Universe Part Five: The Invention Of Boats

Now, I am not actually promising it will all be straightforwardly additive, but

Let’s give it a whirl anyway. And start with my friend Jack, who tells me that the computer model of human consciousness is poorly-founded basically because thought precedes logic; because as useful as logic is, it’s not the foundation of thought but instead merely one of thought’s tools. This is the view from poetry and mathematics, if you like.

But what’s really interesting about that, is its curious similarity to the view from physics and biology: in that trying to answer a simple question like “well, what about dogs, cats, mice, spiders…do they think?” rather necessitates having some idea to proceed from of what constitutes “thinking” in the first place, and it just isn’t that easy an idea to get hold of. Seriously, how do we know what to call by that name, and what doesn’t merit the name? It’s a much tougher nut to crack than it seems at first glance, since we only have the one real-life definite instance of thinking to consider (that being: us) and our thinking is not just one thing but instead a whole multifarious netting of things…in other words we provide ourselves with an example of “thinking” right enough, but it is very hard to find an example of “simple” thinking in our heads: just these absurdly complex tangles. One hardly knows why we should believe they should submit to any easy classification in the first place, or admit of any reduction. And indeed from a strictly (I should perhaps say “aggressively”) logical perspective they do not — as the biological “computer” in our heads is more an evolutionary midden than an edifice. How does the whole “brain” thing work, how does it function, what rules does it follow? The answer is: we don’t really know. It’s very hard to know. The brain is a very ancient structure, made of accident piled on accident, a trillion dead ends collected by many species besides our own, and then handed over to us for further messing-up. And the very oddness of the thing is most apparent in comparisons with the digital computers we make ourselves…in the image of the logic we similarly invented, in the exercise of that profoundly strange and exotic brainwork: those machines being astonishingly good at crunching numbers in a way that, for all our complexity, we find utterly impossible…and yet still, despite that sheer numerical firepower of theirs, failing miserably at tasks we consider absolutely everyday. To the point where, as the good Dr. Hopfield pointed out, if you build a digital computer that’s as good as we are at recognizing human faces then you’ve probably built it wrong.

And then he also pointed out something else: Gay-Lussac’s law.

Which is an interesting and elegant result of human scientific thinking, that digital computers simply have no need of taking into account. Right? Since the “computer” way of finding out the same thing is much less macro and much more micro: you just have to count and label every molecule in a gas, do a bunch of complicated mathematical operations at the speed of light…and out pops the answer, laws need not apply. It’s just all differential equations. So complicated is simple, and simple is complicated. This is, perhaps, where many adherents of the computer model of consciousness goof up by coming at Turing’s famous test questions from the wrong angle — since answering them is not just a matter of running a million Jeopardy computers, is it? Because no amount of simulation, no matter how perfectly transparent its great speed allows it to be, is enough to qualify as “this is probably a human being” in our estimation. As I think I said somewhere else around here (or will say in very short order someplace else), thinking is surely still thinking whether it is fast or slow, and the computer just keeps getting faster and still keeps not thinking, until at a certain point you just have to ask how fast it does need to run simulations of us, to be one of us…or even close enough as makes no difference to us…

But in any case, all philosophy aside, the fact is that the Gay-Lussac thing is in our authentic style because it suits and attends to our authentic intellectual capabilities, and even computers that could “beat” the Turing test would not need to know it….especially if they beat it by doing what computers do best, only unimaginably better.

Controversial enough for you?

We’re just getting started. Time to talk about sex. No! Music…



In my crazy countryman Farley Mowat’s delightfully insane piece of outsider art called The Farfarers, he imagines the invention of boats. And Farley being Farley, of course he lays it at the feet of the Scots: one day a man’s walrus-hide tent blows away into the water, lands upside-down like a coracle, and the man thinks…

“Och, that’s a bonny wee…!”

No no no. Absurd, Farley! Rather, he thinks:

“Hey, I betcha I could get into that thing and float around!”

Yes; might make the whole “I hunt walrus for a living” thing a bit easier, at that! Sheesh. And so “floating around in stuff” is born, but of course not really, because (as I hope anyone can see) human beings didn’t invent boats anymore than we invented our immune system. Rather, just as the immune system, boats are something we inherited. “Floating on stuff”, that isn’t a thing one sits down and thinks up by putting one’s chin in one’s hand, that’s no Newton-and-the-apple moment, that’s something prior to epiphany right there: in other words it just is. One doesn’t need to get all Rousseau with it. It doesn’t have an origin that makes any sense to talk about. In the version of history that seeks a logical (aha!) ordering of cause and effect (as if there could be any other kind!), the invention of boats is a piece that just won’t fit into the puzzle. Boats, like the brain, are bigger than us and older too; boats are something we are inside, as logic is inside thought.

And the whole thing is wrapped inside something much bigger than boats or the brain, which is, of course, as promised, sex. How old is sex? Answer: older than just about anything biological, that we’re part of. Sex is beyond Rousseau; sex is Stapledon, a story billions of years old. Which is probably why we just cannot figure out a good way to talk about it at all. You see, I really am suggesting that there are two systems involved in your average human being’s daily existence: a little one, that runs tirelessly on logic and generates vastly productive insights, and a bigger one, that runs on…?

We can’t be sure what it runs on. But that’s the one where all the sex-stuff lives, I figure. Along with the communication stuff…you know, the thing about human communication is that we are never going to fully enumerate all the modes of it, are we? Probably we will never even be able to guess at the number of them. How many tests would we have to come up with, to figure them all out? You could probably spend a lifetime just testing the eyebrow. There could be something to do with elbow twitches, for all we know. Forearm muscles. Feet. Sniffing. How in the world could we ever hope to catalogue all these things? Surely our imagination would run out before our bodies did, and maybe (for all we know) there is no end to the signals that our bodies can produce (or for that matter the complexity of even those sensations we think we know all about)…like the particles you can knock out of the proton, or like the embedding of clauses in Chomsky’s syntactical structures, the universe just keeps on bringing finer and finer details as we zoom in on it. So just calling it all “body language” really won’t do, obviously; that’s like talking about “instinct”, it’s just a crap excuse for a category, you can’t use it for anything! Hmm, except poetry…lovely, lovely poetry…

…Which as may recall is good for quite a lot, but is it really much good for logical dissection? Certainly the logic of poetry’s form is very beautiful, but I’m not sure that’s enough to make it actually a scientific endeavour. So maybe poetry represents an odd intersection of the two systems, straddling the line between them, existing partly on one side of that membrane and partly on the other? After all, poetry does just a dandy job of talking about sex…

…Which, as I said, is really not as easy as it looks. Recently I had occasion to talk to someone who was contemplating doing some research into “queerspace” in Vancouver, and as we talked around and around it we finally got to a topic I might as well call “Historical Homosexuality”. A Rousseau-style conjectural history of human sexuality? But the thing is, you see, it can’t be brought off. Human sexual freedom is always being retroactively contextualized according to contemporary bias. There’s a story somewhere, I wish I could remember where I came across it, about what kind of terminology was used in America in the 1950s, well before the drafting of the word “gay” sparked an interest in “gayness”…gayness as a thing, you see: as something that can be logically, scientifically investigated. But in the Fifties we did not know of “gayness” yet, and the nomenclature of the Fifties would not accept what we know of it now…or what we think we know. The story, you see, made it clear that the operative word for a gay man at that particular coordinate point in spacetime was fairy, and talked a bit about how gay-bashing incidents in those days were often concluded by the gang-leader raping the victim…but the rapist was not considered a “fairy” himself, for doing it! I know I’m always going back to Achilles dragging Hector’s body around the walls of Troy, but I think in this case it’s a particularly apposite comparison: the victim is made more a “fairy” by the brutal act intended to bestow violent shame on him, and the one who commits it on him is made more a “man’s man” because of it too. Of course today we would not characterize it all that way — we would say it was an act of self-loathing and self-repression and fear on the part of the rapist, that seeking to produce an image of oneself as a victor by finding some unsettling reflection of your human foibles to turn into a victim is an act born of a psychological sickness, a twisting of self-medication with self-harm that dives into the criminal, into the vicious and the shameful itself, and that doesn’t get to ask for forgiveness…

…But then of course we would, because “gay” is our word. Our concept, our context. And we don’t have any difficulty applying it as a valid term and valid concept to any period throughout history…I know I don’t have any trouble with that, myself…and yet it isn’t really scientific, is it? Because perhaps the science goes something like this: Nature doesn’t care about the psychological dimensions of human sexual freedom. In nature there is no distinction of that kind between sexual actors, there are organisms and they engage in sexual behaviours and that’s all there is. It’s a blunderbuss approach — lots of sex gets had, as a result a lot of reproduction gets done as well, therefore the system works perfectly and what else could there possibly be to say about it all? It’s all just polymorphous, I’m a part of it and so are you and therefore the individual variations in preference don’t matter…these distinctions exist nowhere at all but in the psychological depths. To ask about the History Of Homosexuality is really at a certain point to ask what gayness is, why it exists, what causes it…but perhaps it is not caused, because perhaps it is not real. Not real in that sense, I mean…though certainly the adoption of “gayness” has created a wonderful kind of culture, a wonderful spread of communities! And some freedom too, yeah. But to Nature it is still all just sex. And you know, it often reminds me of good old Emily Noether and the explanation of the principle of inertia that can be drawn from her symmetries: i.e. maybe inertia is nicely explained simply by isotropy, and nothing else is needed! With the universe the same in every direction, there’s no reason for inertia not to exist, is there? So in that case we could think of inertia as the name for a nothing…you’d have to add something strange to the universe, to not have it. Because the word isn’t positively attached, to any thing.

It is not quite a satisfying description — in fact I think there’s much more to say about it even without allowing (as we probably must) inertia’s “positive existence”! — but it’s a satisfying enough illustration, I think: after all, many things we have names for don’t (strictly speaking) exist in Nature’s eyes, but do mark regularities, do indicate connections. And very often this results in a bit of confusion, both linguistic and cognitive — we could argue over these words, concepts, contexts, if they fail to admit of a nice clean one-to-one representation in reality, with hard edges. In the physics that Noether revolutionized one of the words we argue over is mass; well after all it’s only the most basic thing! Heck, why wouldn’t we argue over it? It’s only the thing everybody can see and touch and understand extremely well from the mere experience of living! Pshaw, like we’re not gonna fight over that! Ha ha. Why it is to laugh. Laugh, I say…!

And from there on up, it all just gets crazier. Science and philosophy are all about logic and words and ordered definitions, which is a pretty great thing for them to be about, but on the small system they run into Godelian implications, Wittgeinsteinian failures of perspicuity…limits. The problem of knowledge; practically the most ancient thing that system has. How do we know what we know?

Well…how do we?

The thing I’m fond of calling “high history” is in many ways the greatest example of the small system’s fascinating ability to create models inside itself, that may correspond to things on the outside: it probably happened this way, sort of. But of course as fascinating as it is, it is still just a model, and it has the strengths and weaknesses of all models. Historical causation is something we will never be able to grasp in any real sense, because there are too many untraceable influences (hee hee), too many actual occurrences we will never know of, too much tangle in general…too much detail, even if one believes the knowledge-system solid and its discoveries immutable. “How did human beings begin to practise homosexual behaviour” is probably a good example of question-begging in any scheme of knowledge, but even if one accepts that there was such a time when some factual change in behaviour occurred (which of course there wasn’t, but we are just saying), then the theory necessary to explain it gets too big too fast anyway…there’s too much to know in terms of antecedent causes, things become thermodynamical…the rules start falling apart, and in the end there’s no such thing as time-travel. The deep causes of the past are actually bottomless, the fossils in the swamp just go on and on, and down and down. Human sexual freedom is inexplicable in these terms, like inertia and like mass — all you can do is create models, but some models are no good. Some are not even good or bad.

Because sex is probably too big for worded description, as human communication is too big for comprehensive enumeration…as consciousness is too big for logical organization. Just too big for the small system to comprehend, no matter its brightness and quickness. But…

There is another way. The way of the Gay-Lussac law; the way of elegance, and evolutionary agglomeration of interreacting skills, if indeed those two things are substantially different one from the other. “Holistic” causes, I think we might somewhat fairly call them: strategies for exploring relationships in the bigger system, and even effecting changes in them. But we have to get our heads around this: what does it mean, to try to operate a system that we can never know everything about? That we can never even know how much we don’t know about? The small system gives us little mental consoles where all the causal relationships are drawn together. Picture yourself standing at it: it’s pretty big, but you can see that if you just bash away randomly at the buttons there is some possibility of getting something right, because anyway you are standing in front of it, you know where all the key activators are, even if you don’t know what they do. And one way or another there are only so many of them, which means that even if that number is quite large all the connections the number governs are still internal to the console.


What if it is so large that it covers every inch of the room you’re standing in, floor ceiling and walls?

What if it covers every inch of the whole building, that contains the room?

Pretty soon there starts not to be a situation in which you can claim the switches are all “inside” something after all…when the whole world may be “console”, and you just wandering around inside it like Ant-Man. But we don’t actually need to take things that far, to get this sense of realization! All we really have to do is imagine that we can’t quite see the console’s borders. Make them fuzzy, let them bleed off into the peripheral…imagine just that you can’t see them, like you’re a dog wearing one of those protective cones. It’s a much more fun way to do the Allegory Of The Cave, right? Or the Blind Men And The Elephant, for that matter: okay, so you’re a dog standing in front of a computer, with one of those cones on your head…and as you move down the computer’s face, a bunch of monkeys gleefully take the part of it you were just looking at, and stack it up against the part you’re going to be looking at. So to you, the computer just seems to go on and on forever — you’ll never come to the end of it.

Or, will you?

We could do it with the dog being a pirate and the monkeys being ninjas (oh, Internet), but any way we do it the rude facts are the same: you have to make an accomodation with the limits of your knowledge, and accept that you may never know the nature of the system you are trying to operate. You may even get it backwards, or I guess more properly get it inverted… But for me — as long as we’re talking about inversions anyway — I like the idea of two systems, you know? Two states to flip, with the occasional function straddling their boundary…

Like music, perhaps. Man, haven’t you ever wondered just what in the hell is music? Why on earth does it exist, why on earth do we subjectively perceive it in the way we do? Is there some cosmic principle of musicality operating within us, all around us, and everywhere? I’ve asked it before:

Do birds know their song is sweet?

It’s like a little Zen koan. Of course on one level music is just math: mathematical proportion. But, that doesn’t really explain anything. Because math is the new mass, eh? We’ll always be arguing about it. However the key thing about music probably isn’t its mass so much as its energy: it does something to us, it’s a mood-altering drug (just look at how people regulate their intake of it! LIKE CIGARETTES), it’s a time machine, it’s consciousness fuel. Everywhere we look, there it is, in some form or another…musicality…but also everywhere we see it we are affected by it. “Elegance”, now there’s a word that starts fights too…mathematicians talk about it all the time, it’s their Muse, but not a one of them can pin down just what it is, or how to recognize it. It can certainly be created, though: as Rudy Rucker once had it, maybe human beings have just a slight “mathematical sense”, maybe our minds jut out with just a bit of higher-dimensional “thickness” into a much larger space than the one that answers to our eyes and fingers and tastebuds. Or else how would we know mathematics, how would we know “elegance”? It’s a bit like the old saw, perhaps: “whatever is possible to be believed, must contain some measure of truth”

…But maybe that saying also could be flipped, as Wittgenstein might flip it, to show that the relationship it describes is not the one we’re looking for, or even at. That it is, in fact, a dead end. “The ‘foundations’ of maths? They are no more foundations of maths than the painted rock is the support of the painted tower.” After all, we were talking about Holism, not Hippie. Weren’t we?

And so here is the math, if you like.

Kinda spooky, huh?

In the end, we may know nothing of the bigger system…at least, nothing logical. “I mean mathematics is NOT logic. It’s almost as if one tried to say that cabinet-making consisted in glueing!” But Chopin is still Chopin either way, isn’t he? And yet how can he possibly know how to make music, and how can we possibly know how to hear it? Where on earth could the tendency come from? Why would he do it?

Why would he care?

And how would he even know to care. Look out, here comes the music! Now, can you feel that? Can you feel that doing something to you? All over the world, human beings make music. There are no human beings who don’t make music. And are we alone? Does the bird know about its song?

Do the stars know about their own?

We have no way of knowing. We will never know. We’re inside the console, pulling out wires and plugging them back in: we don’t know what evidence of our actions may be showing up on the monitor, wherever it is, if it even exists. If there’s a God, if it even makes sense to speak of there being a God in the slightest, then he has to be the God of Descartes, of Leibniz, of Einstein…right? A God without an objective frame of his own that we can logically apprehend, a God that defies simple cogitation…a God of paradoxes. And yet what do paradoxes tell us, apart from the fact we’ve posed the wrong questions? Music is a different matter, though…music, at any rate, is something that we can’t help but know exists.

Even if it seems, to me at any rate, fabulously unlikely that we invented it. Because it does not really seem that we can understand it, does it?

However, that may not be the main thing. We don’t understand the brain either, after all — but we certainly use it. We don’t seem to understand sex very well, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t of it. And even if we were to stop believing in boats, it seems very unlikely that they would ever go away. We can use all these things, lucky for us, and apparently even use them quite well: even if we can’t understand their workings. The changes in the computer feed back into the computer, somehow or other. Though we may be blind to the details of that feedback, it doesn’t mean we aren’t touched by its movement. What is it the Sufis say?

“A student is always eager to understand the workings of the teaching, when in reality he is in desperate need of its benefits. Without receiving its benefits he will never understand its workings.”

And also:

“Until you have real knowledge, your belief is mere coalesced opinion, however it may seem to you.”

And so…I know what you’re thinking, Plato…

…What does all this have to do with quitting smoking?

Well, maybe nothing.

But then again maybe a lot. How do we do it, beyond theories and rulebooks and useless crutches that only lend support to the limp? When you want it all the time, and it’s everywhere, how do you stop wanting it? The answer is surely that you actually don’t want it all the time, but you don’t understand the difference between wanting and not-wanting. You don’t make that distinction. Well, why should you? Nobody else does, either. They always say you have to replace the smoking with something else you enjoy, but what does that mean? What kind of crazy console-fixing is that?

“Holistic causes”. It’s a rather silly construction, that. Isn’t it? After all, what in the world is an “holistic” cause? There are things we know, and things we don’t know…there are always correlations we observe that go unexplained for a time, but with increasing knowledge their causal mechanisms are inevitably revealed. Holistic causes must just be what we would call reductive causes, if we only knew just a little more about them. Once we know the system, we understand what it makes and how…we know how to intervene in it, interpose ourselves in it. We see what the real cause was, all along. What the real relationships were.

Yeah, okay.

But what if we never do get to know the system fully? As long as we don’t, we might as well be dealing with one that can’t be known, right? Just like we can’t tell acceleration from gravity in General Relativity; an unknown system, a system known as yet only partly, is indistinguishable by us from a system that can’t ever be fully known. Isn’t it?

And yet: Chopin. And, y’know: love.

So as Point Number Seven in my little fun list of possible stop-smoking tips, I guess I’d say: try different things. It doesn’t matter what they are. Science may discover their rationale later on or it may not, but hindsight isn’t where success is located, here. Maybe you start with tai chi, eh? You don’t even bother quitting smoking for it. Or maybe you might try showering a half-hour earlier in the evening, or eating more radishes in your salad. Any of these might work, but before you do any of them you will want to know why you should do them…why tai chi? Why radishes? What’s with the showering? But maybe you are more in need of their benefits, than of the knowledge of their workings. Why tai chi, hmm, that’s a good one, I have no idea if that even would be a good idea, but let’s suppose it is…in which case…

Maybe tai chi is cheap?

Maybe anyone can do tai chi?

And these are not complicated things, you will notice, but then again I am not convinced they need to be. Radishes, for example, have a very strong taste, almost laughably strong…I mean, why would anyone just sit there and eat radishes, who didn’t like them? I could also suggest bathing in apple cider vinegar and dried thyme for a cold, it works, but it won’t work if I tell you why it works. Showering, let’s just say it screws with your internal smoke-clock or something. Lets your pores exhale? Sharpens your sense of smell, maybe. Who knows?

Does it matter?

Have you ever known anyone who was just determined to change their lives? Have you ever watched to see just how they bring the trick off? They always start in exactly the same way: by having no idea.

And perhaps this is the only way to do it, really.

Well, anyway it’s gotta be better than chewing the damn gum.

6 responses to “Universe Part Five: The Invention Of Boats

  1. — There are no human beings who don’t make music.

    Weirdly, that’s not true. People with amusia suffer defects in some or all of their musical abilities. Some can’t discern pitch or detect wrong notes or even sing. So sound processing is something that comes pre-installed in our brains for some strange evolutionary reason, but just as speech leads to poetry or sight to visual art, we inventive humans turned our ingenuity on it and came up with symphonies. One of humanity’s great distinguishing features is how much we vary. Some get to be Mozart or Einstein, some just slob out and some write, I don’t know, hedgehog porn.

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