Thursday, October 02, 2003

Sprocket Science

Long before the Jazz Singer, philosophers and scientists tried to figure out how the human mind gets the music to go along with the pictures. We experience the world as a talkie, but it is exceedingly hard to understand how the brain manages to synthesize the inputs of the various senses into a more or less coherent display, especially since the several modalities of information are not processed at the same speed. Like a fan at a track meet, the mind should routinely see the smoke from the starter’s pistol before it hears the shot; but for the most part we dwell in a seamless, in-synch I-Max presentation. The occasional moments when this illusion breaks down are uncanny—the one that spooks me most is when I find myself half way out of the chair before I hear the phone ring—but these nerve-jangling exceptions are rare. Why they are rare, how the neural apparatus maintains the waking dream that is conscious experience are the questions that fall under the rubric of the binding problem.

It’s mysterious enough that a single consciousness can simultaneously register two inputs of the same type—the “I” and the “t” of the first word of this sentence, for example. As the now forgotten Hermann Lotze pointed out back in the 19th Century, the parts of a mental image belong together in a much stronger sense than the merely geometrical; and being together in the same brain isn’t obviously the same thing as being together in the same mind. Getting drastically different kinds of inputs to register together is even harder to figure out. The original, Aristotelian notion of Common Sense, known in the tradition as Sensus Communis, addressed this problem or, more accurately, begged this question, by postulating a special faculty that was able to synthesize everything, presumably by virtue of a virtue. Our everyday concept of common sense, however, does relate to the binding problem because experience is eminently social. A whole series of linguistic and cultural filters masticate the inputs of the senses before we are aware of them; and, even before that, civilization has always already simplified the things we encounter to match our limited abilities to cope with novel stimuli by expedients ranging from labels on canned goods to the painting of lines on highways.

I have no useful ideas whatsoever about the binding problem as an issue—the issue—of neurophysiology, but the problem is an existential one for me because I’ve allowed rather more content into my mind than some others. Like everybody else, I mostly restrict my attention to the names of the categories into which things are divided, an exercise that is not too daunting even when the list comes from a very old Chinese encyclopedia. Where I get in trouble or at least lose my audience is in breaking open the packaged goods and mingling the contents instead of the labels in my thoughts. Then I feel myself becoming a cheerful monster like one of those renaissance portraits where the face of the subject is made out of a jumble of fruits and vegetables. Of course I don’t do justice to the various areas of experience I attempt to relate together in my practice of life—if your nose is a pickle, you can’t expect it to be a very good pickle—and to play all the notes of all the scales on one not-too-well-tuned clavier requires more fraud than virtuosity. It is necessarily a comic performance, but perhaps a laugh is the only way that an important but essentially negative truth can be perceived.

Monday, September 29, 2003

In a Glass Snarkly

Today’s Bizarro cartoon takes place in the Garden of Eden. God tells Adam, “Try to keep in mind this is an allegory & you’re actually off evolving from apes somewhere else right now.” I don’t know if that’s particularly funny, but at least it has the virtue of explaining something. Most of the folks who tell themselves and us that the myths and dogmas of the revealed religions are merely allegories of higher truths aren’t in a hurry to identify just which higher truths they are allegories of. Their reticence is understandable. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy Bible stories as stories–I certainly do—but it is rather harder to extract a benign or plausible message from them—Shut up and obey? Curiosity is a great evil? Women are weak and treacherous? Kill all of them including the children? Of course earlier readers of scripture detected or imagined other, more acceptable meanings in the old stories. These days the lukewarm faithful find it enough to assume that an acceptable decoding is possible. Meanwhile, the true believers reject interpretation itself.

Christians have attempted to read scripture allegorically for a long time, of course; but it eventually became heterodox to acknowledge that the stories about the Garden and the Ark were fables. The allegorical interpretation, however edifying or important, was something added to an underlying literally true narrative of the creation of animals and people and the early history of mankind. If anything, the Christian Fundamentalism of the last century or so is a radicalization of this anti-alchemical transmutation of a golden mythology into leaden science fiction, and the atheists owe them one for turning a once elusive quarry into a sitting duck, i.e. a set of demonstrably false statements about matters of fact.