Chaotic Logic -- Copyright Plenum Press © 1994
Everything is related to everything else; in fact, if properly perceived, any one thing can be seen to contain everything else. This interpenetration, however, need not act as a hindrance to thinking about the overall nature of the world. One must merely pick some concept as a starting point, arbitrarily, and take it where it leads. The deeper one digs into one's initial concept, the more of the interconnected web of ideas one will uncover.
Our main concerns so far have been logic, language, and their roles in the mental network. In this chapter, the scope of the discussion will broaden, almost to the point of disorganization (but not quite). I will consider language in its connection to deductive thought, consciousness, evolution, and physical reality. But this does not represent a digression or a change of subject: it is merely a matter of delving deeper into the nature of language, so deep that one encounters these other issues as well.
The connections drawn in this chapter will be essential to the rest of the book. I will pose the crucial question of how language, logic and consciousness conspire with memory to create self, intuition and reality. The "final" resolution of these question will wait until the final chapter, when ideas regarding belief systems and cognitive dynamics can be drawn into the picture. But with the mere posing of the question, half the work is done.
I have defined communication as the use of language to mold the world. But I have not yet probed the difficult question of just how useful language is. The "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis," also known as the hypothesis of linguistic determinism, suggests that the influence of communication is very great indeed. It claims that language is the main constructive force underlying the world that we see around us.
In this section I will give a new perspective on linguistic determinism. I will argue that, when viewed in a sufficiently abstract way, linguistic determinism is a natural consequence of the structure of mind. This does not imply that spoken language is responsible for every aspect of the world you see in front of you -- but it does mean that the maintenance of the belief systems which we call "self" and "external reality" would be impossible without the aid of sophisticated linguistic systems.
As has often been observed, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be divided into two separate parts. First, the idea that the structure of language is closely related to the structure of mind and "subjective" reality. Second, the idea that the structural differences between the languages of different cultures are sufficiently large to imply that these different cultures have significantly different "subjective" realities.
The first claim is the central one. The second claim implies the first. If one demonstrates that cultures think differently because they use language differently, then one has demonstrated a fortiori that language determines thought. But, suppose it turned that out cross-cultural differences in language and thought were small or uncorrelated -- this would speak against the second claim, but not the first.
Most of the criticism of Whorf's work, however, has centered on his particular arguments for the second claim, which are less theoretical and more empirical. The statistical work of Lucy (1987), Bloom (1981) and others shows that grammatical patterns do influence patterns of attention, memory and classification to a certain extent. However, Whorf seems to have exaggerated this extent somewhat. He may well have underestimated the degree of commonality between the language, logic and world-view of an aborigine and the language, logic and world-view of a New Yorker. For a concrete example of Whorfian thought, consider that, in English, we call words like "lightening, spark, wave, eddy, pulsation, flame, storm, phase, cycle, spasm, noise, emotion" nouns. Even though they refer to temporary phenomena, we tend to think of them as definite entities, and this is probably related to the way our language treats them.
In the Hopi language, 'lightning, wave, flame, meteor, puff of smoke, pulsation' are verbs -- events of necessarily brief duration cannot be anything but verbs. 'Cloud' and 'storm' are at about the lower limit of duration for nouns. Hopi, you see, actually has a classification of events (or linguistic isolates) by duration type, something strange to our modes of thought.
Based on this analysis, I would bet that Whorf is correct to hypothesize that a Hopi monolingual will tend to classify events by duration, whereas an English monolingual will only do so to a lesser degree. This is in line with the relatively conservative quasi-Whorfism of Lakoff (1987), Searle (1983), etc.
Thus a Hopi monolingual will be less likely than an English monolingual to think about waves by analogy to particles, or to think about meteors as falling objects. And some of the analogies and correspondences that come naturally to a Hopi monolingual, will take longer to come to an English monolingual. All this does not mean that there are ideas which are forbidden to a person by the "decree" of her language. But, as argued extensively in The Structure of Intelligence, analogy guides the mind in its every move. It is the reason for the structure of memory. To influence analogy is to influence cognition, memory and behavior.
Emily Schultz (1990, p. 25) has suggested that Whorf intentionally overestimated the degree of variance between languages, and the degree of control which language exerts over thought processes. Had he not done this, she claims, he would not have been so easily able to convince his audience of the essential dependence of thought on language. Parts of the following analysis of Whorf's ideas are inspired by the excellent discussion given in Schultz (1990).
To fully understand the debate over Whorf's ideas, one should really read his essays, most of which are not at all difficult. But, to get some sense of the problem, let us listen to Au (1983, 182-183), an ardent anti-Whorfian:
Many French teachers have told their English-speaking students that "Comment allez-vous?" which is literally "How go you?" actually means "How are you?" ... I wonder if some day an Apache speaker will tell us that Whorf's English translation, "as water, or springs; whiteness moves downward" actually means "It is a dripping spring"; and if a Shawnee speaker will one day tell us that "direct a hollow moving dry spot by movement of tool" actually means "cleaning a gun with a ramrod."
Au is obviously misleading us here: there is no way that his French example is analogous to his Apache and Shawnee examples. "How go you?" is not that far off from "How's it going?", which American English speakers recognize as being very similar in meaning to "How are you?" So the difference between French and English in the instance which Au gives us is very little indeed. It is unlikely that the difference between Hopi and English in describing a dripping spring is as little as the difference between French and English in this given example -- after all, French and English are closely related, and English and Apache are rather unrelated as languages go.
The "dripping spring" passage in Whorf [p.241] goes as follows:
We might isolate something in nature by saying "it is a dripping spring." Apache erects the statement on a verb ga: "be white (including clear, uncolored, and so on)." With a prefix no- the meaning of downward motion enters: "whiteness moves downward." Then to, meaning both "water" and "spring" is prefixed. The result corresponds to our "dripping spring," but synthetically it is "as water, or springs, whiteness moves downward." How utterly unlike our way of thinking!
Hoijer (1953, p.559) has given a slightly different and very penetrating analysis of this phrase "tonoga" or "tonoogah":
Dripping Springs, a noun phrase, names a spot in New Mexico where the water from a spring flows over a rocky bluff and drips into a small pool below; the English name, it is evident, is descriptive of one part of this scene, themovement of the water. The Apache term is, in contrast, a verbal phrase and accentuates quite a different aspect of the scene. The element to, which means "water," precedes the verb "noogah," which means, roughly, "whiteness extends downward." Tonoogah as a whole, then, may be translated "water-whiteness extends downward," a reference to the fact that a broad streak of white limestone deposit, laid down by the running water, extends downward on the rock.
Note that Whorf has moves where Hoijer has the less active extends. Also, note that although Hoijer emphasizes that tonoogah refers to limestone, he does not say that it refers only to limestone and not at all to water -- if it did not refer to the moving water at all, its classification as a verbal phrase would need some explanation.
Hoijer's analysis is actually more interesting than Whorf's: it points out that the Apache and the English are looking at different aspects of the same physical situation. To use the notation introduced in Chapter Two, Dripping Springs / average-English-speaker and Dripping Springs / average-Apache-speaker are not the same entity.
Depending on which language she uses, a person will tend to look at and to remember different aspects of Dripping Springs. Dripping Springs will more likely to be connected to white things in the mind of an Apache speaker than in the mind of an English speaker.
In some cases Whorf may indeed have been guilty of exaggerating the differences between Amerindian and Indo-European languages. But the matter is not so simple as Au and the other critics believe. Translation is always problematic, even between similar languages but especially between dissimilar ones. Of the Tao te Ching, G. Spencer-Brown (1972) writes
I possess some half-dozen or so of the forty-odd translations into English alone. They differ widely because the Chinese language is so powerful that any 'translation' into a western language provides only one of the many possible interpretations of the original. Chinese is a pictorial language, very poetical and mathematical, with no grammar and no parts of speech.
Whether or not you accept Spencer-Brown's assessment of the "power" of Chinese, it is indisputable that a large number of Chinese scholars, mostly competent and with no particular ax to grind, have produced rather different translations of the same very simple work. Chinese seems to permit an ambiguity that cannot be directly translated into English; when translating, one has to pick one of the several possible meanings. Of course, the ambiguity could be more accurately transmitted by providing a list of possible interpretations instead of just one, but there is a big psychological difference between a list of statements with varying meanings and a brief statement with a variety of intrinsic meanings. The latter conveys the interconnectedness of the various meanings in a direct way that the former cannot match.
This is not to say that the monolingual American reader of the Tao te Ching can never get a sense for the inter-relatedness of the various meanings contained in the original Chinese. It is just to say that she will have to work a little harder to get such a sense, that such a sense will tend to come more naturally to someone who reads the original Chinese. And the monolingual American reader will have an easier time getting this sense if she reads several different translations.
So, translation between disparate languages is a genuine problem. If Whorf made Hopi and Apache sound very different from English, but someone else can provide translations that makes Hopi and Apache sound more similar to English, what does that tell us? That one of them was right, and the other wrong? Who's to say that every Amerindian expression has one true meaning that can be formulated in one simple English expression? In Chapter Five I presented a semantical theory which indicates that meaning is indeed not this simple: that the meaning of even a simple word can be complex and hard to specify precisely.
So it is hard to say whether Whorf translated "accurately" or not. His translations were never blatantly inaccurate; they were always within the bounds of plausibility in that they maintained the commonsense meanings of the expressions involved. But what if it were true that Whorf overemphasized certain aspects of the meanings of Amerindian expressions -- namely those aspects that he felt would seem most alien to average American readers? From his interpretations he judged that Apache-, Hopi- or Shawnee-speaking Amerindians tend to think about things differently than English-speaking Americans. From other interpretations one might not conclude this. If both interpretations have some degreeof validity, then the proper conclusion is that these Amerindians do tend to think about things differently than Americans, but probably rather less so than Whorf believed. For the semantic differences which Whorf pointed out are there, they are just not as important as Whorf thought, because they do not exhaust the meanings of the Amerindian expressions in question.
Thought is influenced by all aspects of the meanings of the words and sentences it uses; it is not controlled by any of them. The view of meaning as a fuzzy set of patterns makes this point particularly clear. Whorf focused on certain subsets of the meaning-sets of Amerindian words, chosen for interest and shock value. Others claim that these subsets are not as important as Whorf thought; they argue, in effect, that the subsets which Whorf identified have small degrees of membership in the meaning fuzzy sets of the words and sentences he translated. But unless the degrees involved are truly negligible, which seems highly unlikely, this sort of quibble does not have much force against Whorf's general theory of language and mind.
Some of the most intriguing evidence in favor of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be found in a little book by Alfred Bloom, entitled The Linguistic Shaping of Thought (1981). This book dispels two illusions at once: first, the idea that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is empirically false; second, the idea (which one might get, for example, from Lucy (1987)) that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true, but only in ways that are philosophically and psychologically uninteresting. For example, Bloom reports that
In 1972-73, while I was in Hong Kong working on the development of a questionnaire designed to measure levels of abstraction in political thinking, I happened to ask Chinese-speaking subjects questions of the form, "If the Hong-Kong government was to pass a law requiring that all citizens born outside of Hong Kong make weekly reports of their activities to the police, how would you reach".... Rather unexpectedly and consistently, subjects reacted "But the government hasn't," "It can't," or "It won't." I tried to press them a little by explaining, for instance, that "I know the government hasn't and won't, but let us imagine that it does or did...." Yet such attempts to lead the subjects to reason aboutthings that they knew could not be the case only served to frustrate them and to lead to such exclamations as "We don't speak/think that way!," "It's unnatural," "It's unChinese!" Some subjects with substantial exposure to Western languages and culture even branded these questions and the logic they imply as prime examples of "Western thinking." By contrast, American and French subjects, responding to similar questions in their native languages, never seemed to find anything unnatural about them and in fact readily indulged in the counterfactual hypothesizing they were designed to elicit.
The unexpected reactions of the Chinese subjects were intriguing, not only because of the cross-cultural cognitive differences they suggested, but also because the Chinese language does not have structures equivalent to those by which English and other Indo-European languages mark the counterfactual realm.
In giving a routine political questionnaire, Bloom stumbled upon an apparent parallel between patterns of language and patterns of thought.
Subsequent empirical tests verified Bloom's original intuition. Given the same stories to read, Chinese students were far less likely than American students to place a counterfactual interpretation upon them. For example, given information of the form "The philosopher Bier, if he had come into contact with X, would have done Y," Chinese students were far more likely to assume that Bier had done things related to Y.
Of course, Bloom is not proposing that Chinese speakers cannot reason counterfactually. He gives examples of counterfactual statements in Chinese. Compared to their Indo-European counterparts, however, these are protracted and awkward. The point is that thinking counterfactually is much easier for us than for the Chinese, because our language provides us with ready-made schema for doing so.
These results are surprising and tremendously important. When I first read of them, my reaction was utter disbelief. After all, every Chinese mathematician uses reductio ad absurdum, a theorem-proving strategy which is explicitly counterfactual in nature. Obviously Chinese mathematicians develop a mental "schema" for applying counterfactual reasoning to mathematical statements.
But, after putting variants of Bloom's original survey question to several Chinese mathematicians of my acquaintance, I became a believer. My informal survey indicated that Chinese people, even those who speak reasonable English, are simply not comfortable thinking counterfactually about commonplace situations. Counterfactual reasoning in mathematical proofs would seem to be, psychologically, a different "routine" from counterfactual reasoning regarding politics and everyday life. This is an intriguing example of mental "modularization." Just as a person who reasons logically about chess need not reason logically about her boyfriend's activities, a person who reasons counterfactually in mathematics need not reason counterfactually about commonplace real-world events.
Bloom also studied other, related differences between Chinese and Indo-European languages: for instance, the use of articles, or the tendency to "entify" characteristics or acts into things themselves by adding suffixes like "-ance," "-ity," "-ness," "-tion," "-age". In each case the result is the same: the linguistic difference corresponds to a difference in interpreting events, as measured by responses to simple surveys. Obviously all humans think alike to a large extent. But there are scientifically demonstrable differences, which are not academic but rather closely bound up with the interpretation of everyday events.
This brings us to another invalid argument often made against Whorf's ideas: that the very concept of linguistic relativity is self-contradictory. After all, it is asked, if our thoughts and perceptions are not based on objective reality but only on linguistic structures, then how can we trust those thoughts and perceptions that led us to the concept of linguistic relativity in the first place? Whorf is accused of asserting the objective truth of the impossibility of objective truth.
This argument is wrong for many reasons, the main one being that Whorf never actually made such a strong statement for linguistic determinism. He always left loopholes in his statements -- using "largely" instead of "entirely," and so on.
Statements which at first glance seem very strong become, on closer consideration, somewhat open-ended. For instance, consider Whorf's contention that
the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds -- and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. [p. 215]
Here there are two loopholes. First, "largely" -- what exactly does this imply? And then, "linguistic systems" -- given the concept of an abstract "language of thought," and the fact that Whorf has elsewhere called mathematics and music "quasilanguages," it is not clear exactly what this phrase is supposed to mean.
Whorf just plain never claimed that language controls thought, unilaterally and absolutely. And there is nothing paradoxical in the idea that linguistic structures are a big influence on our thoughts and perceptions. Even big influences can potentially be overcome -- with hard work and continual self-consciousness, or occasionally just by chance.
The misperception of Whorf as an extremist has caused many current researchers to distance themselves from Whorf, while at the same time applying many of his ideas. Listen, for example, to Searle (1983):
I am not saying that language creates reality. Far from it. Rather I am saying that what counts as reality -- what counts as a glass of water or a book or a table, what counts as the same glass or a different book or two tables -- is a matter of the linguistic categories that we impose on the world.... And furthermore, when we experience the world, we experience it through categories that help shape the experiences themselves. The world doesn't come to us already sliced up into objects and experiences; what counts as an object is already a function of our system or representation, and how we perceive the world in our experiences is influenced by that system of representation. The mistake is to suppose that the application of language to the world consists of attaching labels to objects that are, so to speak, self identifying. On my view, the world divides the way we divide it.... Our concept of reality is a matter of our linguistic categories.
Searle's emphasis on "categories" is reminiscent of Lakoff's (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, the title of which refers to an aboriginal language thatgroups women, fire and dangerous things together under one categorical name. It also reminds of Hilary Putnam's formal-semantic theorem, to the effect that
'Objects' do not exist independently of conceptual schemes. We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one or another scheme of description....
It has become acceptable in philosophical and anthropological circles to admit that language guides our categorization of the world. If Whorf were still around, how would he react to this? I suspect he would observe that categorization is just the simplest kind of patternment: that language does guide the way we group things together, but it also guides our perceptions and cognitions in subtler ways.
And Whorf might also be a bit amused to find the claim that "our concept of reality is a matter of our linguistic categories" in the same essay as the statement that "I am not saying language creates reality. Far from it." It would seem that contemporary thinkers like Searle find Whorfian ideas useful, but they want to avoid controversy by marking a sharp distinction between "our concept of reality" and "reality." What difference does this phenomenal/noumenal distinction make, in practice?
So far I have defended Whorf against his critics. However, I must admit that on some issues Whorf went too far even for me. For instance, Whorf probably would not have agreed with the ideas about language and culture sketched in Section 2.7 above. He supposed that written and spoken languages, along with "quasilanguages" like music and mathematics, had a special power and coherence lacked by belief systems such as those inherent in culture. Regarding the interconnection between linguistic, social and psychological realms, he wrote:
How does such a network of language, culture and behavior come about historically? Which was first: the language patterns or the cultural norms? In main they have grown up together, constantly influencing each other. But in this partnership the nature of the language is the factor that limits free plasticity and rigidifies channels of development in the more autocratic way. This is so because a language is a system, not just an assemblage of norms. Large systematic outlines can change to something really new onlyvery slowly, while many other cultural innovations are made with comparative quickness. Language thus represents the mass mind; it is affected by inventions and innovations, but affected little and slowly, whereas TO inventors and innovators it legislates with the decree immediate. (p. 156)
Even the most unsophisticated reader would be unlikely to miss the ambivalence of this passage. In the beginning of the paragraph, "in the main they [language, culture and behavior] have grown up together." But by the end of the paragraph, language is "affected little and slowly," whereas language "legislates [to culture and behavior] with the decree immediate." Which is it? Is it coevolution between two systems of roughly equal complexity, or is it the adaptation of a relatively simple system to a much more complex one, with relatively little influence in the opposite direction?
In the end Whorf adopts what I would call a strict Darwinist point of view (see The Evolving Mind for a great deal more on strict Darwinism). Many evolutionary biologists believe that one cannot analyze evolution without taking into account the fact that the environment of an organism -- consisting as it does of other evolving organisms -- evolves along with the organism, adapting to the organism at the same time as the organism adapts to it. Some, such as James Lovelock (1988), even believe that the physical environment evolves to match the organisms which simultaneously evolve to match it. In contrast to these points of view, the strict Darwinists believe that each organism evolves independently, stringently influenced by the systematic structure and dynamics of its environment but having very little influence upon its environment. Whorf looks at cultural and behavioral patterns in the same way that strict Darwinism looks at organisms: helpless in the face of the awesome power of their environment, their only option is effective accomodation.
Unlike Whorf, I do not agree that cultural and behavioral systems are "just a collection of norms." Far from it. The whole field of social psychology speaks against this supposition. These systems are indeed a collection of norms, but a collection full of subtle interconnections and interdefinitions.
As to their effect on human existence, compared to the effect of language on human existence, here again I must differ with Whorf. Language's effect may be subtler and in some ways deeper, but the influence of cultural and behavioral systems is much more direct.
Spoken language encodes basic background assumptions that subtly guide our analogies. It thus plays a role throughout the mind -- in the language of Chapter Three, at virtually every level of the dual network, in virtually every cluster of processes (only the very lowest levels are exempt). But systems of other kinds guide our analogies as well, perhaps not quite so subtly or pervasively, but in many cases more powerfully. Belief systems about the nature of social and physical reality, or particular aspects thereof, guide our analogies very strongly.
And, finally, it is worth noting that even behavior systems can sometimes guide our cognitive processes. For when we adopt a certain role, put on a certain "performance," we associate things that we would not associate otherwise; and the mind is very good at recognizing and storing associations. This is a relationship which deserves much more attention than it has received.
The dual network model, as outlined in Chapter Three, is a high-level "wiring diagram" for intelligent systems. But it sidesteps the question: where does consciousness fit in? In The Structure of Intelligence, consciousness is modeled as a process that moves from level to level of the multilevel control hierarchy, but only within a certain restricted range. If the zero level is arbitrarily selected to represent the "average" level of consciousness, then we may say consciousness resides primarily on levels from -L to U. The levels below -L represent perceptions that are generally below conscious perception. Consciousness is at a distance from the lowest levels of the hierarchy, which represent "sense data" -- it deals only with constructions of at least moderate complexity. And, on the other hand, the levels above U represent perceptions that are in some sense beyond conscious perception: too abstract or general for consciousness to encompass.
This theory of consciousness is similar in some respects to Jackendoff's (1986) "intermediate level" theory of consciousness, which states that consciousness corresponds to mental representations that lie midway between the most peripheral, sensory level and the most "central," thoughtlike level. Jackendoff points out that his idea
goes against the grain of the prevailing approaches to consciousness, which start with the premise that consciousness is unified and then try to locate a unique source for it. [My theory] claims that consciousness is fundamentally not unified and that one should seek multiple sources. [p.52]
Consciousness is not in one place; it is rather associated with a collection of processes that occur in intermediate levels of the psychological hierarchy.
We have located consciousness in the dual network. But we have not said what it is. What tasks does it accomplish, and what does it depend on? One intriguing hypothesis in this direction is supplied by Daniel Dennett, in his book Consciousness Explained.
A "meme" is defined as a sociocultural pattern, passed along from generation to generation. Dennett believes that consciousness is a meme rather than something intrinsic to the structure of the brain. He proposes that
Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or, more exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can best be understood as the operation of a " von Neumannesque" [serial] virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for any such activities. The powers of this virtual machine vastly enhance the underlying powers of the organic hardware on which it runs, but at the same time many of its most curious features, and especially its limitations, can be explained as the byproducts of the kludges that make possible this curious but effective reuse of an existing organ for novel purposes.
What is the intuition underlying this radical hypothesis? Thinking of the streams of consciousness that permeate James Joyce's fiction, Dennett gives this "von Neumannesque" serial machine the alternate label "Joycean machine." And, subjectively, in most states of mind at any rate, consciousness does seem to flow like a stream rather than an ocean: all in one direction, one thought after another.
"I am sure you want to object," Dennett writes, that "[a]ll this has little to do with consciousness! Afterall, a von Neumann machine is entirely unconscious: why should implementing it ... be any more conscious?" But this objection does not faze him:
I do have an answer: The von Neumann machine, by being wired up from the outset that way, with maximally efficient informational links, didn't have to become the object of its own elaborate perceptual systems. The workings of the Joycean machine, on the other hand, are just as "visible" and "audible" to it as any of the things in the external world that it is designed to perceive -- for the simple reason that they have much of the same perceptual machinery focused on them.
Now this appears to be a trick with mirrors, I know. And it certainly is counterintuitive, hard-to-swallow, initially outrageous -- just what one would expect of an idea that could break through centuries of mystery, controversy and confusion.
In response to the question of what good this complex meme called consciousness does us, Dennett quotes Margolis (1987) to the effect that a human being ... cannot easily or ordinarily maintain uninterrupted attention on a single problem for more than a few tens of seconds. Yet we work on problems that require vastly more time. The way we do that ... requires periods of mulling to be followed by periods of recapitulation, describing to ourselves what seems to have gone on during the mulling, leading to whatever intermediate results we have reached.... [B]y rehearsing these interim results ... we commit them to memory, for the immediate contents of the stream of consciousness are very quickly lost unless rehearsed.... Given language, we can describe to ourselves what seemed to occur during the mulling that led to a judgement, produce a rehearsable version of the reaching-a-judgement process, and commit that to long-term memory by in fact rehearsing it.
This is nothing more than good common sense. It is well known that consciousness cannot contain more than around seven entities at one time. Therefore, most of the regularities present in the mind cannot enter directly into consciousness. But by use of language, complexphenomena can be encapsulated in simple statements, and thus presented to consciousness. If the unconscious "wishes" to present something to consciousness, it must translate some approximation of this thing into simple terms, let consciousness work with the simplified expression, and then afterwards translate back. Language is the number one tool for this kind of translation.
The dual network is intrinsically parallel, but it is possible for a process or group of processes within the dual network to repeatedly feed itself its own output as input, thus creating a miniature virtual serial machine, temporarily ignorant of the massively parallel processing going on all around it. The dual network may in many cases connect A and B, and have A and B repeatedly exchange the results of computations without consulting any other processes -- this is virtual seriality, where one's "serial machine" consists of A and B together.
I don't completely buy Dennett's computationalist treatment of consciousness. However, I do agree with him that there is a very close connection between consciousness and virtual serial processing.
In Chapter Three we reviewed two important uses for virtual serial processing: making logical deductions, and predicting complex systems by simulation. A few pages above we discussed another, related use: general linguistic deduction. Subjectively, these actions are all closely connected with consciousness.
Margolus, in the quote given above, has eloquently presented the phenomenological case for the relevance of consciousness to linguistic deduction. In order to compute high-depth elements of D(I,T) for standard linguistic and logical systems, we need to use a complex combination of serial conscious thought and analogical/associative-memory thought. Introspectively, neither one process alone appears to suffice.
And the phenomenological connection between consciousness and prediction is no less direct. Suppose one wants to determine the likely consequences of a given action. One may intuit, in a semi-conscious flash, some guess as to the answer. But in order to be sure, one will reason it out slowly and carefully: what will be the immediate consequences, then the consequences of these consequences, and so forth. Almost all prediction is purely unconscious: but when situations get too uncertain, when they deviate too far from past experience, then consciousness has to intervene to dealwith things serially, by approximate simulation. In other words, walking down the street, one chooses a path unconsciously. But leaping through a stream from one rock to the next, one chooses one's path consciously, weighing each choice in terms of the array of future choices that it will lead to.
In sum, according to Dennett's "computationalist" vision, consciousness is a phenomenon
1) closely related with,
2) on the same levels as, and
3) dealing largely with the output of
serial, linguistic processing. This conception of consciousness is all that is necessary to fit the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis together with the pattern-theoretic analysis of language and mind. For it leads to the conclusion that language helps to determine the world we consciously perceive.
Dennett's consciousness-as-meme idea is not a new one, nor is his picture of consciousness as linguistic deduction. His entire theoretical framework is, in fact, very similar to the view of consciousness articulated by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882:
... Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this -- the most superficial and worst part -- for only this conscious thinking takes the form of words, which is to say signs of communication, and this fact uncovers the origin of consciousness.
In brief, the development of language and the development of consciousness ( not of reason but merely of the way reason enters consciousness) go hand in hand.... The emergence of our sense impressions into our own consciousness, the ability to fix them and, as it were, exhibit them externally, increased proportionately with the need to communicate them to others by means of signs...
... [C]onsequently, given the best will in the world to understand ourselves as individually as possible, "to know ourselves," each of us will always succeed in becoming conscious only of what is not individual but "average"...
This is the essence of phenomenalism and perspectivism as I understand them: Owing to the nature of animal consciousness, the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface- and sign-world, a world that is made common.... (The Gay Science; 1968b)
Nietzsche interpreted the high degree of consciousness which we humans display as a socio-cultural phenomenon, an exaggeration of animal consciousness which evolved together with language -- which evolved, in short, as a meme. But his view of the utility of consciousness was not quite so rosy as Dennett's. According to Nietzsche, only conscious thinking is forced into the straightjacket of language, and for this precise reason conscious thinking is much less fertile than unconscious thinking. Language is for social interaction, therefore that which can be put in the form of language is precisely that which is common rather than that which is individual, unusual, unique.
Yet one cannot conclude that Nietzsche felt linguistic, conscious thought to be unimportant or useless. His attitude was much more complex than that. In a draft of a preface for his never-written treatise The Will To Power, he wrote "This is a book for thinking, nothing else." But in the notes for that very book, he wrote of thinking:
Language depends on the most naive prejudices....
We cease to think when we refuse to do so under the constraint of language; we barely reach the doubt that sees this limitation as a limitation.
Rational thought is interpretation according to a scheme that we cannot throw off. (p.283)
This is about as Whorfian a statement as one could ever hope to find. Nietzsche valued linguistic, conscious, rational thought immensely -- for much of his life it was his only solace from physical suffering. But he did not trust it, he did not see it as objective; he refused to treat it as a religion.
Whorf's work focused on the differences in world-view implied by differences in linguistic structure. Nietzsche, on the other hand, saw certain very simple, very essential elements in common to all languages, andperceived that they played an essential role in the construction of the concept of an internal and an external world.
For instance, Whorf wrote of the way English, but not Hopi, refers to lightening as an object. Nietszche saw this objectification of non-objects -- crucial in the construction of the external world -- not as a peculiar feature of some languages, but rather as a consequence of the one central objectification involved in isolating the "self," the inner actor, as distinct from everything else.
Our bad habit of taking a mnemonic, an abbreviative formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, e.g., to say of lightening "it flashes." Or the little word "I."
[H]itherto one believed, as ordinary people do, that in "I think" there was something of immediate certainty, and that this "I" was the given cause of thought, from which by analogy we understood all other causal relationships. However habitual and indispensible this fiction may have become by now -- that in itself proves nothing against its imaginary origin: a belief can be a condition of life and nonetheless be false. (p.268)
The self, the "I", is understood as the basis of the linguistic concept of subject, of actor. Thus the construction of a self, and the construction of an external world, are perceived as closely related, as emanating from the same fundamental principles. The concept of subject, in Nietszche's view, is a prime example of the subtle inter-connection of language and thought. Our language assigns imaginary subjects to actions, and we correspondingly assign imaginary subjects to actions in our conscious and near-conscious thinking; we construct an external world based largely on subjects. And we postulate an imaginary entity called I, and attribute to this subject a host of actions that are actually due to the independent and interactive behavior of a number of different subsystems.
These "imaginary" subjects may be understood as the result of an overextended analogy. First, events are correlated with other temporally prior events -- e.g. smoke is correlated with fire. Then, it is observed that in many cases it is useful, and hence satisfying, to explain a large number of different events in terms of one temporally prior entity. General concepts like"weather," "hatred," "patriotism," and so forth arise, each one out of the desire to explain a certain collection of effects with one entity. These concepts refer to definite collections of specific phenomena; they are simply tools for thinking and remembering.
But then what happens is that, when something cannot be explained in detail, a general concept is adduced as an "explanation." This is not always a mistake: given limited resources, a mind cannot explain everything in detail. It must learn to recognize which things can be explained in terms of well known ideas, and can be ignored until the pressing need to analyze them arises, and which things are anomalous, requiring special attention so that trouble will not occur when the need to analyze them arises. But it is a mistake sometimes: a general concept is adduced as an explanation for a phenomenon to which it simply does not apply. Thus "it flashes" for lightening.
"It bit me" is meaningful, it is a general explanation which could easily be backed up by a detailed explanation. But "it flashes" is not: this is a general explanation which is really unrelated to any detailed explanation. The only possible related detailed explanation would be of the form "this and that combination of atomspheric phenomena flashes" -- but that is severely stretching the concept of it, and in any case it is not the sort of explanation that would come naturally to the mind of a non-meteorologist. "I did it" is problematic for the same reason "it flashes" is no good. It is not just a shorthand for some detailed explanation ready at hand, it is an empty abstraction.
P.T. Geach, in Mental Acts, has made this point in a particularly eloquent way:
The word 'I', spoken by P.T.G., serves to draw people's attention to P.T.G.; and if it is not at once clear who is speaking, there is a genuine question 'Who said that?' or 'Who is "I"?' Now, consider Descartes brooding ... saying 'I'm getting into an awful muddle -- but then who is this "I" who is getting into a muddle?' When 'I'm getting into a muddle' is a soliloquy, 'I' certainly does not serve to direct Descartes' attention to Descartes, or to show that it is Descartes, none other, who is getting into a muddle. We are not to argue, though, that since 'I' does not refer to the man Rene Descartes it has some other, more intangible thing to refer to. Rather, in this context the word 'I' is idle,superfluous, it is used only because Descartes is habituated to the use of 'I' in expressing his thoughts and feelings to other people.
According to Whorf, this reification of the subject does not happen in Hopi and other non-Indo-European languages. But on this point I must side with Nietzsche. The grammatical manifestation of reification may vary from language to language, but I very strongly suspect that every language postulates some form of imaginary acting entity. This, unlike use of counterfactuals, emphasis on flux versus stasis, and other linguistically varying phenomena, is absolutely essential to the concept of language. It is an instinctive application of analogical reasoning to the act of naming on which all communication is based, and no culture can escape from it. Humans cannot help but attach a certain amount of concrete reality to the symbols that they use. We can, as Nietzsche suggested, fight this tendency, but this is a battle which no one can ever completely win.
An interesting spin-off of this analysis of imaginary subjects is the theory that free will is an emotion inspired by language. Nietzsche's analyzed free will as
the expression for the complex state of delight of the person exercising volition, who commands and at the same time identifies himself with the executor of the order -- who, as such, enjoys also the triumph over obstacles, but thinks within himself that it was really his will itself that overcame them. In this way the person exercising volition adds the feelings of delight of his successful executive instruments, the useful 'underwills' or undersouls -- indeed, our body is but a social structure composed of many souls -- to his feelings of delight as commander. L'effet c'est moi: what happens here is what happens in every well-constructed and happy commonwealth; namely, the governing class identifies itself with the successes of the commonwealth. (1968, p.216)
The feeling of free will, according to Nietszche, involves 1) the feeling that there is indeed an entity called a "self", and 2) the assignation to this "self" of "responsibility" for one's acts.
In The Structure of Intelligence, "delight" and related emotions are given a pattern-theoretic treatment. Following Paulhan, happiness is analyzed as the feelingof increasing order, increasing interemergence and interconnectedness. Here, let us focus instead on the nature of the delight involved. Free will is the special kind of happiness derived from a process attributing the successes of its "servant" processes to itself -- in other words, it is an example of the joy of making the postulate of an imaginary subject. And this postulate is linguistic in nature, so that the connection between free will and consciousness is precisely as close as the relation between language and consciousness.
So far, I have discussed some of the correlates of consciousness; but I have not explained consciousness itself. To get at the true nature of consciousness, one must confront the feeling of "raw existence" or "self-presence" that is the essence of what we call living.
This is a very difficult task, and I will approach is obliquely, by first looking at consciousness is through the medium of biology. The biological approach cannot give us the final answer to what is fundamentally a psychological problem. But it will be remarkably useful in setting us on the right path.
Consciousness is self-perception. And self-perception could, theoretically, be achieved in two ways. First, by special "perception" routines used only for perceiving high-level mental activities. Or second, by general "perception" routines that are also used for something else. Evolutionary thinking makes the second possibility seem far more attractive.
For, suppose the first alternative holds. These special self-perception routines would have to be quite sophisticated. How would they ever get started, in the natural history of the brain? Clearly, in their initial stages, they could have no adaptive advantage. They would have to arise as the side-effect of something else. But what?
The second alternative, on the other hand, requires no mysterious "evolution out of the blue." Lower animals demonstrate progressively more sophisticated neural routines for perceiving the outer world. If consciousness uses these routines for self-perception, then its evolution is not so much of an enigma. All that the evolution of consciousness required was the additionof some new connections onto a complex, fine-tuned, already existing mechanism.
The most reasonable hypothesis, therefore, is that consciousness is the result of taking neural maps normally used for perceiving the outside world, and applying them, not to the external stimuli for which they were intended, but to the inner workings of the mind. Of course, the lowest levels of perceptual processes cannot possibly be applied outside of the context for which they evolved. But for slightly higher levels, this is not true. What about the processes that assemble various pictures together into a scene? What about the processes that distinguish meaningful sounds or images from background information that is less relevant or interesting. These are highly developed aspects of the human perceptual mechanism.
What I am suggesting is that consciousness works by mapping higher-level thought processes into middle-level sensory data. Consciousness consists of "fooling" the perceptual mechanism into thinking it is working with constructs built up directly from external sense data, when it is actually working with transformed versions of patterns from levels above it. This explains what we mean when we say we are "thinking visually" about something, or "thinking in words." We mean that our self-perception uses the standard perception routines of the brain, which evolved for perception of data coming in from particular sense organs: eyes, ears, noses, taste buds, skin. Our ideas are mapped into pictures, sounds, perhaps even smells, and in this disguise they are grouped into wholes and "perceived." Then the perceptions obtained in this way give rise to higher-level patterns, which may be fed back down to the perceptual mechanisms, repeating the process and giving rise to the familiar circularity of consciousness.
This view is fairly closely related to Edelman's (1989) theory of consciousness. According to Edelman, consciousness represents the interaction between
1) the recognition of patterns in "interoceptive input," input from neural maps gauging the state of the body. This categorization is mediated by the hypothalamic and endocrine systems, the "reptile brain"
2) the recognition of patterns emergent between "interoceptive input" and "exteroceptive" input. Exteroceptive input, input from outside the body, is mediated by hippocampus, septum and cingulate gyri; the recognition of emergent patterns takes place in the thalamus and cortex.
The interaction between these two processes is a kind of "re-entry" between higher-level cognitive emergent-pattern recognition and lower-level "automatic" interoceptive and exteroceptive pattern recognition.
However, while Edelman explores many interesting neurological details, he omits any detailed discussion of the intuitive, psychological role of perceptual mechanisms in consciousness. The issue of "fooling," and its relationship to the subjective experience of consciousness, is never drawn into the picture. Thus, on a psychological level, Edelman's theory of consciousness is somewhat disappointing, particularly in comparison to his Neural Darwinist theory of learning, which is so suggestive both biologically and psychologically.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that none of this contradicts Dennett's "consciousness-as-meme" idea. I have said that there are neural connections leading from higher-level processes, through transformation processes into middle-level perceptual processes. These connections have evolved; they are there in every human brain. But they may be strengthened through repeated use, or weakened through disuse. Coming into frequent contact with other conscious persons would seem to be a prerequisite for the strengthening of these connections. In this sense, therefore, consciousness may be said to be a "meme." The presence of the connections is genetic, but their strength is memetic.
Now, finally, I am ready to put all the pieces together: consciousness, language, seriality, thought, and perception. The first step in this unification is to do what neither Dennett, Jackendoff or any other modern cognitive scientist has done: to say what good consciousness is. I propose, following Nietzsche, that the function of consciousness is to manufacture reality.
Consciousness is a feedback dynamic involving higher-level "cognitive" processes and middle-level perceptual processes. What I am suggesting is that a pattern only acquires the presence, the solidity that we call "reality," if it has repeatedly passed through this feedback loop.
Philip K. Dick defined reality as "That which doesn't go away when you stop believing in it." Reality is a kind of near imperviousness to mental dynamics, a refusal to be altered by the natural re-organization processes of the dual network. The dual network constantly readjusts itself, swapping one subnetwork foranother in quest of greater associativity and fortuitous genetic creation. But those subnetworks which are real cannot be broken up; their pieces cannot be swapped for other pieces.
To put it metaphorically, elements of reality are like islands in the sea of mind. As with real islands, a sufficiently large storm can maul or bury them: there are degrees of restriction. But normal weather patterns rearrange the sea and leave the islands intact.
Why would passing through the feedback loop from higher-level to middle-level tend to cause relative imperviousness? The answer to this lies in the specific middle-level perceptual processes involved. These are, I suggest, primarily
1) those processes which act to combine a group of different sensations from the same sense organ together into a single cohesive entity -- a "scene," "image," "sound," "physical location," etc.
2) those processes which act to combine entities recognized by different senses (hearing, vision, touch, etc.) into a single, united form.
Each time something is passed through these processes, it attains a degree of cohesion, a degree of resistance to being broken up. When something is passed through again and again and again, it achieves a superlative degree of cohesion and resistance -- it becomes real.
The process of grouping disparate elements together into a whole is a complex one. However, I suggest that one key part of this process is an increase in the degree of restriction against rearrangements. A subnetwork which cannot easily be disrupted by rearrangement dynamics is inherently much wholer than one which can. And once it is protected against rearrangement, its parts have the leisure to slowly adjust themselves to one another, thus attaining yet more refined wholeness. Finally, passing some X through the restriction-degree-increase routines over and over again would obviously result in the construction of extremely solid barriers around that X.
In this view, consciousness is a serial process. And it is very similar to the serial processes of prediction, logical deduction, and syntactic sentence, percept-, or act-formation. All of these processes involve a re-entry from higher to lower. Something is built up -- a phrase, say, out of words; or a future, out of the present. And then it is passed down to the level where its parts came from: the phrase is plugged into a syntactic operation as if it were a word; the futurescenario is treated conjecturally as a present and the mental routines for "present-world" manipulation are applied to it.
But mere similarity is not the only relation between consciousness and deductive, serial processing. Perhaps more crucial is the fact that in the context of the dual network, structured transformation systems require the interim asusmption of reality every step of the way. How could deduction work if one step were altered before the next were complete? How could prediction work if the one-week prediction were rearranged before the two-week prediction was done? How could a complex sentence be formed if, while the sentence was being structured on a global level, the subservient phrases of the sentence were being replaced with phrases of completely different types? The re-entrant processes involved in applying structured transformation systems require reality to be introduced at each step. And reality, I have argued, requires consciousness.
This, I suggest, is the true nature of the relationship between consciousness, language and thought. Language structures the memory which guides the structured transformation systems of deductive and predictive thought. But neither sentence formation nor deduction nor prediction could function without consciousness.
Nietzsche lamented the "coarseness" of the ideas contained in consciousness. But this is inevitable: it is in the very nature of consciousness to construct ideas that are rigid. Unconscious ideas are bound to be more fluid, more adept at intuitive shifting. But most of these unconscious ideas were constructed by structured transformation systems, which require local rigidity for their effective operation.
Specifically, imaginary subjects, which annoyed Nietzsche so, are precisely the price one pays for having linguistic systems that talk about subjects. Without reifying things, without assuming and imposing their reality, there is no way to keep them solid in the midst of the shifting dynamics of the mind; there is no way to keep them in one place long enough to work with them. Sometimes the reification turns out to be a little too much -- "I" or "lightning" are reified for one purpose, and then used for another. But the mind is notoriously error-prone; it is a strict adherent to Murphy's Law. The cost of avoiding this type of error would be great asto make thought impossible. Consciousness, and reification along with it, are necessary components of the unconscious creativity which Nietzsche so extolled.
On the other hand, it would be just as futile to lament the unconsciousness of most of the mind. If everything were made conscious, the mind would freeze up, it would grind to a halt. Structured transformation systems, which are the main reason consciousness is necessary, also require associative memory, which is maintained only by the fluidity of subnetworks that have not been made real through consciousness.
Thus consciousness represents a sort of psychological Catch-22. In order to produce fluidity, the mind must produce rigidity. And in order to produce rigidity, the mind must produce fluidity. The two exist in a careful balance; one cannot abolish one without abolishing the other as well.
Beginning from considerations loosely biological in nature, I have arrived at a novel psychological model of consciousness, expressible solely in terms of the dynamics of the dual network. The feeling of "raw existence," I suggest, is simply the feeling of subnetworks resisting the natural urge to shift. It is the feeling of solidity resisting fluidity.
And the feeling of "self-presence" is one level up from this; it is the feeling of solidity which produces solidity. "I am" means "I, this mental process, make myself solid; I maintain my boundaries against the surrounding flux." This is not merely an egotistical delusion -- one may formally show that a mental process can make itself solid, by containing a subroutine directing itself down through the feedback loop of reality-construction. A process can self-referentially direct itself to the grouping, solidifying centers of the mind.
One way to write such a process is:
X = s, and direct X to the nearest solidifying process, please
Here s is any object of observation; one may omit it, and obtain a process which does nothing but direct itself.
Or, less formally, one may write
X = s and look at X,
X = look at X
in the simplest case, or e.g.
X = I am hungry and look at X
in a more general situation.
In later chapters I will have much more to say about self-referential formulae of this type, and their validity in psychological modeling. It will be formally demonstrated that such self-referential constructions can be elements of mind. For now, however, it is enough to suggest that there is a fundamental importance attached to the self-propelled movement of such processes through the feedback loop of consciousness. This motion, I claim, is self-awareness.
This, finally, completes our roundabout excursion into the murky waters of consciousness theory. The theory presented in this section may be understood on two levels: biological and psychological. Some of the neurological details have been fairly speculative; all of the biological statements I have made, however, are testable scientific hypotheses. Once we finish charting the connections of the brain, we will see exactly what sort of re-entry consciousness involves. If it involves re-entry into some sort of scene-making or cross-modally connecting perceptual process, then the biological theory of this section will be proved correct. If not the theory will have to be modified, or perhaps discarded.
On the other hand, the dual network model very strongly suggests that, whatever the biological details, the psychology of consciousness is one of iteratively strengthening barriers against reorganization. This is the only logical role for consciousness in the context of a continually fluctuating network of mental processes. So, from the point of view of the dual network model, the barrier-strengthening would have to be accepted even if it did not have interesting implications. But in fact it does have at least one very interesting application: it explains, from first principles, the dependence of language and reason on consciousness.
Whorf, Dennett and Nietszche, despite their vastly different theoretical perspectives, have one important thing in common: they essentially equate consciousness with language and deductive reason. But this is notsatisfactory; there is a sense in which consciousness is more basic, less complex. These other processes make use of the inherent nature of consciousness, but do not define it. The view of consciousness as iterative barrier-strengthening lets one deduce the close connection between consciousness, language and reason, rather than assuming it.
Recall that, at the start of the chapter, I decomposed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis into two separate hypotheses: 1) that the structure of language strongly influences the structure of thought; 2) that the differences between existing languages are sufficiently great to cause significant differences in thought patterns. I have said nothing new about the second claim. What I have done, however, is to derive the first claim from basic properties of the dual network model. Whorf liked to use the word "pattern"; it was essential to his thought. So it is not terribly surprising that, in developing a pattern-theoretic model of mind, I have "rediscovered" an abstract version of Whorfian linguistics.