NOT EVERYTHING THAT COUNTS CAN BE COUNTED

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There is no certainty, fixity or isolation in nature. Things we make give the illusion of being so. Machines give us the idea that the world is made from bits put together. At least in the so-called ‘life’ sciences, we still imagine that things are mechanical, in just this way, while in physics the idea was discarded around a hundred years ago. We talk of the brain having wiring, circuitry and switches, of its ‘functioning’, ‘processing’ information, etc From this you might deduce that we knew exactly what sort of thing a brain was, or at least what sort of thing a neurone was, but in reality we don’t have the slightest idea. In fact every individual cell is a quite extraordinarily complex self-regulating and self-repairing system entirely unlike any wire that ever existed. It forms tens of thousands of connections. As there are billions of neurones involved, the number of connections is virtually infinite. And everything in such a system is reciprocal rather than linear. This is not like anything we can know.

Though people talk of the problem of consciousness, I would be inclined to turn things on their head and say, ‘What problem? The real problem is matter.’ Consciousness we know inside and out; but matter, that is closed to us. In fact it is its closed quality, its way of offering resistance to consciousness, that defines it. The existence and nature of matter is at least as hard to explain as the existence and nature of consciousness – I would say harder: it is just the familiarity with which we treat it every day that makes matter seem simple.

It probably sounds like a cop out, but I do believe that prescriptions are one of the reasons we are so messed up nowadays. We always have to have a plan, an algorithm, a set of bullet points, and that immediately narrows things down, so we imagine that we just need to put this plan into action. It discounts the creative, the spontaneous, the improvised, the unexpected, the fruits of the imagination of those who take the ‘plan’ forward. What I can see now is limited; what others may see is limitless. Our plans are always at too local, too detailed a level. For example, if you want to educate people, you don’t give them a lot of procedures to carry out or just information to spew. You inculcate habits of mind: curiosity, a habit of sceptical questioning, enthusiasm, creativity, patience, self-discipline – the rest comes naturally. Equally you can’t go into a country and set up the structures of democracy. That is back to front, and they will inevitably fail. What is needed is a habit of mind that sees the value in democratic institutions; in time they will then emerge naturally, and flourish.

It is irrational, and in the end unscientific, to imagine that we understand everything because we have a way of analysing it into ever smaller parts. We are seduced by the simplistic take on the world offered to us by our left hemisphere, the part of us that we know actually sees less, and certainly understands less. The worst and most damaging aspect of this is the arrogance of those scientific materialists who believe they know it all – the internet is full of the evidence of their rage and intolerance towards anyone who does not buy their philosophy. Their minds are as firmly closed as those of any religious fundamentalist – and let me make clear that I find religious fundamentalism every bit as mindless and as damaging. The arts, I believe, have a pivotal role in putting us in touch with the transcendent, with whatever it is that is beyond us. They are core to a civilisation, measures of its health, and should be treated as such by government. They are not an optional extra. But they also matter too urgently to become purely intellectual games. They need to have viscera, and affect us viscerally. Which is not at all the same as saying ‘gutsy’, in the sense of constantly ‘shocking’ and ‘daring’ – in fact rather the opposite. They need to stop being just ‘clever-clever’, ironic, disaffected, ‘above’ it all in a place from which one can see that ‘really’ there is no meaning to anything. Seeing no meaning may say more about you than about the world you are looking at.

How to bring these things about? Well, first of all we need smaller communities. We are not equipped to deal with social groups on the scale of a modern city. When Johnson said that ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, he was talking of a city less than a tenth the size it is now, and very much more like a collection of villages. In smaller communities we recognise one another, learn about one another, feel we know whom we can trust, and are able to form bonds. We also need to live closer to our ultimate context, the natural world. We are part of it, not as we see ourselves, standing over against it, taming or subduing it to serve our deracinated urban existence. We can bring this about without losing the sense of overall connectedness. In the past, often small communities were inward-looking, developed antipathies through ignorance, and became too certain of what they believed. One of the advantages that has come with technology is that we can remain far more in touch with one another and with what others are thinking than we could before.

Iain McGilchrist in conversation with Jonathan Rowson
Full transcript and information here.

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MIRROR NEURONS

From a philosophical perspective, the discovery of mirror neurons is exciting because it gave us an idea of how motor primitives could have been used as semantic primitives: that is, how meaning could be communicated between agents. Thanks to our mirror neurons, we can consciously experience another human being’s movements as meaningful.Perhaps the evolutionary precursor of language was not animal calls but gestural communication. The transmission of meaning may initially have grown out of the unconscious bodily self-model and out of motor agency, based, in our primate ancestors, on elementary gesturing. Sounds may only later have been associated with gestures, perhaps with facial gestures—such as scowling, wincing, or grinning—that already carried meaning. Still today, the silent observation of another human being grasping an object is immediately understood, because, without symbols or thought in between, it evokes the same motor representation in the parieto-frontal mirror system of our own brain. As Professor Rizzolatti and Dr. Maddalena Fabbri Destro from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma put it: “[T]he mirror mechanism solved, at an initial stage of language evolution, two fundamental communication problems: parity and direct comprehension. Thanks to the mirror neurons, what counted for the sender of the message also counted for the receiver. No arbitrary symbols were required. The comprehension was inherent in the neural organization of the two individuals.”

Such ideas give a new and rich meaning not only to the concepts of “grasping” and “mentally grasping the intention of another human being,” but, more important, also to the concept of grasping a concept—the essence of human thought itself. It may have to do with simulating hand movements in your mind but in a much more abstract manner. Humankind has apparently known this for centuries, intuitively: “Concept” comes from the Latin conceptum, meaning “a thing conceived,” which, like our modern “to conceive of something,” is rooted in the Latin verb concipere, “to take in and hold.” As early as 1340, a second meaning of the term had appeared: “taking into your mind.” Surprisingly, there is a representation of the human hand in Broca’s area, a section of the human brain involved in language processing, speech or sign production, and comprehension. A number of studies have shown that hand/arm gestures and movements of the mouth are linked through a common neural substrate. For example, grasping movements influence pronunciation— and not only when they are executed but also when they are observed. It has also been demonstrated that hand gestures and mouth gestures are directly linked in humans, and the oro-laryngeal movement patterns we create in order to produce speech are a part of this link.

Broca’s area is also a marker for the development of language in human evolution, so it is intriguing to see that it also contains a motor representation of hand movements; here may be a part of the bridge that led from the “body semantics” of gestures and the bodily self-model to linguistic semantics, associated with sounds, speech production, and abstract meaning expressed in our cognitive self-model, the thinking self. Broca’s area is present in fossils of Homo habilis, whereas the presumed precursors of these early hominids lacked it. Thus the mirror mechanism is conceivably the basic mechanism from which language evolved. By providing motor copies of observed actions, it allowed us to extract the action goals from the minds of other human beings—and later to send abstract meaning from one Ego Tunnel to the next.

The mirror-neuron story is attractive not only because it bridges neuroscience and the humanities but also because it illuminates a host of simpler social phenomena. Have you ever observed how infectious a yawn is? Have you ever caught yourself starting to laugh out loud with others, even though you didn’t really understand the joke? The mirror-neuron story gives us an idea of how groups of animals—fish schools, flocks of birds—can coordinate their behavior with great speed and accuracy; they are linked through something one might call a low-level resonance mechanism. Mirror neurons can help us understand why parents spontaneously open their mouths while feeding their babies, what happens during a mass panic, and why it is sometimes hard to break away from the herd and be a hero. Neuroscience contributes to the image of humankind: We are all connected in an intersubjective space of meaning—what Vittorio Gallese calls a “shared manifold.”

Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of The Self.