work better.

On Mapping

Cut Here

It may be that the brain really only contains maps that are analogues of the physical world. The eyes are a simple mapping of the three dimensional visual world onto two flat maps, the retina at the back of each eye. Binocular vision and a three channel color system provides several maps that are eventually assembled in the brain into maps of line, form, color, motion, and the world in space as it would appear visual if the brain could see directly. Similarly sound is mapped through two ears binaurally in time and by frequency to create a sound map of timbre and spatial location.

It seems possible that, in the brain, the maps of mathematics, morality and meaning are adaptations of the maps of the physical world. What if we move in moral space toward what’s right? In the space of desire toward what is most desired?