Alright, let’s connect up a bunch of stuff:
So, I really like this simple model of a human system:
And, in time, this looks something like the below:
[…] → sensing → representing → doing → sensing → representing → doing → […]
So, one takes stuff in from the world, one does some processing on it, some changes to the world model, planning, goals occur, and system physically does something, sensing occurs, there’s some prediction error, repeat.
(By the way, sensing, representing, and doing map onto the three transcendentals. The good, the true, and the beautiful. Not an accident. Sensing = beauty, representing = truth, doing = goodness. An ideal or goal is to sense/experience/feel beauty, represent/know/believe truth, do/exemplify good.)
Something like that.
The human system is a sensorimotor system.
“Representing” above has maybe too static of a connotation. The thing in the middle is signal processing, sensory processing, signal and sensory transduction. The system is stateful, in a state at any particular time, to be sure. But, depending on what flavor of neuroscience you currently subscribe to, that state is, in some sense, reconstituted in each moment, reconstituted continuously (even accounting for physical protein synthesis, synaptic weights, dendritic and axonic connections, and the physical “locations” of atomic and subatomic particles (and forces and fields)).
The whole thing is “flowing” all the time. It’s a process, with whorls and eddies and feedback looks and strange loops and strange attractors and twists and coiling and uncoiling, etc.
The state of all of that, or, rather, the pattern of all of that, that river of which you can’t step into the same one twice, that’s what it feels like to be you. The feeling of that from the inside is consciousness. Now, of course, there’s lots we aren’t conscious of, and consciousness is a weird, narrow, evolutionarily contingent, low-dimensional projection of somethingsomething. But, no, consciousness is basically that flowing pattern from the inside, or at least a dynamic viewport. When consciousness feels like maybe a static, distant, far-removed thing, that’s more because of the epicycles and epicycles and stacks of virtual machines and reifications that people build up over time, because things are happening too quickly, too intensely, too confusingly. [See technical debt and layer theory.]
In terms of input and output, there’s a lot of things going on in parallel. The world is a blooming, buzzing confusion and one has all these pulsing glands and organs, and twitchy smooth muscle and skeletal muscle.
Despite all that blooming and buzzing and twitching, the system acts really coherently, relatively speaking. People might make poor choices in the large, but people walk and talk and move, in some sense, VERY COHERENTLY. The output of the system is relatively serialized, contiguous, smooth, flowing, and (I think some telos and anthropomorphism is appropriate, here, to balance causal mechanism) planful and goalful.
A related, more human-ish word for representation is “belief.” It’s a decent word, a decent concept. There’s something there. Belief is problematic in a lot of ways, too, though. People express their beliefs, but sometimes it’s just talk? People convince themselves that they believe things, but sometimes it’s self-deception? And sometimes, whatever people say or do in some moment, in some sense their “real” beliefs are revealed by how they actually act in mundane or challenging situations, with stakes and teeth? Sometimes these are referred to as discourse models, self models, and action models. (A “model” being a collection of beliefs, as it were.)
How is “belief” instantiated, anyway? What’s like the real thing, in some sense? Savvy self help and contemporary neuroscience sometimes like to talk about “expectations” instead of beliefs (not to mention free energy minimization and bayesian brains).
I like the word “anticipations.” We inhale before we speak. Be brace ourselves before picking up a heavy object, we shift our weight before stepping or dancing. Muscle length and tension is an ever-shifting, not just reactive but also anticipatory constellation. We’re doing this physical dance all the time. I hazard that what that feels like from the inside is “belief.” When we hear about something that happened on the other side of the world, or we read something in a history book, whether we’re sitting in a chair, or whatever, our hormonal and musculoskeletal system changes its stance, its configuration just a little bit. Our physical anticipation about what’s going to happen next, our readiness, changes just a little bit, fractionally. And, further, our sense of all of that is part of our sensory input into the next moment. I want to say something like stateful-yet-dynamic anticipation, is a critical piece of reconstituting belief in each moment, in some relevant sense is belief.
Ok, so “doing” or action is in some ways pretty straightforward, at least locally. One picks up a cup, kicks the ball, says “thank you.” (I’ll talk about plans and goals, as opposed to local actions, in a moment.)
So, if the idea of “doing,” is relatively clear and straightforward, we can look at what goes wrong. If the thing when it works is coherent, and serialized (even when doing sort of multiple things simultaneously in parallel), and contiguous and flowing (doing in one moment seamlessly flows into the next, tai-chi style), then what’s the thing when it doesn’t work?
Let’s call it “incoherence,” when parts of the motor system aren’t acting together. And let’s call it “contention,” when parts of the motor system are acting *against* each other. Let’s extend the time horizon a little bit from just local doing. If we extend the time horizon a bit, we can mention things like hesitation and perseveration. Bringing it back more locally, or connecting local muscle activity to plans and goals, we can straight-up talk about muscle tension:
Muscle tension is immediate/instantaneous/local contention in motor output due to mediate contradiction in sensorimotor planning.
There’s a way to connect picking up cups or getting food from the refrigerator to long-term plans. There’s some sense in which picking up cups and getting food from the refrigerator *is* the encoding of one’s long-term plans. The brain is router of present sensory experience, and that routing, those tubes take in, sense, the external world including one’s concrete muscular anticipations and ongoing actions, and use that for muscle output in the next moment. And, muscle output in the next moment is “planned” to be sensory input in the moment after that. There’s a way that the system is using its very output (in addition to exploiting its current state) to preserve its future state(s) (including plans and goals with respect to those future states.) Diachronic is always synchronic; the future is always encoded by the present.
Further, what’s going through the tubes/routing sculpts those tubes and routing. And if a system get a better and better “bare-metal” model of how its present-moment behavior conditions next-moment behavior as well as how present-moment behavior sculpts those tubes and routing, well, that’s more and more effective self-modification, from learning, to having better goals and plans, to enlightenment, etc.
Further, there’s this idea that movement is causally upstream of thought? That somewhere, our neck or tongue or eyebrows, or the movement of our neck muscles, affects thinking of even is thinking?
All of this gets closer to a non-annoying or non-frustrating use of the word “embodiment.”
Further related to all this, once one starts working through all those epicycles and virtual machines, belief, whether it feels “mind-y” or “muscular,” one can start playing around with contradiction in a very felt/conscious/bare-metal sort of way, perhaps in a logical/propositional sense, or in a very muscle-y and anticipatory sense, cf Descartes. I’m not saying (really) that that’s the best way to use one’s mind. But there are connections, there, between muscle contention and contradiction in belief/”belief” (or irrealis/counterfactual thought experiments or propositional, logical, theoretical, scientific models).
Ok, so back to that blooming, buzzing confusion. Experience can hurt us! That’s weird. We don’t like to think about that. But, bullies, accidents, health scares, scary movies, looking at a low balance in our bank accounts, someone saying the wrong things to us–experiences like that can fuck us up.
We want to be strong. Sensitive to the world but also in some sense unmoved by the world. Complicated.
Sensing, of course, is intimately tied to doing. And doing is tied to representation. One can think about different self-modification paradigms or techniques based on where the intervention is.
Exposure therapy works on changes through sensing. But there can be subtle teeth-gritting, white-knuckling, avoidance. Things like cognitive behavioral therapy work on representations. I’m just poking at some of the things that licensed mental health professionals tend to reach for. And then of course there’s focusing, IFS, coherence therapy, energy work, reiki, art therapy, sound therapy, meditation, etc.
Anyway, regarding what can go wrong or at least suboptimally, in the representation section we talked about epicycles, virtual machines, eddies, whorls, coils–in the tubes! And we can add to that representational/belief contradiction. And we can say that this produces contention in the muscles (and glands?!) all the way up to through planning and goals. (Or we can say planning and goals are in some sense encoded in the tubes and routing as well as in the muscles.)
The present physical state and process of the system are also its plans and goals. Ah, and the environment!
The state, process, and physical environment of the system are also its plans and goals.
Herbert Simon (he coined the term “bounded rationality” and did many, very important things) gives an example of an ant: Put an ant on a very complex surface, like a rug, and the movements of its legs become very complicated while remaining coherent. The complexity of the behavior is due to both the ant and the environment.
That’s cool, in that, it does hint that a lot of what a person is doing can be offloaded to the environment.
But, don’t we also want to transcend our environments? We are so vulnerable to them. Spending time with family or getting fired from a job or all sorts of things–those are “just” sensory experiences, but they can really, really, really, really mess us up. From babies to now, we are heavily constituted by our experiences, causally determined by them. We are who are were because of a bit of genetics and then 99% parenting and junior high and high school friends. And youtube and amazon. Our hopes and dreams are heartfelt and also sculpted by disney movies (and church, synagogue, mosque…).
In any case, we learn to protect our hopes and dreams, by avoiding situations, by subtle muscle tension, by action in situations (by distracting other people, etc.) Of course, we also accidentally avoid situations where we could learn and grow, realize things aren’t as sad or cruel as we thought, realize that we could have bigger, more beautiful, more quiet, more intimate, more anything goals. And sometimes things are so tangled up that we can’t take advantage of fortuitous local evidence, can’t see it even though it’s right in front of us. Tragic.
Anyway, so we’d like a balance. In some ways we want to be sensorily and environmentally independent or transcendent, to have stable and coherent goals and plans. And in some ways we want to be sensitive, open, to being wrong, to new experiences, to being surprised, to being able to prepare for possible bad things and beautiful and exciting and surprises.
Weirdly, this state of immanence and transcendence; openness and vulnerability yet strong and resilient; sensitivity and irritability (in the technical sense) without overreaction, impulsivity, or clamping down or armoring or avoiding; non-avoidance without force; staring at the sun without muscle tension or getting burned–
this seems to be the state of love.
Rather, love seems to be the answer.
One could boil it down as:
- Enlightenment =
- everything, anything
- love, gentle love, patient love, caring love, accepting love, parental love, romantic love, sexy love, compassionate love, love with teeth, love with claws, love with fists, love without againstness, love without opposition, love without opposite, love without remainder
There’s something here that seems stable, settled, certain, able to metabolize anything without being disrupted or stained or corrupted. Incorruptible. Pure. Yet, it is sensitive, responsive, creative, awake, sentient, sapient; not stagnant, not ossified, it learns, it grows, it spontaneously and proactively seeks and acts.
The answer to all the questions, all the seeking, all the contradictions, may just be