Thursday, August 28, 2008

What do you think...NOW?

Hugo: I'm with Jin. It's the monster
Sawyer: Yeah cause that makes the most sense.
Hugo: It does.

Sawyer's sarcasm comes from a rejection of evidence. Hugo's belief comes from acceptance of the same. They are both using logic. But take them out of Televisionia and Hugo is being irrational and is refusing to listen to reason.

But regular viewers of Lost accept that there are monsters on the island (at least black smoke) and Hugo's view seems well-founded and perhaps even more rational given the evidence we think he should be valuing. Ultimately that's science fiction. It's sometimes hard to hold science fiction to a standard. If anything can happen then the challenge of understanding is gone.

But I don't really believe that. Any story can give you a reference for understanding. Once you figure out the rules of the game you see how well the story plays by those rules. So we know that Superman can fly. That would ruin a lot of stories. But once we see that he has his weaknesses and we see that there are challenges that he can't meet so easily -- even with his x-ray vision and bulletproof chest -- we trust the story to give us surprising solutions.

And the available surprise is important. We suspend a lot when we appreciate a story that we know never happened. Even more when we know a story could never happen. My left brain might tell me that I can appreciate structure and technique and thematic behaviour even if I read the story from the last page to the front. But my right brain might want something more unknowable. Then again I should remember that while I have a left and right hemisphere in my brain, my mind is singular.

We love finding solutions. We also love working for solutions even if we never find them. (And by we I mean one of two things: either every single human being, or just those of us about whom these statements are true.)

But do we have to believe that a solution exists? And do we have to care how we find it and rationalize it? Is is important that I'll never prove that the writers of Lost were knowingly writing about an issue that matters to me and only to me? Do I care that some coincidences look too good to be true but they just keep showing up? This is meaningful! They have to know something about me to say these things! This is perhaps part of what Casey is getting at in his comment when he talks about knowledge. What proof do we need?

If Casey's lament is that no one appreciates or rewards right-brained thinking then I'm pretty sure he'll back down once we start looking at music and poetry and art and all the people who love it but have no idea how to produce it.

He might not back down from the statement that research and medicine and science in general value a predictable method and a conclusion that has been reached by a certain process. Actually we don't know what Science values. But we know what scientists value. Do they just value results? Well even if a result is reproducible it isn't worth much unless the method of reproducing it has been sanctioned.

A friend sent an email responding to the question of measured vs intuited knowledge. Jeff (another choral comrade) is a biologist teaching at what he calls "a smallish liberal Arts school in New York where research is viewed as an important teaching tool, but not to the exclusion of education." He focuses on ecology and entomology. He offered the following thoughts:

You need "logic" thought or "rational" thought, or however you want to label it for complex processing of multivariable information. For example, knowing that one must start storing food because last night it was light until 8:15 and tonight it was only light until 8:00.

On the other hand, instinctual or innate response is incredibly important, as without it you would be dead. In certain situations processing time is so exceedingly limited that logical thought would take too long and the consequences of inaction would be fatal.

Selection therefore favors an interplay between the two processes and how specific species, or even populations of a single species at different time points balance the two types of thought is environmentally controlled based on the predictability of the habitat and the overall contribution of long-term planning vs. quick response on survival rate.

All organisms do this. In fact, we can gain interesting insight on the matter from insects, which have a decentralized nervous system. In each body segment, there is a central processing unit of sorts which takes sensory information in and immediately responds to threats. That's why it's so hard to catch a fly in mid-air. On the other hand, the timing of reproduction and metamorphosis are exceedingly complicated and involve the integration of photo cues as well as temperature cues. These "upper level" processes are sent to the brain (yes, insects have brains, and they are even in their heads) for analysis.

The amusing uptake is that were one to decapitate a cockroach, until it starved it would remain alive and respond to threats just as quickly as when it was whole. It wouldn't be able to molt or mate, but almost everything else (well, anything it could handle with mechanoreceptors and chemoreceptors) still functions normally.

Jeff nicely establishes an important difference. Not so much between types of knowledge, but between responses to information. We see images and feel forces and develop an understanding of a situation through all of our senses. But the knowledge that comes not from our senses but from our memory and a slower analysis of data is usually considered the more rational. Not always because our senses are faulted for being incorrect but because they are considered to be incomplete.

But as Jeff reminds us we don't always have the luxury of verifying every one of our impressions. And his examples repeat the point that I have made previously: Our culture doesn't really privilege 'logic' and marginalize 'intuition'. It simply uses the analyses differently.

If we accuse Hugo of believing in a monster too quickly it is because of a skepticism that tells us not to change our assumptions too quickly. But again this skepticism is not categorical. Sometimes we change our minds very quickly on huge issues. Sometimes we change our minds based on very little evidence. Isn't this what you want Casey?

But beyond data and conclusion we have to look at analysis and explanation. If anyone thinks that linguists don't have enough faith in the unseen they haven't studied phonology. This post is long enough to end. I'll pick up the point on phonology later.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, have you read any of the recent news stories about the "Truman Show Syndrome?":

    Click here.

    I guess this might just be classic schizo-paranoia or whatever, but Truman wasn't the first to claim the whole world revolved around him:

    Click here.

    Again, probably just old fashioned schizo-paranoia, I guess. ;)

    Anyway, first point: what if the rules of the game are under contest? Or what if we can't figure them out? In narrative, that makes for programs like LOST -- but in life...? Are we in one of those periods?

    I'm interested in Jeff's analysis of why/how we need rational thought. He wrote:

    You need "logic" thought or "rational" thought, or however you want to label it for complex processing of multivariable information. For example, knowing that one must start storing food because last night it was light until 8:15 and tonight it was only light until 8:00.

    And yet, even without clocks, and evidently without "Reason," ants and honeybees manage quite well, and ducks know when it's time to fly south.

    Concerning whether I'd "back down." Perhaps not so fast -- I understand that certain people value the arts, of course. And I don't mean to throw out rational thinking altogether. BUT, I think most people tend to believe that scientific knowledge is more vital to our survival than cultural/intuitive/instinctual/non-rational "knowledge." There, I disagree. In fact, if I had to decide for humanity whether to abandon for 100 years scientific/rational thought or cultural/non-rational/narrative thought, I'd vote for getting rid of the science.

    Of course, that's a choice that's loaded right now because we're obviously standing on science's stilts. But the extent to which we are also standing on the long stilts of culture and instinct and non-rational thought are at least as important to anything that would approach "civilization."

    When I think of how we change our minds, I don't believe it's always rational -- when I consider, for example, the shift I've undergone in terms of economic realities, I can say quite honestly there was no distinct "data" -- indeed no hypothesis -- that led me to the conviction that I'm now lugging around with me. Instead, people just as often change their minds "deeply," often non-rationally, or subconsciously.

    Didn't you watch that video I sent you yesterday about "The Century of the Self?"

    Click here.

    Sorry for being so lengthy -- It's just that I'm on office hours and the computer in my office is fun for playing!

    As for LOST: I think that suspending our need to explain is one of the major and central "points" of that show. To watch narrative (or life) in the same way that you watch a leaf fall from a tree or a raindrop make a splash... instead of watching in the same way that you read a critical article. It makes a major difference.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.