|Wishing will make it so!||
From Love Affair (De Silva 1939)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
|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.
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?".
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.
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.
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. =>
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.
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.
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
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.
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!