Tuesday, May 15, 2012
A friend of mine regularly discusses with me the difficulties he has raising his two sons in our modern world. In particular, he is very frustrated by the fact that his younger son, age 10, is involved in so many structured recreational activities after school that he doesn’t have time to just be a kid and do activities that he initiates himself. The structured activities are all organized by adults and, depending on the season, include American football practice, basketball practice, hockey practice, and baseball practice. The son is on teams controlled by adults that belong to leagues and play regularly scheduled games. I should tell you my friend is divorced and is not necessarily the person who initiated these activities for his son.
The older son has rebelled against all these adult-controlled activites and has started to spend his free time skateboarding with some of his friends. A skateboard is like an enormous rollerskate for both feet, a little like a surfboard with wheels. Skateboarding is a sporting activity that requires skill, but it is a skill that a child acquires on his own. A child doesn’t have to go to discrete defined practices that begin at a particular time and end at a particular time. He can skateboard when he wants to and as long as he wants to. And in learning how to skateboard, the child explores the nature and the limits of the skateboard and the nature and the limits of himself. And because it is unknown how he would react to skateboarding when he first begins to do it, the whole exploration of the activity is a kind of adventure
An adventure, in terms of my model, is a human life situation that contains a unique configuration of discrete stimuli and continual stimuli and that requires a unique response from an individual in order to successfully perform a series of discrete and continual actions. Discrete actions tend to be based on practiced skills while continual actions tend to be based on improvisation. Stated another way, in an adventure, a person has unique encounters and uses his practiced skills combined with improvisational twists to overcome obstacles presented by the encounters. Frequently, we tend to think of adventures as being high risk-taking, where a person’s life, health, or fortune or something else that is fundamentally important is on the line. But for a child, an adventure is a situation where he takes a uniquely configured experience and converts a part of it into a series of activites that he can control. Steve’s older son converts transporting himself on a skateboard in a park into a series of unique twists and turns and jumps that he can control. In so doing, he creates an experience that makes a unique imprint on his mind and also activates him into a rich vibrant life experience.
The opportunity for making unique imprints, perhaps on the minds of his team-mates and fans as well as on himself, diminishes in the parent-organized team sports of young people. Yes, a child develops technical skills in particular sports, but he doesn’t develop the skills that come with creating his own variations on games and negotiating the rules with the other kids in his group. He is slotted in defined activities with defined rules, defined techniques and defined goals - activities that have been molded by adults.
When I wa a little boy, I grew up in a highrise building in Chicago. During the summer, all of the kids would finish their dinners with their families, and they would come down the elevators and play a game called pinners. Pinners was a variation on baseball, where you would bounce a ball high up from a ledge of a building, and try to do it in such a way that other players couldn’t catch it. Different groups of kids had different variations on pinners. It was a game that adjusted to the different spaces and different surfaces that were available in a living environment. It was a kind of adventure in which the kids could make up their own variations on the rules and make their own uniquely configured imprints on themselves and on the kids around them. Although there was a technique to bouncing the ball high and away, no one was there making them practice their discrete techniques over and over, so that they could become discrete sports robots for their parents.
I don’t want to imply that all athletes who master their sport after long training are robots. But children of ordinary skill who are constantly spending free time, that used to be for fun and reverie, in developing very precise and focused techniques, are children who are being subtly influenced by all the precise, focused, complex, technological entities in their living environments: the televisions and computers and smart phones and video games.
We as human beings are molded by our living environments and, in particular, we are molded by the implements, including the entertainment implements, we use. Children in highly regulated team sports are, like the parents who regulate the sports, also regulated by the discrete movements and discrete thoughts involved in the interaction with the highly complex entertainment implements that they use. I know that it seems strange to think of a video game as an implement, but it is a kind of tool used for entertainment.
Anyway, just as modern machines are composed of parts that fit into slots or parts that are held together by screws, so the parts of days of modern humans are slotted together or screwed together in a series of disconnected appointments and meetings. Or in factory work, the machine operator is turned on when the machine is turned on. The machine operator is turned off when the machine is turned off. Or else another shift takes over the machine. In this case, the whole shift is like a machine part that slots into a day with the machine parts of the other shifts. And time passes on in the shift in a numbing way. There are no temporal surfaces on which to leave the imprints of vibrant living: organically flowing activities and reverie. Work today is overly defined and angular.
There has not only been a loss of adventure for kids like those of my downstairs neighbor. How can you have adventure in work, when you have to fill out mounds of discrete forms and keep mounds of discrete data for almost every activity in which you engage. Mounds and mounds of discrete stimuli that suck the life out of every step that an adult person takes in his work. Every initiative that is taken has to be profusely justified to committees.
It is one thing to have to give up one’s sense of adventure to be a “serious” mature modern adult. But why must we so over-regulate the free time of kids with slotted sports practices and games, and slotted lessons for music, art, languages, and preparation for exams so that there is never time for idle fun and just dreaming. Yes it is fine to have lessons in a sport or musical or artistic skill that a child is interested in. But don’t fill up all of his free time with regulated activities. My neighbor’s oldest son has the right idea. Find an activity like skate-boarding that hasn’t been regulated by adults yet. I had pinners. It was an imprint that belonged to the kids in my building.
And I had time to dream, to do nothing. When you are a robot, there are two basic states of existence. You are turned on and then you are active performing tasks. Or you are turned off, and then you are lifeless. Robots don’t engage in reverie. And they don’t go off by themselves and skateboard or play pinners either.
c 2012 Laurence Mesirow
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
A lot of my writing for these articles is based on a fundamental assumption: the brain and what we call the mind are two different phenomena. Philosophers have been grappling for centuries with bridging the divide between the world of internal mental experiences and the world of external physical events. We know about the processes of the brain through external physical events, and we experience the flow of thought in our mind. However, no one has ever really succeeded in bridging the divide between these two entities. Today, scientists are trying to gloss over the distinction between internal mental existence and external cerebral existence as a result of advances in scientific research on the brain. As a result of this research, scientists feel that they will succeed in showing that the mind can be reduced to being simply an aspect of the brain. Science today is working very hard to locate where different cerebral activities are in the brain. Scientists are doing this quite effectively, and when they do it, the mental activity that a person is experiencing somehow becomes less real than the cerebral activity that scientists are able to quantify and measure. The mental activity is reduced to being simply an external manifestation of the “real” activity which is the cerebral activity.
But to think this way is to distort reality. Precisely because the activities that scientists are measuring in this situation are quantifiable and measurable, they are composed primarily of discrete stimuli. These discrete stimuli are configured into very pure events with measurable beginnings, measurable processes, and measurable endings. Put another way, scientists convert all internal mental activity into cerebral events so that it can be measured.
But life is more than just discrete stimuli and measurable events. Life is also composed of experiences with rich mixtures of both discrete stimuli and continual stimuli. Continual stimuli are not measurable, are not controllable, and, therefore, scientists ignore them. To scientists, the notion of blendable continual stimuli would not make any sense, could not be considered a part of any meaningful reality. Therefore, what we call experiences are also not a part of any meaningful reality. Experiences are subjective. A meaningful reality is an objective reality to scientists. Therefore, the fact that what a person experiences is not identical to the cerebral activity a scientist is measuring during an experiment is not important. The real phenomenon for the scientist is the cerebral activity.
However, just because scientists are able to use their knowledge to manipulate cerebral activity in order to create certain experiences in humans, it does not mean that they can recreate the complexity of natural human experiences.
No matter how sophisticated the circuits are for the robots that engineers create, they are still being operated by combinations of discrete integers, of 0’s and 1’s. And to the extent that some evil genius would want to put microchips into human brains in order to control them, the brains could only be controlled by suppressing the connection with mind activity, by turning the humans into robots.
In truth, the mind-brain dichotomy is a variation of other important dichotomies in the history of philosophy. All these dichotomies reflect the dichotomy between discrete stimuli and continual stimuli in human existence. There is the mind-body dichotomy, which philosophers pondered a lot, before there was any extensive scientific knowledge about the brain. There was the dichotomy of the world of ideas vs. the world of matter. One famous British philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley, an Anglo-Irish philosopher of the eighteenth century, said the world consisted only of ideas and was simply an extension of our minds. This way of looking at the world had some strange consequences. If a person looks at a tree in the forest, and then ceases to look at it, and no one else is looking at the tree, the tree ceases to exist. This philosophical orientation is known as Idealism, and, for most of us, it appears to be a rather exteme position. But now, with modern science, we are immersed in a different extreme position. The problem today isn’t with the reality of the tree. The problem is with the reality of the observer. The observer, as we think of him being constituted, is not real, because he is really simply a bundle of cerebral and other neurological events. His experience of himself as a unified coherent entity is simply an unimportant secondary phenomenon, an illusion. This line of thinking comes from a philosophical orientation known as Materialism, and it also is extreme.
The way to handle the mind/body dichotomy, the soul/body dichotomy, the dichotomy of the world of ideas and the world of matter, and the mind/brain dichotomy has frequently been to say that one side of the dichotomy is somehow more real than the other. To admit the reality of both sides of the dichotomy is to leave the world untidy, to create too much anxiety and uncertainty for people.
There is a view in Judaism in one of the creation stories in Genesis that tries to get around the divide by saying that God breathed life into the dust of the earth, and this brought the dust to life as a human. When this happened, the life or spirit could not be separated from the dust or the body. Nevertheless, this was an idea that developed before we had much exploration or knowledge of cerebral activity, which corresponds to mental activity but is not the same as mental activity. Interestingly, the mystical traditions of Judaism are much more attuned to an inner/outer distinction. The distinction for them is between the perishable body and the eternal soul which eventually reunites with God. Although this theory asserts more than is necessary for our purposes, it does represent an attempt to acknowledge that there is something very different between existence within the mind and existence out in the world.
So for us, where are we to localize the distinction between subjective mental activity and objective cerebral activity. One place to localize it is in the configuration of stimuli in each kind of activity. Subjective mental activity creates a coherent field of stimuli dominated by continual stimuli that hold the discrete stimuli together to create a unified experience. Objective cerebral activity creates a field of defined events dominated by discrete stimuli. To the extent that science studies these events, they are studied as much as possible in a vacuum. If these events were surrounded by too many continual stimuli, they would melt into a unified field of experience. The variable discrete events in a scientific experiment could not be effectively manipulated. For science to work, these events cannot be unified in the way one has a unified field of experience.
Why am I spending so much time on all of this? Because the people who build robots want to create robots that are as much like humans as possible. My feeling is that, as sophisticated as they can be in creating objective cerebral activity, they are never going to recreate the subjective mental activity of organic human beings. Yes, mental activity and cerebral activity are connected to each other, but they are not the same. So engineers are going to be able to create sophisticated cartoons of subjective mental activity, just as we ourselves become sophisticated cartoon characters unconsciously modeling ourselves after the robots and the computers and all the complex machine entities that surround us.
Humans will converge with the complex machines that surround them, but they will always be different from these machines because of the rich variety of continual stimuli in their subjective field of experience. Just as we become cartoon characters, unconsciously modeling ourselves after complex machine entities like robots, engineers are working very hard to create robots that are sophisticated cartoon characters of us. The question is, when both humans and robots converge in becoming sophisticated cartoon characters, who will be left to watch the cartoons?
c 2012 Laurence Mesirow