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THE POWER OF WISHFUL THINKING

Presented 14 June 98 by Glen Sandberg
Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Mobile AL
 
 
 
Wishing will make it so!
 From Love Affair (De Silva 1939)
Wishing will make it so.
Just keep on wishing and cares will go.
Dreamers tell us dreams come true, it's no mistake.
And wishes are the dreams we dream when we're awake.
The curtain of night will part, if you are certain within your heart.
So if you wish long enough, wish strong enough, you will come to know
Wishing will make it so.
 

When I was in the third grade I had a teacher who sat her pupils around the piano and sang that song, with a wistful voice, to express her hopeful philosophy.  It was public knowledge that her personal situation was anything but hopeful, with a husband who was "sick" - an unemployable drunkard - and a grown-up son who had nothing better to do than to wait for his mother and drive her home from school.  While waiting he would tell us all about the family miseries.

My parents were activists who scoffed at the passive acceptance of "the way things are" that is implied by reliance on the magic of "wishing".

Instead I soaked up my philosophy at the next-door branch of the Cleveland Public Library, which had a children's department with a rare breadth of interest.  The children's librarian was a large, barrel-shaped lady who served her clients one at a time, by taking each one to the location where their request could be found.  During busy times she had a queue of children following her all over the library, seeing first hand the variety of interests that were possible.  There was an old Encyclopedia Britannica and stories by Mark Twain, Jack London, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.  I remember reading from the 1000-page volumes of reprints from Popular Mechanics Magazine (vintage 1914) and Morgan's Things a Boy can do with Electricity, and discovering that technology can be fun.

It seemed to me that wishing is futile unless we learn how to accomplish what we want to do, and also what we want is possible with the available resources.  It might serve some psychological purposes such as self-justification that could be either constructive or destructive, and it might also be part of the interpersonal relations that facilitate concerted action by a group of people.

I have since had some long thoughts about the nature of wishing which I will try to share with you in this presentation.  I can't claim originality for any part except for collecting together many ideas that are current in our culture, and I will try to give credit to the sources that I found relevant in the written version which will be available on my web page.
 

Science

We are overwhelmed when we try to conceptualize a phenomenon as complex as our own life-as-we-know-it and we must resort to mystical substitutes for comprehension, or else we must concentrate our attention on one system at a time and neglect the complexity of the interactions, for the moment.  Then we must find a way to do justice to the interrelations that are the essence of life.

The scientific method is a process for the evolution of ideas where we contrive experimental systems simple enough to distinguish the relations we are interested in from those that are irrelevant and we invent ideas to explain those relations.  The ideas that succeed in fitting the observations are selected over those that don't and we use them to predict the result of observations that haven't been done yet.  We use quantitative techniques such as measurement and mathematics to test whether the ideas are still good to explain the new phenomena.  If not, we must either improve our experimental techniques or our analytical methods till they do, or else invent new ideas to fit the facts.  The process is cultural, with worldwide communication among scientists and with independent confirmation of results before they are generally accepted.  Scientists must specialize to make world-class contributions to the process but the community product has broad application.

Complementarity

It is paradoxical that the way to increased certainty is to have an open mind!  The finer slicing of observational detail leads to broader applicability!  The invention of new ideas requires an intuitive jump to conclusions which might then be justified by new logical consequences that fit the facts!  We need both the inductive and deductive methods of reasoning.

The conceit that we can know the truth must be balanced by the humility that any idea is bound to be less than the reality we apply it to.  It's only good for what it's good for, and we will always need new ideas to go beyond the limitations of our past.

In our culture the distinction between Natural and Supernatural, Body and Soul, Material and Spiritual, is our way of rationalizing the phenomena of our lives that are not rational.  We get an illusion of certainty from using the vocabulary of ideas about processes we do not comprehend.  However I believe that the source of that security is in fact the adaptability of our thoughts and our capability to pick the certainties that seem appropriate.  We have religious traditions that are interpreted by every generation to be whatever they believe is eternal Truth.

The issues of evolution and of cosmology are loaded because we need a Creator to serve our emotional need to know-it-all, to imagine an act of creation like what we do every day in our human lives.

We are born into the human experience that comprehension is the essence of our being, but we must invent new concepts to really understand what we think we already know!  The knowledge of nature must include -  the nature of knowledge!

Evolution

We are a life form that has evolved as a fait accompli.  The faculties that we know as human are the result of the survival, by prevailing at each step of the way, of those variants in a population that were best able to cope with the context of their existence.  From the biochemical details of our cellular metabolism, which evolved in an anaerobic environment, to the food chain that we depend on for survival, we are the result of co-evolution of co-dependent systems both within ourselves and in the natural - and also the artificial - world around us.

The coexistence of the many traits that we take for granted as a viable life form is analogous to the coexistence of the many life forms that together make a viable ecological system.  Even the evolution of life on the Earth can be understood as a self-regulating system of interdependent parts known in the discussions as Gaia, from the name of the earth-goddess in ancient Greek mythology.(1,2)  This is not a mystical fog but a way of thinking that sheds some light on the subject.  Similarly we ourselves consist of many interdependent systems that serve their purposes without any of our conscious attention except when they signal distress and we attend to those needs.

The traits that help us cope have been perpetuated by the survival of those individuals, and also population groups, that had them and most of what we are today was already a working system in our ancestors long before they evolved the capability that we call reasoning.

Finally, the preservation of genetic diversity in spite of natural selection has had survival value in the long run.  The capability of a population to evolve and adapt genetically depends on the presence of variants in the population that might not be optimum for its present circumstances but would be favored in a changed environment.  Likewise our adaptability to learn and to find satisfaction - that is, motivation - in different social roles is a trait that has survival value beyond the utility of any particular role.
 
 

Awareness

The capability to respond appropriately to external stimuli has evolved in very simple life forms; in fact this might be considered a universal characteristic of life.  A plant grows toward the light and a single-celled protozoan swims toward a source of nourishment or away from a noxious chemical.  We incorporate pattern recognition in computer programs that we write and we build robots that can react to their surroundings.  At what point can these behaviors be considered awareness?  Fifty years ago the hopes were high that we could develop artificially intelligent systems limited only by the speed of the computer.  Progress has been disappointing because we did not understand the intelligent systems we were trying to emulate; however our experiences with computer systems have been very informative in our efforts to understand living things.(3)

The early ideas of the nervous system as communication channels with sensory inputs and muscular outputs conceptualized the brain as a switchboard, simple in principle but complicated only by the multiplicity of interconnections it had to manage.  The idea of learning as selective reinforcement of nervous connections with use, analogous to muscular development, was well established with Pavlov's conditioned reflex experiments and the teachings of Donald Hebb.  However the adaptability of even the simplest living systems was beyond our capability to manage.  Computers were very fast tools for executing stored programs of simple steps in sequence, with the capability to branch to different parts of a program in response to testing the data.  This limited adaptability was suited to certain artificial intelligence tasks like selective retrieval from vast stores of data, for example in the fields of medical diagnosis and legal reference.  These "expert systems" have a well-earned place in teaching and as a ready reminder for human practitioners. However they don't learn from experience the same way living systems do.  Someone - or many people - must create the knowledge base that they use.

Simulation

Here is an example of a task that computers are good for that is relevant to our consideration of "wishing will make it so".  The computer can be programmed to imagine the process of physical motion, of planetary systems or the parts of the human body.  We have all seen simulations in the news reports of space exploration, and I have here a two-minute video clip from the Georgia Tech graphics laboratory, of human body motions. 

The program uses data sets that describe the shapes of the body parts and the articulation between them, and equations of motion that use mass and force parameters to predict the resulting motions.  The experimenter's input to the program is the wish to perform a particular action, expressed in appropriate language, and the output is rendered by the graphics programs to give us a view of the action. 


Illustration from Jessica K. Hodgins, Ref. 4
For more on this subject see the Scientific American article by Jessica K. Hodgins (4) and the Georgia Tech web site Animation . The animation sequence is available for download as a 24MB file, QT video.

The miraculous appearance of realism that is lacking in many cartoon animations is due to the modeling of physical motions with physical equations of motion that express precise physical laws.  Our knowledge of mechanics, from past experience of physical reality, is incorporated into the program's capability to imagine "What if?".

Intention

When I was a child we had a tomcat who liked to catch birds.  He would see a bird in the middle of the yard and he would creep as close as he could without alarming his prey, then he would dash about two-thirds of the remaining distance and leap into the air.  Occasionally he succeeded in catching the bird in mid-air.  We don't know how much of that skill was learned from his own experience and how much was inherited neurophysiology, but the result was instinctive behavior that evolved by natural selection in the wild of those cats who could over those that couldn't.  What is relevant to our present discussion is the idea that he was imagining "what if?" and choosing the combination of muscular exertions that resulted in the trajectory most likely to reach that bird, assuming its capability to fly away.  He, and we, both have the capability for kinesthetic modeling - to imagine the results of muscular exertions we might make and to choose on-the-fly the ones that serve our purpose.  This capability is included in the almost-automatic reflexes that enable us to walk and run and jump, but we are more aware of imagining what to expect when we throw a ball or use a tool.  When we catch a fly ball we must imagine its trajectory in order to be in the right place when it comes down.  When we relate to other people we must imagine their reaction to what we say or do, and judge our actions accordingly.

Wishing is the part of the process of voluntary action that we are aware of; the rest is unconscious because there are so many details being taken care of at once that we couldn't possibly deal with them consciously. When we learn a skill we develop reflexes that do the details automatically, working independently, in parallel, in response to the program which is our intention to perform the action.  This parallel processing is the essence of how our mind works and the sequential, step by step mode of thought that we know as reasoning is a superficial overlay on top of the wealth of parallel processing capabilities that were already there.

The top diagram shows what we mean by serial processing, where an input x is used to form an output,    y = f(x) and the result is then used as input to another step to form z = g(y) = g(f(x)) and so on.



Illustrations copied from (5) and (6)

The second diagram shows parallel processing of two inputs and combining the results for a more complex manipulation.  The third diagram shows the one to many and many to one interconnections in a neural net.

Incidentally the diagrams are themselves a parallel presentation of the ideas they contain because we see all the parts of the picture at once even though we read them serially from left to right!  The image is a wide channel for data transmission but our capability to it give it attention is a narrow data channel.

Reasoning

The capacity for verbal communication that our ancestors evolved gave them such an advantage over competing life forms that we, mankind, have inherited the Earth, whether we like it or not.  Mammoths and saber-tooth tigers are extinct because of human predation, and the agricultural and industrial modes of production have made possible a human population growth that will devastate the Earth unless we learn to live within the limits of reality.  We can learn from the experience of others but it is touch - and - go whether we will.  We have the capability for social evolution, where new ideas are instantly available worldwide to survive according to their utility somewhere.  However our history until now has been dominated by violence. Over and over we see nomadic raiders or distant colonies gaining the capability to plunder the civilized peoples that preceded them and then the conquerors become civilized themselves.  In spite of the genocides and dark ages and plagues and starvation we are better off today than at any time in the past, but the phenomena of human motivation are so irrational that we behave in crazy ways, individually and collectively.(7)  We have a long way to go in developing and using our capability for rational thought so that it can affect our behavior.  We must use our rational, scientific ability to explore the psychochemistry of human motivation because those systems that regulate mood and arousal are the means we have inherited to implement our intentions, whatever they are. 

Cognition

Our capability to thread our thoughts sequentially into the narrow channel of words and also to reconstruct a speaker's thoughts in our own mind is so powerful that our whole awareness of thought is cast in the mold of verbal communication.  Even when we jump to conclusions we are only aware of how they can be rationalized after the fact, since that is how we must explain them to someone else.  We are unaware of the parallel processes that are always present except for the ones that get our attention, and we hardly know those until they are rationalized.

On the other hand, solving a crossword puzzle is an activity where the unconscious associations of parallel processing in our brain are more apparent, as we comb our mind for words that fit the space, the definition, and the letters already in place.  In fact we must open our mind to the possibility that these might be wrong.  The cause-and-effect chain of rational thought is useless here and the answers appear miraculously to our conscious mind!
 
Similarly the phenomena of visual perception, as discovered during the last fifty years, are the result of massively parallel systems.  The pattern recognition task starts at the source of information, in the retina where the optical image is projected by the lens of the eye. 

The retina of the eye is part of the central nervous system, with associative neurons like those in the cerebral cortex that branch out and connect to approximately a thousand other neurons .  They constantly comb for patterns in the activity of the light-sensitive rod and cone cells they connect to, with different combinations of excitation and inhibition for each associative neuron. 
 

Transverse section  through optic nerve and fovea. =>
 
Magnified section through optic nerve and fovea. =>
Section through fovea, scale length 100 microns. =>
 
 
 
Diagram of layers
of neurons in retina
Types of associative neurons
in various layers of retina
Retina as seen by
opthalmologist
Optic nerve
paths to brain

 
 Illustrations from references (8) and (9)

The resulting signals they send through the optic nerve to the brain represent abstract features of the visual field such as light-dark contrast, motion, orientation and extension of edges, rather than a simple mapping of image points.  The optic nerves connect to the "visual cortex" in the occipital lobes of the brain.  From there the process of perception has been traced through a number of stages with binocular depth perception, color recognition, object vs. background resolution, and allowance for eye motion being abstracted at different steps of the way.  The barrage of visual-discrimination signals finally impinges on the frontal cortex which is the where our abstract thinking capabilities have evolved.  This is where we recognize the many ways that different perceptions are similar and so past experience is relevant to our present situation.

So the process of knowing what we see is creative, recognizing similarities between present and past experience and filling in the blanks from what we already know.  We keep in mind the actual shapes of familiar objects and recognize what is partly hidden from view.  The "remembered present" (10) is actually a better representation of our surroundings than the picture that our eye can perceive.  The capability for seeing fine detail is present only in a small central region called the fovea, where the cone cells that do color perception are crowded close together.  The rod cells in the surrounding part of the retina are sparsely distributed and unable to distinguish color but they are good for low-light vision and motion detection.

In fact our retinas have evolved inside-out, with the blood vessels and nerve fibers passing in front of the light-sensitive cells, giving a blind spot where the optic nerve exits.  We never notice the gaps because we can fill in the blanks in our imagined surroundings by glancing wherever we have the need-to-know and we immediately forget what was missing from our perception.

So:  All we know is what we think, so of course we think we know it all!  The saving grace is that the process is interactive, and we constantly improve our knowledge without even knowing that we do.

Thus the dynamic process of visual perception uses the scientific method!  We guess what our eyes are showing us, and if there is any doubt we look again.  We improve our knowledge of reality by correcting the parts that were wrong and then keeping the better idea in mind until it needs correcting again.  The process is automatic, and we are only aware of the final result at any moment.  It includes recognizing familiar objects in spite of differences in illumination and orientation and perspective.  It allows for the effects of motion, of the object or of ourselves, by kinesthetic modeling of what-we-expect to result from the motion.  This parallel-processing system, with associative neurons in the cerebral cortex constantly combing the input signals for combinations that have significance, has evolved by natural selection because of its survival value in the development of living things, ourselves and what we call "lower life forms".  So it appears that my tomcat, and the bird he is trying to catch, are using the scientific method that combines observation with invention to create images they can rely on to guide their motions.

Purpose

Their instinctive purposes, to catch and to escape, are the part of the process which drives their actions that concentrates their attention on the task at hand.  The beckoning of opportunity and the psychochemistry of fright are highly evolved motivational systems that we share with other living things.  We don't need to know how they work because they are parallel-processing systems that are self-motivated and they grab our attention when they need to rather than waiting for our stream-of-consciousness serial processing of rational thought.  The feeling of eagerness and the sensation of fright are part of that fait accompli that is life-as-we-know-it.

However our capabilities for verbal communication and community action have widened our horizon far beyond the abilities of other species that we know.  The serial nature of speech has required a subtlety of logical processing and the social organization of the group has required a diversity of thinking that gives us an awful power for good and for evil.  The very ideas of good and of evil are conceptual tools we use to articulate our thoughts about purpose.

 

Wishing

Wishing to do something implies the capability to imagine doing it without being actually in the process, so that we can consider the consequences and modify our intentions before committing to action.(11)  We can be both lover and beloved, leader and follower, giver and receiver, producer and consumer, child and parent and grandparent, private and public, by keeping in reserve the conflicting purposes that must also be satisfied to make it all possible.  We forget for the moment our conflicts of interest and we do what we have to do.

We have evolved these capabilities to contain the conflicts and to entertain thoughts that may not be suitable under the circumstances because these capabilities have survival value.  They facilitate a more creative consideration of all the possibilities and a more effective enabling of new ideas with a practical course of action because with abstract thought we can plan the details that can actually make it so.

There is an even more powerful way that wishing will make it so.  We share our purposes with other people and get the benefit of their capabilities, not only many times our own capability but also many ways that are different from our own.  We learn from the experiences of others and they from us.  By sharing our thoughts with verbal communication we can articulate social purposes that transcend the horizon of personal needs and capabilities.

We have evolved the motivational systems we need for social action, though they often work in mysterious ways.  We subordinate our immediate needs to getting the job done for some higher purpose, and we have a highly developed double-think mentality that can do justice to the conflicting purposes that are always present in our human lives.  The ideals of personal responsibility can coexist with the imperatives of going to war and the thoughts of good and evil can serve conflicting purposes without obvious contradiction.  The selective attention that we use to serve a purpose is a mixed blessing.  Although we use logical arguments to communicate and to persuade they are only part of the process of doing something, and the psychochemistry of motivation - how people feel - subverts rational thought.
 

Behavior

The behavioral psychologists of the 1920's studied human behavior without pretending to understand it, by using statistical methods.  Groups of people could be observed and reliable inferences could be made without knowing the underlying processes of motivation.  They found what buttons to push to grab our attention and how to use our psychic juices whether we want them to or not.  These results are used every day with ever-increasing effectiveness by the commercial media to manipulate their audiences into behavior that serves the purpose of their customers the advertisers.  Commercial and political favor is a commodity which has a price that is a profitable investment for the profit-motivated.  Adolph Hitler and his well-financed "patriots" were the first to wield the combined power of radio, motion pictures, and print media and the Nazis gave the world of their commercial supporters much more than they bargained for.

We hope that the media onslaught will have another effect, a sophistication in our culture about the sources of information and an immunization against their toxic effects.  We are now in the midst of a technological revolution comparable to the development of agriculture or of industrial production.  We cannot predict the full consequences of the instant access to information that is now developing worldwide but we can expect a significant cultural change.  The snowballing economy of mass-produced digital data devices should have a democratizing effect and the worldwide communication systems should facilitate global solutions to impending disasters.

Just as the cultural renaissance in Europe followed trade with China and the development of movable-type printing, we can expect that our instant access anywhere to information on demand will facilitate a greater cultural productivity everywhere.  The best things in life are more and more economical, once the necessities are provided.  We can now enjoy life without abusing the world, and each other, once we learn to limit our populations.

The power of wishful thinking

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal . . ."

Those colonials who revolted 200 years ago against the British Empire - King and Parliament and Established Church and Crown Corporations with monopoly privileges around the world - knew from their own experience in a frontier society the potential that could come from individual opportunity and creative adaptation.  But they had also the vision to create an open-ended, adaptable political system that could, through time, live up to the ideals they proclaimed.  Their philosophy of enlightenment was comfortable with the unknown, as an opportunity to create more good ideas, and it gave them confidence in their capability to do good and be well.

In conclusion, the evolutionary understanding of human behavior helps us to model, in our minds, the many ways we might choose to act, and how others might react, and to predict the possible consequences using information that is available from history, anthropology, and animal ethology studies as well as our own experience and cultural adaptation.  We need to appreciate the creative potential of this freedom to choose.  We can do justice to the human need for feeling and commitment without indulging mystery and double-think to rationalize our ignorance.

We must start now to see our way around the next corner of history!  We live in the brave new world that we create as we go.  We have no choice - we must play god!  We affect the world whether we like it or not!
 

References

  1. The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of our Living Earth, James Lovelock, Norton, 1988.
  2. Scientists on Gaia, Steven H. Schneider and Penelope Boston, eds.  MIT Press, 1991.
  3. Papers delivered at the American Geophysical Union's annual Chapman Conference, March 1998.

  4. The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky, Simon and Shuster 1988.
  5. An Erector Set of essays about the mind, as an interconnected system of self-motivated agents.

  6. Scientific American, March 1988.  Animating Human Motion by Jessica K. Hodgins.
  7. A description of programs that model the dynamics of motion in order to generate realistic images.

  8. IEEE Proceedings, Special Issue June 1998.
  9. IEEE Computer Magazine, June 1998.
  10. Three illustrations were copied from articles in the above not related to this essay.

  11. The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope, Ronald Aronson, Verso Edit. (London) 1983.
  12. Aronson calls attention to the inevitable consequences of violent means used for the best of ends.  Using the American conquest of "savage tribes" and our behavior in Vietnam, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Soviet imposition of top-down economics, and the Nazi extermination of European Jews, he shows that societies can indulge insane behavior even though everyone participating is clinically sane.  He contends that the Nazi takeover of Europe would have succeeded, with elitist support from everywhere in the world, except for their insane pursuit of a program that catered to folk prejudice and turned people in power against them.

  13. Anatomy of the Eye and Orbit, Eugene Wolff's 6th ed. rev. by R. J. Last, W. B Saunders 19??.
  14. The Anatomy of the Visual System, Stewart Duke-Elder and Kenneth C. Wybar, Mosby 1961. These two standard texts were used for illustrations which are still valid after many years.

  15. Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, Gerald M. Edelman, Basic Books (Harper Collins) 1992.  Subtitled On the Matter of the Mind, this popular development of mind as a biological process uses the Nobel laureate author's command of developmental biology to explain the functions of awareness and intention from an evolutionary viewpoint.  He uses the term "the remembered present" to characterize our internalized idea of our surroundings.

  16. Patterns, Thinking, and Cognition - A Theory of Judgement.  Howard Margolis,U. of Chicago Press, 1987.
  17. An evolutionary approach that emphasizes the dynamic balance between reconsideration and commitment to action, that is observed in "lower" life forms as well as mankind.  Margolis shows that pattern recognition is an iterative process of successive approximation between an internal representation and external stimuli, and that imagination and invention are part of the process.
    He applies these insights to societal behavior, in particular to the century-long interval for the general acceptance of the Copernican paradigm for our solar system, first by navigators and map-makers and last by professional astronomers.
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 Posted 2 July 1998  by Glen Sandberg