Five Easy Pieces

Several articles and posts have piqued my curiosity over the last few months and what I thought to do, as part of an end of year review, is to give a brief rundown of what excited me about them and then see if there is a connecting theme or narrative. Right at the end I’ll give the links.

The first was a review in the NYRB by the wonderfully named Freeman Dyson of a book by someone called David Deutsch. The book is called The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, and Dyson, in his essay about it and its ideas, gave a quote from the seventeenth century British ‘prophet of modern science’ Francis Bacon to illustrate a point: ‘If we begin with certainties, we will end in doubt, but if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently, we may end in certainty.’ Bacon was talking about the use of the scientific method as a means to understand the world around us, as opposed to that which had been used for the previous few hundred centuries, which was to start from a religious perspective. It was an extremely radical viewpoint at the time but is now taken as the norm. It is, though, I believe, still a confronting and fascinating prospect, to begin in doubt and to bear it patiently.

The essay, following the book, focuses on the problems we face as human beings, that we have faced and always will. Here is Dyson on Deutsch:

‘Deutsch sums up human destiny in two statements that he displays as inscriptions carved in stone, “problems are inevitable” and “problems are soluble.” … These statements apply to all aspects of human activity, to ethics and law and religion as well as to art and science. In every area, from pure mathematics and logic to war and peace, there are no final solutions and no final impossibilities. He identifies the spark of insight which gave us a clear view of our infinite future, with the beginning of the British Enlightenment in the seventeenth century. He makes a sharp distinction between the British Enlightenment and the Continental Enlightenment, which arose at the same time in France.

Both enlightenments began with the insight that problems are soluble. Both of them engaged the most brilliant minds of that age in the solution of practical problems. They diverged because many thinkers of the Continental Enlightenment believed that problems could be finally solved by utopian revolutions, while the British believed that problems were inevitable. According to Deutsch, Francis Bacon transformed the world when he took the long view foreseeing an infinite process of problem-solving guided by unpredictable successes and failures.’

Dyson goes on to reject the notion of the British as the better agents in Deutsch’s version of history as rubbish, that the Chinese and the Ancient Greeks thought similar things. I, however, was very taken by this moment of divergence between those who thought things could be solved once and for all by getting government right, and those who recognised the constant nature of the challenge… I don’t care which country or group of individuals it was, I’m simply interested to note the schism and the costs which have been associated with taking each path.

The second piece comes from the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, with a transcript of him talking to The Edge, about Infinite Stupidity.

Pagel is interested in culture. In this piece he gives a quick run down of the history of evolution from the formation of the planet until now, noting that it wasn’t until humans made the genetic change from Neanderthals to the present homo sapiens that we developed the skill of social learning:

‘That difference is something that anthropologists and archaeologists call social learning. It’s a very difficult concept to define, but when we talk about it, all of us humans know what it means. And it seems to be the case that only humans have the capacity to learn complex new or novel behaviours, simply by watching and imitating others. And there seems to be a second component to it, which is that we seem to be able to get inside the minds of other people who are doing things in front of us, and understand why it is they’re doing those things. These two things together, we call social learning.

Many people respond that, oh, of course the other animals can do social learning, because we know that the chimpanzees can imitate each other, and we see all sorts of learning in animals like dolphins and the other monkeys, and so on. But the key point about social learning is that this minor difference between us and the other species forms an unbridgeable gap between us and them. Because, whereas all of the other animals can pick up the odd behaviour by having their attention called to something, only humans seem to be able to select, among a range of alternatives, the best one, and then to build on that alternative, and to adapt it, and to improve upon it. And so, our cultures cumulatively adapt, whereas all other animals seem to do the same thing over and over and over again.

Even though other animals can learn, and they can even learn in social situations, only humans seem to be able to put these things together and do real social learning. And that has led to this ‘idea evolution.’ What is a tiny difference between us genetically has opened up an unbridgeable gap, because only humans have been able to achieve this cumulative cultural adaptation.

One way to put this in perspective is to say that you can bring a chimpanzee home to your house, and you can teach it to wash dishes, but it will just as happily wash a clean dish as a dirty dish, because it’s washing dishes to be rewarded with a banana. Whereas, with humans, we understand why we’re washing dishes, and we would never wash a clean one. And that seems to be the difference. It unleashes this cumulative cultural adaptation in us.’

This is just Pagel setting up the basis of an argument that has several threads: one suggesting that social learning, for all its evolutionary appeal, is not necessarily entirely good for us. That what we’ve become, over many centuries, is very good at copying and not very good at innovation. In a tribal situation, of, say, fifteen people, he points out, it would be useful to have one innovator, and in a larger group, of, say, one hundred people, it might be good to have four or five innovators. But that number would also do for a group of five hundred. He takes it further: that, in our present society, of billions, all connected to each other through the internet, we are unlikely to foster many innovators at all, because one new idea goes a long way.

Another thread is a discussion of what innovation is, and why some people are better at it than others. Innovation is hard, he says, because it involves being prepared to be wrong, to be curious enough to try something in many many different ways and not be put off by not getting it right each time.

Pagel, it seems to me, is linking social learning as an evolutionary force to genetic evolution, contending that the process is similar and similarly random. That those we regard as brilliant, as having genius, are those who are prepared to be curious, to put themselves in the way of random ideas and to explore them without fear of being shamed.

(A slight diversion here: there is in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift a delightful ramble, or meander, into the realm of boredom. Charlie Citrine, the narrator, is engaged in writing an exposition of the role of boredom in the development of culture and he undertakes a similar history of the planet as Pagel does, except he talks about the extraordinary, the elemental, the terminally tedious boredom of evolution, all those long millenia where nothing happens, nothing at all…)

Speaking of curiosity there was a very interesting piece in Scientific American a couple of weeks ago about walking through doorways. The piece begins by reminding us of that common occurrence: we go into another room and find we cannot remember what it was we went in there to do.

It seems this is not something just the more senior of us experience. It happens to everyone and it seems to be a geographical factor of passing through the doorway. Our minds are programmed to remember only what they need to. This is certainly true of our short term memory – we can recall a phone number for just long enough to read it off the page or the screen and to dial it in; a moment later it is gone because we didn’t need that information any longer. For some reason, similarly it seems, the passage through a doorway is sometimes a signal to our brain that we no longer need the information we had a moment ago,

‘some forms of memory seem to be optimized to keep information ready-to-hand until its shelf life expires, and then purge that information in favour of new stuff.  Radvansky and colleagues call this sort of memory representation an “event model,” and propose that walking through a doorway is a good time to purge your event models because whatever happened in the old room is likely to become less relevant now that you have changed venues.  That thing in the box?  Oh, that’s from what I was doing before I got here; we can forget all about that.’

The article concentrates on what has been found through experimentation and confines its speculation to that. But it occurs to me there is a link here with therapy. A lot of therapy (gestalt, voice dialogue, etc.) makes use of the conceit that the client can switch between different positions in a room to get different perspectives from within themselves on events. I remember using the analogy myself of my psyche being like a large house with many rooms (indeed, it was not until I undertook therapy that I became aware of a whole wing, a section of my house full of rooms I had no access to). The therapist couldn’t go into those rooms with me, but she could stand at the door holding it open while I entered, secure in the knowledge that I would be able to get back out, that whatever terror lurked within could not trap me. This was, as I say, an analogy or metaphor for psychological states, but I wonder if there is not some useful link here between the research on memory states and doorways, and psychological healing.

I’ve mentioned in the first one of these pieces (below) that I’m reading Steven Pinker’s Our Better Angels, about the decline of violence in our time. I’ve only just started but anyone with an eye for the web or the literary pages will be aware it’s been attracting an enormous amount of attention. This idea that we are now less violent than we, as a species, used to be. Pinker spends the first half to two thirds of his big book giving hard data about how people lived and died in previous centuries, and spends the remainder of time concentrating on reasons why this might be so, suggesting, I believe, amongst other influences, the rise of reason and the growth of empathy – the possibility that we might be able to see how the wealth of our neighbour is also our wealth, that we are not all caught up in a zero sum game. As I said, I haven’t got very far into it, but the first chapter illustrates quite graphically how violence has been employed in previous eras. Not bedtime reading. It’s interesting to note that his thesis has not gone unchallenged. A review by Timothy Snyder questioned some of his assumptions.

One of Pinker’s assertions is that the decline in violence is not accidental, it has come about because of identifiable factors and we would be wise to note what they are and build on them. He is, it seems to me, arguing that there are not ‘special times’ there are just different times.

When I think about this I immediately think of Annie Dillard, and a passage in her book For The Time Being, which seems to articulate this in a very profound and poetic manner.

The idea of special times is so hard to avoid, but there is an antidote:

Under a piece entitled Now, she writes.

‘There were no formerly heroic times, there was no formerly pure generation. There is no-one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and death. It is a weakening and discolouring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time – or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.

There is no less holiness at this time – as you are reading this – than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree. There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said “Maid, arise” to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture.

Purity’s time is always now. Purity is no social phenomenon, a cultural thing whose time we have missed, whose generations are dead, so we can only buy Shaker furniture. “Each and every day the Divine voice issues from Sinai,” says the Talmud. Of eternal fulfilment, Tillich said, “If it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all.”’

So there’s five pieces for the year, which leaves out another three hundred and sixty, I guess, because it’s a rare day that I don’t find at least one thing of interest going on in a book, a magazine or the internet. (I’m indebted to 3Quarksdaily for consistently fascinating links) But how to make some sense of my choice?

It does seem, pace Dillard as though something is happening to us as people [a shift which the old guard, clearly, resents. I am astonished by the policies being pursued, for example, by the Republican candidates for the US Presidency. Their determination to pull us back into the mire of selfishness and greed, to disband the structures we have created (the Environmental Protection Agency) that offer a skerrick of hope to a planet with, plainly, too many people. (And this attempt to plunge us back into darkness has its purveyors here in Australia, too, don’t you worry about that)]

Clearly the Enlightenment is still unweaving around us. A way of thinking that occurred over two hundred years ago is only now playing out, not that this should surprise me. (As the historian who was asked what he thought the effects of the French Revolution would be, said, ‘It’s too early to tell.’) I wonder, though, if one of the reasons behind this shift I speak of, that seems inherent in all the pieces I’ve picked, is the rise of the influence of women in our culture. Not the only reason, but one of them. The society I was born into was still predominantly patriarchal, but that structure has been steadily crumbling and this does change things. It’s not that I think women are better than men, just that including their influence on the way our society organises itself might be proving significant in building understanding of ourselves as a species.

It’s just a thought.

Links: Review of David Deutsch’s book by Freeman Dyson: here

Mark Pagel at The Edge: here

Memory and doorways, Scientific American: here

Steven Pinker can be reviewed in many different places.

While I’m giving out links don’t forget to check out XKCD at here

I particularly recommend his cartoon on money here although that’s maybe not so funny as mnemonics for a new age: here please email my dad a shark

it started out wet

but became a good growing year

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One Comment on “Five Easy Pieces”

  1. Caitlin Says:

    I like the Francis Bacon quote. It seems apt for journalism. Objectivity in journalism is not about not drawing conclusions, it’s about not starting out with them.

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