Age of information
Greek & Latin
Mind & Brain
Science & Art
☞ A Box Of Stories
Daniel Dennett: “Natural selection is not gene centrist and nor is biology all about genes, our comprehending minds are a result of our fast evolving culture. Words are memes that can be spoken and words are the best example of memes. Words have a genealogy and it’s easier to trace the evolution of a single word than the evolution of a language.
See also: ☞ Daniel C. Dennett on an attempt to understand the mind; autonomic neurons, culture and computational architecture, Lapidarium notes
“Digital text is ushering in an era of perpetual revision and updating, for better and for worse. (…) What the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls “typographical fixity” served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law. The preservative qualities of printed books, Ms. Eisenstein argues, may be the most important legacy of Gutenberg ’s invention.
Once digitized, a page of words loses its fixity. It can change every time it’s refreshed on a screen. (…) Movable text makes a lousy preservative. (…)
What will be lost, or at least diminished, is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.
Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s “edges,” the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.”
For instance, it may not have been an accident that Plato and Aristotle wrote in Greek, while Kant wrote in German. The grammatical particles of those two languages, plus their ease in forming compound words, may have helped make them the preeminent languages of western philosophy.
Another example, familiar to all of us who studied Latin, is that highly inflected languages (ones in which word endings suffice to indicate sentence structure) can use variations of word order to convey nuances impossible with English. Our English word order is severely constrained by having to serve as the main clue to sentence structure. If English becomes a world language, that won’t be because English was necessarily the best language for diplomacy.”
Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember.
Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have became estranged. (…) Memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.”
Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers
“If we think that humans have evolved as social learners, we might be surprised to find out that being social learners has made us less intelligent than we might like to think we are. And here’s the reason why. (…) I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why. (…) We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves. (…)
As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers. (…) If we imagine that there’s some small probability that someone is a creator or an innovator, and the rest of us are followers, we can see that one or two people in a band is enough for the rest of us to copy, and so we can get on fine. And, because social learning is so efficient and so rapid, we don’t need all to be innovators. We can copy the best innovations, and all of us benefit from those. (…)
I want to go further, and suggest that our mechanism for generating ideas maybe couldn’t even be much better than random itself. And this really gives us a different view of ourselves as intelligent organisms. Rather than thinking that we know the answers to everything, could it be the case that the mechanism that our brain uses for coming up with new ideas is a little bit like the mechanism that our genes use for coming up with new genetic variance, which is to randomly mutate ideas that we have, or to randomly mutate genes that we have. (…)
We think of ourselves as so intelligent. But when we really ask ourselves about the nature of any evolutionary process, we have to ask ourselves whether it could be any better than random, because in fact, random might be the best strategy. (…)
We know they’re random in the genetic case. We think they’re random in the case of neurons exploring connections in our brain. And I want to suggest that our own creative process might be pretty close to random itself. And that our brains might be whirring around at a subconscious level, creating ideas over and over and over again, and part of our subconscious mind is testing those ideas. And the ones that leak into our consciousness might feel like they’re well-formed, but they might have sorted through literally a random array of ideas before they got to our consciousness. (…)
Maybe curiosity means trying out all sorts of ideas in your mind. Maybe curiosity is a passion for trying out ideas. Maybe Einstein’s ideas were just as random as everybody else’s, but he kept persisting at them. (…) We might even wonder if the people in our history and in our lives that we say are the great innovators really are more innovative, or are just lucky.”
“The left hemisphere is detail-oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest. It misunderstands whatever is not explicit, lacks empathy and is unreasonably certain of itself, whereas the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility and generosity, but lacks certainty.
It is vital that the two hemispheres work together, but McGilchrist argues that the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure and self-interest hold sway. (…)
Whatever the relationship between consciousness and the brain – unless the brain plays no role in bringing the world as we experience it into being, a position that must have few adherents – its structure has to be significant. It might even give us clues to understanding the structure of the world it mediates, the world we know. (…)
The structure and experience of our mental world. In this sense the brain is – in fact it has to be – a metaphor of the world. (…)
I believe that there are two fundamentally opposed realities rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. But the relationship between them is no more symmetrical than that of the chambers of the heart – in fact, less so; more like that of the artist to the critic, or a king to his counsellor. (…)
I hold that, like the Master and his emissary in the story, though the cerebral hemispheres should co-operate, they have for some time been in a state of conflict. The subsequent battles between them are recorded in the history of philosophy, and played out in the seismic shifts that characterise the history of Western culture. At present the domain – our civilisation – finds itself in the hands of the vizier, who, however gifted, is effectively an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart. Meanwhile the Master, the one whose wisdom gave the people peace and security, is led away in chains. The Master is betrayed by his emissary.”
Technology is the real skin of our species. Humanity, correctly seen in the context of the last five hundred years, is an extruder of technological material. We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do. We are like coral animals embedded in a technological reef of extruded psychic objects."
"“Nothing is ever lost” means that what we are now goes all the way back through natural history. We are biological organisms and not simply computerized brains. By focusing totally on the present, thinking only about science and computers, and forgetting four billion years of life on this planet, we are losing perspective on who and what we are. We’re running great risks of doing things that will not be good for us. The cost can be very high indeed if we reach the point where we can’t adapt to our own increasingly rapid adaptations. We run the risk of early extinction. So this certainly isn’t a triumphalist story, but it is trying to get at what, in the very long run, leads to the amazing creatures that we are. (…)
I discovered the cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald’s notion that human culture, in evolutionary terms, moves from episodic, to mimetic, to mythic, to theoretic—that made all kinds of sense. To some extent, ontogeny repeats phylogeny, because children go through something like the same thing. So it’s a deeply interdisciplinary study. I’m drawing on biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and child-development researchers all in order to understand the deep roots of what would ultimately become religion.”
“Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world. (…)
There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests. (…)
We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively. There are trillions upon trillions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.
And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us. (…)
We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to. (…) Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions. (…) The most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. (…)
“This isn’t to say that the successors of Rosenberg, Rawls and Keynes don’t exist, only that if they do, they are not likely to get traction in a culture that has so little use for ideas, especially big, exciting, dangerous ones, and that’s true whether the ideas come from academics or others who are not part of elite organizations and who challenge the conventional wisdom. All thinkers are victims of information glut, and the ideas of today’s thinkers are also victims of that glut.
But it is especially true of big thinkers in the social sciences. (…) Because they are scientists and empiricists rather than generalists in the humanities, the place from which ideas were customarily popularized, they suffer a double whammy: not only the whammy against ideas generally but the whammy against science, which is typically regarded in the media as mystifying at best, incomprehensible at worst. A generation ago, these men would have made their way into popular magazines and onto television screens. Now they are crowded out by informational effluvium.
No doubt there will be those who say that the big ideas have migrated to the marketplace, but there is a vast difference between profit-making inventions and intellectually challenging thoughts. (…) Still, while these ideas may change the way we live, they rarely transform the way we think. They are material, not ideational.
A healthy culture is like a healthy person: it is constantly changing, growing, and evolving, yet something persists through these changes, a ballast that keeps it upright and recognizable no matter how much it is buffeted by the transformative winds of trade.
We can even expand the analogy a bit, and think of a culture as something akin to a society’s immune system — it works best when it is exposed to as many foreign bodies as possible. Like kids raised in too-clean environments, cultures that are isolated from the world are beautiful but extremely fragile.
That is why, when it comes to protecting the particular cultures of the world, “authenticity” of the sort that natives engage in for tourists is probably the last thing we should be concerned with. (…) As a Pacific Island dancer replied when asked about his culture: “Culture? That’s what we do for tourists.””