Monday, November 16, 2015

Robots and Mythical Creatures

            Over the course of this column, I have used several metaphors to describe the process by which humans are subtly influenced and even transformed by ongoing interaction with modern machines, computers and robots.  I have used a chemical metaphor of machine behavior somehow leaching out of machines and into humans, as if machine behavior was like a soluble substance that could leach into the minds of humans.  A related chemical metaphor could be that of being like a dye that bleeds out of machines and into the minds of humans.  I have used a biological metaphor of contagion, as if technological behavior was like a bacteria that could be transmitted to humans.  Related to this biological approach to contagion is the magical approach to contagion: the continued influence of something – in this case, a technological device -  on a person long after the person is no longer in actual contact with that thing.  I have used an anthropological metaphor of totemic connection, as if modern machines, computers and robots could become symbolically tied together with people who develop a mystical relationship with them.  Finally, I have used the psychoanalytic metaphors of mirroring and modeling the most to explain how different modern machines, computers, and robots mirror back to us images of ourselves as formatted through technological images and how different modern machines, computers and robots act as implicit models for us, as we try to increasingly approximate them.  Each of these metaphors generate images that help us to visualize in certain ways the relationship that humans have with modern technology.

            In this article, I am going to discuss a phenomenon that exists in a Native American tribal group and that develops a connection with humans that has an aspect that is qualitatively somewhat distinct from inanimate materials, from bacteria, from totemic animals, and from parental figures.  The relationship that develops between this phenomenon and humans can shed new light on the relationship between modern machines, computers and robots, on the one hand, and humans on the other.

            Kachinas are spirits that insure the preservation of the Hopis, a Native American tribe from northeast Arizona in the United States, by insuring the flow of life.  Visually, Kachinas are represented as mythical creatures with faces that are usually built on geometric patterns. Some Hopis dress up as Kachinas, and when they do, they become the Kachinas, they become the supernatural.  They do this to revitalize the natural – the fertility of not just humans, but of all life forms.  As is discussed by Barton Wright in his book, Kachinas, A Hopi Artist’s Documentary (Northland Publishing, 1973), Kachinas are accessible spirits that allow humans to use supernatural powers to “cure disease, grow corn, bring clouds and rain, watch over ceremonies and reinforce discipline and order in the Hopi world” (p. 2).  The Kachinas become a major vehicle by which humans can insure their harmony with the natural world, their communion with and their grounding in the natural world.  Kachinas revitalize life experience in the villages by creating random intense primary experience interactions with non-Kachina Hopis.  Sometimes, Kachinas whip people.  Sometimes they pretend to hump women, imitating sex.  Sometimes Kachinas perform ceremonies. Sometimes they act like clowns and involve the viewers of their antics in interactive theater.  Sometimes, they sing or dance.  Sometimes they discipline youths who misbehave.  Sometimes, they just act angry.  Sometimes, they perform dangerous feats like hanging from a pole over the rim of a cliff.  In all cases, Kachinas enhance the vibrancy of people’s life experiences and by extension the vibrancy of the cosmos.  These enhanced life experiences make people feel more alive and, by extension, magically increase their fertility.

            The focus here is on the protection of the flowing blendable continual life force rather than on the protection of isolated defined discrete life entities.  Kachinas are not the highest spiritual entities in the Hopi pantheon.  Rather they are the bridge that connect humans to the spirit world.  When a Hopi puts on a Kachina costume, he becomes the Kachina and takes on the flowing blendable continual life force that emanates from the Kachina.  It is as if within the Kachina costume, the Hopi immerses himself (and it is typically a he) in the Kachina spirit.

            Kachina spirits are in practically everything that surrounds a Hopi – animals, plants, skies, clouds, rocks, trees, even abstract forms.  A Kachina can be an ancestor, a member of a neighboring tribe, or even a particular occupation within the Hopi, such as a village head or a guardian.  The whole Hopi field of experience is filled with different kinds of Kachinas.  The Hopis have created a complex behavioral entity that cannot be reduced to any one kind of pre-existing entity in the external world.  To make it even more complex, the Kachina takes a third form apart from the spirit and from the human enshrouded in the spirit.  The Hopis carve beautiful Kachina dolls out of wood, and they are given to girls of the tribe as well as sold to tourists.  The Kachina is a very special unique entity.

            In the same way, modern humans have created unique complex behavioral entities in the form of modern machines, computers and robots.  Just as Kachinas are expressions of the complex world of spirit that surrounds the Hopi, so modern machines, computers and robots are expressions of the complex world of electrical energy that surround modern technological humans.  Just as Kachinas take many forms and permeate many areas of Hopi life, so modern machines, computers and robots take many forms and are inserted into many different areas of modern life.  Whereas Kachinas help keep the human race alive by creating rich vibrant life experiences and by stimulating fertility and the flow of life over generations, modern technology keeps the human race alive by creating safe mediated frictionless environments that protect individual humans from harm.

            In the form in which Kachinas interact with humans, Kachinas become basically humans dressed up as Kachinas.  The Kachina actors blend with the Kachina spirit entities they are supposed to represent and, as a result, become a bridge over which non-Kachina humans can enter the world of Kachinas, can become immersed in the world of Kachinas.  This blending with Kachinas is the vehicle by which the strong life force of the Kachina spirits can enter and permeate both the Kachina actors and the non-Kachina humans.  This strong life force is the basis for strengthening the flow of life of humans and, by extension, their fertility.  But the influence of Kachina spirits being in the world is not limited to humans.  It extends to animals and plants and strengthens their fertility.  This is particularly important for maize, the basic grain of the Hopis.  Grown in a desert climate, the maize of the Hopis requires that the Hopis stay in harmony with the spirit world in order to survive and thrive.  The Hopis, therefore, are themselves a bridge between the Kachinas and maize as well as the other living things in the world.  Through the Hopis, the strong life force of the Kachinas is passed on to maize as well as all living things.

            Modern technological humans, on the other hand are more focused on preserving the lives of individual living units and protecting them from the perishability that occurs in nature.  Just as the Hopis use the Kachinas to stimulate a strong flow of life and a greater fertility in life, modern technological humans use their modern machines, their computers and their robots for their principal purposes: preserving individual lives and protecting them from organic perishability.  Unlike the Hopis, modern technological humans do not dress up as their complex creations.  The merger of people with technology is more subtle and indirect.  There is a sense in which we could say that all the modern complex technological devices with which modern humans interact leach into or bleed into the minds of humans, as humans are subtly influenced to copy the behavior of these complex technological entities.  One might almost say that the influence of these complex technological entities is so impelling that their influence jumps from the technology to the humans like some magical psychological contagion.  There is the admiring imitation of technological traits that is parallel to the admiring imitation from preliterate tribespeople of their clan totems.  And finally there is a deeper individual connection that develops between humans and technological entities, as these entities are unconsciously used as mirrors to show humans how they have to modify their behavior to become more robotized.  Also, these technological entities act as implicit models for behavior to which modern humans aspire.

            In addition to the immersion that individual Hopis experience being Kachina actors - the immediate experience of directly blending with the Kachinas - the whole Hopi community as a group can also be said to be influenced by the Kachina actors through the channels I have discussed: the four metaphorical connections I have used for modern technological humans.  The direct blending of Kachina and actor is an indication of the importance placed by the Hopis in the stimulation of the flow of life by spirit energy.  Only through dressing up as Kachinas, can the Hopis activate this spirit energy.  Modern technological humans don’t need to dress up as machines in order to active their protective energy, electricity.

            So Hopis blend with their created complex behavioral entities – namely, the Kachinas – and modern technological humans blend with their created complex behavioral entities – namely, modern machines, computers and robots.  With modern technological humans, there is no need as yet to actually dress up in costume and become a modern technological entity in order to merge with modern technological entities.  But the psychological blending occurs nevertheless.  And all four of the metaphors I have used for this blending – chemical, biological, anthropological and psychological – can all be true to some extent and coexist, because they are all simply symbolic explanations that are useful to describe a blurry flowing continual experiential situation for humans.

            And yet there is a fifth metaphor for merging that is brought out by the Hopis interaction with Kachinas.  Because there are several hundred Kachinas, and because they interact with the Hopis in many different ways, the Kachinas create an enveloping flowing blendable continual atmosphere of Kachina-ness for the Hopis.  This atmosphere surrounds each individual Hopi with a Kachina essence that helps to make those Hopis that become Kachina actors more predisposed to become Kachinas and those Hopis who don’t to be predisposed to blend with the Kachinas through the Kachina actors.  For all the Hopis, it is an experience of a cultural atmosphere created by the hundreds of Kachinas.

            In spite of the ongoing creation of new technological entities in modern society, it is my belief that modern humans experience an ongoing enveloping technological atmosphere created by all the different technological devices as well as those aspects or pieces of the modern field of experience that have been transformed in some way by these devices.  This atmosphere contributes independently of the one-on-one interaction with individual devices to the gradual robotization of humans.  Furthermore, this atmosphere has an influence apart from the sensory distortion created by overstimulation and understimulation from different segments of the living environment.  In spite of the sensory distortion created by modern technology, the mind has a need to try and pull together the stimuli from its field of experience into some coherent grounded whole.  And this is why we can speak of modern people creating some kind of coherent experiential atmosphere in their minds.

            Basically the blending with Kachina-ness, the Kachina experiential atmosphere, is useful for Hopis in their strategy to survive by resulting in their making an ongoing flow of organic imprints.  The blending with the modern technology experiential atmosphere is useful for modern humans in their strategy to survive by resulting in their protecting and preserving their organic imprints.  Modern technological humans have built a complex modern civilization based on their filling the spaces of their fields of experience with their preserved organic imprints.  Increasingly these accumulations of preserved organic imprints – the physical and mental structures of modern technological civilization – are making it more and more difficult to continue creating a flow of new vibrant organic imprints that can then be preserved, as there are fewer and fewer organic surfaces left on which to leave imprints.  In a certain way, modern humans may need to learn something from the Hopis and their enveloping symbolic connections to their world, in order to continue a vibrant life with a flow of organic imprints.  Modern humans need some of the vibrant experiences of the Hopis (not the whipping of people) to balance out the gradual blending with modern technology and the gradual conversion into robots.

© 2015 Laurence Mesirow

Trying To Understand People Through Their Brains

            Is it possible that we are going to be able to create a complete wiring diagram of the brain?  There are scientists who are trying to do this.  The network of neuronal connections that these scientists are trying to map is called the “connectome”.  The mapping is being done both on the cellular level as well as on the macro level (which refers to higher-level structures and functioning).

            So far a correlation has been established between brains with strong internal connections on the one hand and positive traits such as better education, good memory, and good physical condition on the other.  People with negative traits such as aggressive behavior, smoking and drugs seem to have less strong internal connections.  This does seem to demonstrate some association between human behavior and the physical condition of the brain.

            But Jeff Lichtman, a leading investigator in neurobiology from Harvard University has noticed that there are no physical indications in the brain of disorders like autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.  This is distinct from other parts of the body where tissue examination yields signs of pathological conditions.  Lichtman believes that exploring the brain on the nanoscale level using electron microscopes will elicit more concrete signs of these behavioral disorders as well as answers for many other questions relating to the brain.  In his article for Gizmag magazine, “Can we build a complete wiring diagram of the human brain?” (9/30/15), Richard Moss, a freelance writer who lives in Melbourne, Australia, goes into an extensive discussion of Lichtman’s ideas on what he, Lichtman, might achieve by brain diagramming.

            Lichtman does believe there are probably physical differences in the brain for the behavioral disorders he has investigated.  It’s just that we haven’t had the tools to determine these differences, because they occur on such a small scale.  Nevertheless, science will find measurable defined discrete signs which will help us then, one would suppose, to manipulate these disorders and help the people suffering from them to deal with them more effectively.

            However, what if Lichtman is wrong?  What happens if, after developing the appropriate investigating tools using nanotechnology, significant differences between the brains of people with these disorders and the brains of so-called normal people are not discerned?  Will people find a way to explore the brain on an even smaller scale than nanoscale?

            Perhaps the answer is that these disorders are more disorders of the mind than of the brain.  That focusing on the defined discrete data emanating from the physical brain is leading researchers in the wrong direction.  Scientists today are obsessed with reducing all mind functions to brain functions that eventually could be physically manipulated.  But perhaps the mind is not reducible.  Philosophers have dealt with the difficulties of trying to overcome the mind/ body dichotomy for ages.

            In our daily lives, our field of experience is filled with measurable defined discrete phenomena: figures such as objects, buildings, plants, animals and people.  All of these have definable boundaries that separate them from that which surrounds them.  But the spaces within these boundaries within the figures are not filled with perceptible defined discrete points as if they were pixilated.  The spaces within these boundaries have blendable continual grounding and flow from border to border of the defined discrete phenomena in a coherent way.  Yes, there may be some internal boundaries – the features on a face – but these internal boundaries blend in with the grounding that surrounds them.  Around the defined discrete phenomena, there are different kinds of flowing blendable continual spaces.  At a minimum, even in a crowded urban area, there are the spaces of the sky and the ground.  In nature, many defined discrete objects like trees, bushes and grass blades blend together when seem from a distance. Rivers and large lakes and oceans tend to extend out as far as the eye can see.  So along with the defined discrete phenomena, there are the flowing blendable continual phenomena in nature like forests and bodies of water and deserts and jungles that bond the defined discrete phenomena into the coherent sensory configuration that is our field of experience.  And when we experience total darkness, we experience a sensory configuration that flows to infinity without any sharply definable or even blurry phenomena.  Darkness is totally undefinable.

            The important thing to note is that many visible sensory phenomena are not sharply definable.  Cognitively, while using words, we can attempt to translate many blurrily definable and undefinable phenomena into words and/or numbers, but that translation leads to distortion of what a phenomenon is in terms of the way that we actually directly experience it.

            By the same token, when we turn our examination inside of ourselves, we assume that all mental activity can be, in effect, pixilated, turned into defined discrete mental data that can in turn allow us to control and manipulate the activity.  We also assume we can locate all the data we get in precise areas of the brain.  We would like to assume that we could create precisely detailed packages of thought based on sensations, flows of thought, imaginative works – in short, everything that would allow us to have a thorough control and dominance over human mental activity.

            But what if there is a world of mental activity that does not lend itself to being categorized as defined discrete phenomena?  A world that would escape the control that should come from a complete wiring diagram of the brain?  It would mean that developing a complete wiring diagram of the brain would not lead to finding defined discrete physical indications of mental conditions like autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  And there would be no way to use physical evidence to be able to control and manipulate these problems.

            So defined discrete data from physical evidence may be of limited use for dealing with the rich flowing continual interior world of human experience.  Of course, Jeff Lichtman feels differently.  He feels that the main meaningful unit of knowledge is a defined discrete datum, and that there are so many data being churned out in so many fields of knowledge that human brains are simply overwhelmed by them.  There are simply too many data for human brains to grasp and compress into new big ideas.  The problem is not only the data as isolated units, but how they interact with each other.  Lichtman claims that we can analyze the data, but that we can no longer fully understand their significance.

            This all, of course, assumes that all of our perceptions and experiences of the world can be broken down into defined discrete data without significant distortion.  Using modern technology, we can appear to transform all the processes in laboratory studies and experiments into measurable defined discrete events.  But when I live my life in the external world, there are some measurable defined discrete events, but most of what I absorb are unmeasurable, flowing blendable continual experiences.  My inner life is not only filled with defined discrete cognitive thoughts, but also with flowing blendable continual streams of sensations, intuitions, dreams and imagination.  Lab experiments may be able to measure certain processes as discrete data, but my mind is filled with all kinds of unmeasurable flowing activity.  Is a diagram of the wiring of the brain going to be so helpful in grasping and later controlling and manipulating all my amorphous, nebulous mental activity.

            We are back again with a distinction I have discussed earlier in my article that draws an analogy from a particular area of study in mathematics.  Basically, it has been shown that there are different kinds of infinity based on different categories of numbers.  One big division among these kinds of infinity is that between delimited infinity and nondelimited infinity.  Delimited infinity deals with defined discrete numbers: 12,3,4,5, etc.  Nondelimited infinity deals with numbers that, as it were, seem to gradually flow into, blend into one another.  The numbers that represent all the points on a line.  It can be proved mathematically that the points on a line represents a larger infinity than the number of defined discrete numbers.  The analogy I want to draw is that there is a greater infinity of all the non-measurable, flowing blendable continual experiences that we absorb than the measurable defined discrete events.  There is a greater infinity of possible non-measurable ambiance activity in an experience than there is of possible focused activity of subjects in an event such as an experiment.

            Returning to Lichtman, focusing only on all the defined discrete events from a well mapped-out brain is going to lead humans to miss out on the greater infinity of all the life activity from flowing blendable continual life experience.  Focusing only on the defined discrete thought from a well mapped-out brain is going to lead humans to miss out on the greater infinity of the flowing blendable continual streams of sensations, intuitions, dreams and imagination.

            The paradox is that although there is a greater infinity of flowing blendable continual mental impressions in the world than there are defined discrete data, the mental impressions lend themselves more easily than the data to being combined into a few larger ideas.  Large ideas are much more likely to come from impressions than from scientifically-based data.  So there is no reason to believe that the ongoing flow of data is going to drown out big ideas.

            And there will be lots of areas of human experience that will be only tangentially touched by creating a complete diagram of the human brain.  Will we finally find out some physical indicators of mental disorders like autism, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder by using electron microscopes on a nanoscale?  Somehow I feel that no matter what we find, it will not be enough to fully explain these disorders, to lead to a full understanding that will lead to a full control.  And maybe it is just as well.  The ability to fully understand, explain, and control mental abnormalities would only be the flip side of being able to fully understand, explain and control mental normality.  And that would lead to the ability to take over people’s minds and turn them into robots.  Not an appealing idea.

(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow