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Self as Symbol. The loopy nature of consciousness trips up scientists studying themselves

                                                          M.C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands”

"The consciousness problem remains popular on lists of problems that might never be solved.

Perhaps that’s because the consciousness problem is inherently similar to another famous problem that actually has been proved unsolvable: finding a self-consistent set of axioms for deducing all of mathematics. As the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel proved eight decades ago, no such axiomatic system is possible; any system as complicated as arithmetic contains true statements that cannot be proved within the system.

Gödel’s proof emerged from deep insights into the self-referential nature of mathematical statements. He showed how a system referring to itself creates paradoxes that cannot be logically resolved — and so certain questions cannot in principle be answered. Consciousness, in a way, is in the same logical boat. At its core, consciousness is self-referential awareness, the self’s sense of its own existence. It is consciousness itself that is trying to explain consciousness.

Self-reference, feedback loops, paradoxes and Gödel’s proof all play central roles in the view of consciousness articulated by Douglas Hofstadter in his 2007 book I Am a Strange Loop. Hofstadter is (among other things) a computer scientist, and he views consciousness through lenses unfamiliar to most neuroscientists. In his eyes, it’s not so bizarre to compare math and numbers to the mind and consciousness. Math is, after all, deeply concerned with logic and reason — the stuff of thought. Mathematical paradoxes, Hofstadter points out, open up “profound questions concerning the nature of reasoning — and thus concerning the elusive nature of thinking — and thus concerning the mysterious nature of the human mind itself.”

Enter the loop

In particular, Hofstadter seizes on Gödel’s insight that a mathematical formula — a statement about a number — can itself be represented by a number. So you can take the number describing a formula and insert that number into the formula, which then becomes a statement about itself. Such a self-referential capability introduces a certain “loopiness” into mathematics, Hofstadter notes, something like the famous Escher print of a right hand drawing a left hand, which in turn is drawing the right hand. This “strange loopiness” in math suggested to Hofstadter that something similar is going on in human thought.

So when he titled his book “I Am a Strange Loop,” Hofstadter didn’t mean that he was personally loopy, but that the concept of an individual — a persistent identity, an “I,” that accompanies what people refer to as consciousness — is a loop of a certain sort. It’s a feedback loop, like the circuit that turns a whisper into an ear-piercing screech when the microphone whispered into is too close to the loudspeaker emitting the sound.

But consciousness is more than just an ordinary feedback loop. It’s a strange loop, which Hofstadter describes as a loop capable of perceiving patterns in its environment and assigning common symbolic meanings to sufficiently similar patterns. An acoustic feedback loop generates no symbols, just noise. A human brain, though, can assign symbols to patterns. While patterns of dots on a TV screen are just dots to a mosquito, to a person, the same dots evoke symbols, such as football players, talk show hosts or NCIS agents. Floods of raw sensory data trigger perceptions that fall into categories designated by “symbols that stand for abstract regularities in the world,” Hofstadter asserts. Human brains create vast repertoires of these symbols, conferring the “power to represent phenomena of unlimited complexity and thus to twist back and to engulf themselves via a strange loop.”

Consciousness itself occurs when a system with such ability creates a higher-level symbol, a symbol for the ability to create symbols. That symbol is the self. The I. Consciousness. “You and I are mirages that perceive themselves,” Hofstadter writes.

This self-generated symbol of the self operates only on the level of symbols. It has no access to the workings of nerve cells and neurotransmitters, the microscopic electrochemical machinery of neurobiological life. The symbols that consciousness contemplates don’t look much like the real thing, the way a map of Texas conveys nothing of the grass and dirt and asphalt and bricks that cover the physical territory.

And just like a map of Texas remains remarkably stable over many decades — it doesn’t change with each new pothole in a Dallas street — human self-identity remains stable over a lifetime, despite constant changes on the micro level of proteins and cells. As an individual grows, matures, changes in many minute ways, the conscious self’s identity remains intact, just as Texas remains Texas even as new skyscrapers rise in the cities, farms grow different crops and the Red River sometimes shifts the boundary with Oklahoma a bit.

If consciousness were merely a map, a convenient shortcut symbol for a complex mess of neurobiological signaling, perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard to figure out. But its mysteries multiply because the symbol is generated by the thing doing the symbolizing. It’s like Gödel’s numbers that refer to formulas that represent truths about numbers; this self-referentialism creates unanswerable questions, unsolvable problems.

A typical example of such a Gödelian paradox is the following sentence: This sentence cannot be true.

Is that sentence true? Obviously not, because it says it isn’t true. But wait — then it is true. Except that it can’t be. Self-referential sentences seem to have it both ways — or neither way.

And so perceptual systems able to symbolize themselves — self-referential minds — can’t be explained just by understanding the parts that compose them. Simply describing how electric charges travel along nerve cells, how small molecules jump from one cell to another, how such signaling sends messages from one part of the brain to another — none of that explains consciousness any more than knowing the English alphabet letter by letter (and even the rules of grammar) will tell you the meaning of Shakespeare’s poetry.

Hofstadter does not contend, of course, that all the biochemistry and cellular communication is irrelevant. It provides the machinery for perceiving and symbolizing that makes the strange loop of consciousness possible. It’s just that consciousness does not itself deal with molecules and cells; it copes with thoughts and emotions, hopes and fears, ideas and desires. Just as numbers can represent the complexities of all of mathematics (including numbers), a brain can represent the complexities of experience (including the brain itself). Gödel’s proof showed that math is “incomplete”; it contains truths that can’t be proven. And consciousness is a truth of a sort that can’t be comprehended within a system of molecules and cells alone.

That doesn’t mean that consciousness can never be understood — Gödel’s work did not undermine human understanding of mathematics, it enriched it. And so the realization that consciousness is self-referential could also usher in a deeper understanding of what the word means — what it symbolizes.

Information handler

Viewed as a symbol, consciousness is very much like many of the other grand ideas of science. An atom is not so much a thing as an idea, a symbol for matter’s ultimate constituents, and the modern physical understanding of atoms bears virtually no resemblance to the original conception in the minds of the ancient Greeks who named them. Even Francis Crick’s gene made from DNA turned out to be much more elusive than the “unit of heredity” imagined by Gregor Mendel in the 19th century. The later coinage of the word gene to describe such units long remained a symbol; early 20th century experiments allowed geneticists to deduce a lot about genes, but nobody really had a clue what a gene was.

“In a sense people were just as vague about what genes were in the 1920s as they are now about consciousness,” Crick said in 1998. “It was exactly the same. The more professional people in the field, which was biochemistry at that time, thought that it was a problem that was too early to tackle.”

It turned out that with genes, their physical implementation didn’t really matter as much as the information storage and processing that genes engaged in. DNA is in essence a map, containing codes allowing one set of molecules to be transcribed into others necessary for life. It’s a lot easier to make a million copies of a map of Texas than to make a million Texases; DNA’s genetic mapping power is the secret that made the proliferation of life on Earth possible. Similarly, consciousness is deeply involved in representing information (with symbols) and putting that information together to make sense of the world. It’s the brain’s information processing powers that allow the mind to symbolize itself.

Koch believes that focusing on information could sharpen science’s understanding of consciousness. A brain’s ability to find patterns in influxes of sensory data, to send signals back and forth to integrate all that data into a coherent picture of reality and to trigger appropriate responses all seem to be processes that could be quantified and perhaps even explained with the math that describes how information works.

“Ultimately I think the key thing that matters is information,” Koch says. “You have these causal interactions and they can be quantified using information theory. Somehow out of that consciousness has to arrive.” An inevitable consequence of this point of view is that consciousness doesn’t care what kind of information processors are doing all its jobs — whether nerve cells or transistors.

“It’s not the stuff out of which your brain is made,” Koch says. “It’s what that stuff represents that’s conscious, and that tells us that lots of other systems could be conscious too.”

Perhaps, in the end, it will be the ability to create unmistakable features of consciousness in some stuff other than a biological brain that will signal success in the quest for an explanation. But it’s doubtful that experimentally exposing consciousness as not exclusively human will displace humankind’s belief in its own primacy. People will probably always believe that it can only be the strange loop of human consciousness that makes the world go ’round.

“We … draw conceptual boundaries around entities that we easily perceive, and in so doing we carve out what seems to us to be reality,” Hofstadter wrote. “The ‘I’ we create for each of us is a quintessential example of such a perceived or invented reality, and it does such a good job of explaining our behavior that it becomes the hub around which the rest of the world seems to rotate.”

Tom Siegfried, American journalist, author, Self as Symbol, Science News, Feb 11, 2012.

See also:

☞ Laura Sanders, Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Emblems of Awareness, Science News, Feb 11, 2012.

                                            Degress of thought

                                          (Credit: Stanford University)

"Awareness typically tracks with wakefulness — especially in normal states of consciousness (bold). People in coma or under general anesthesia score low on both measures, appearing asleep with no signs of awareness. Sometimes, wakefulness and awareness become uncoupled, such as among people in a persistent vegetative state. In this case, a person seems awake and is sometimes able to move but is unaware of the surroundings."  (…)

“Messages constantly zing around the brain in complex patterns, as if trillions of tiny balls were simultaneously dropped into a pinball machine, each with a prescribed, mission-critical path. This constant flow of information might be what creates consciousness — and interruptions might destroy it. (…)

“If you knock on a wooden table or a bucket full of nothing, you get different noises,” Massimini says. “If you knock on the brain that is healthy and conscious, you get a very complex noise.” (…)

In the same way that “life” evades a single, clear definition (growth, reproduction or a healthy metabolism could all apply), consciousness might turn out to be a collection of remarkable phenomena, Seth says. “If we can explain different aspects of consciousness, then my hope is that it will start to seem slightly less mysterious that there is consciousness at all in the universe.” (…)

Recipe for consciousness

Somehow a sense of self emerges from the many interactions of nerve cells and neurotransmitters in the brain — but a single source behind the phenomenon remains elusive.


                                                      Illustration: Nicolle Rager Fuller

1. Parietal cortex Brain activity in the parietal cortex is diminished by anesthetics, when people fall into a deep sleep and in people in a vegetative state or coma. There is some evidence suggesting that the parietal cortex is where first-person perspective is generated.

2. Frontal cortex Some researchers argue that parts of the frontal cortex (along with connections to the parietal cortex) are required for consciousness. But other scientists point to a few studies in which people with damaged frontal areas retain consciousness.

3. Claustrum An enigmatic, thin sheet of neural tissue called the claustrum has connections with many other regions. Though the structure has been largely ignored by modern scientists, Francis Crick became keenly interested in the claustrum’s role in consciousness just before his death in 2004.

4. Thalamus As one of the brain’s busiest hubs of activity, the thalamus is believed by many to have an important role in consciousness. Damage to even a small spot in the thalamus can lead to consciousness disorders.

5. Reticular activating system Damage to a particular group of nerve cell clusters, called the reticular activating system and found in the brain stem, can render a person comatose.”

☞ Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: How the Brain Creates Identity
Theories of consciousness. Make Up Your Own Mind (visualization)
Malcolm MacIver on why did consciousness evolve, and how can we modify it?
Consciousness tag on Lapidarium


Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks - ‘To be human is to be quantum’


"The quantum world defies the rules of ordinary logic. Particles routinely occupy two or more places at the same time and don’t even have well-defined properties until they are measured. It’s all strange, yet true - quantum theory is the most accurate scientific theory ever tested and its mathematics is perfectly suited to the weirdness of the atomic world. (…)

Human thinking, as many of us know, often fails to respect the principles of classical logic. We make systematic errors when reasoning with probabilities, for example. Physicist Diederik Aerts of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, has shown that these errors actually make sense within a wider logic based on quantum mathematics. The same logic also seems to fit naturally with how people link concepts together, often on the basis of loose associations and blurred boundaries. That means search algorithms based on quantum logic could uncover meanings in masses of text more efficiently than classical algorithms.

It may sound preposterous to imagine that the mathematics of quantum theory has something to say about the nature of human thinking. This is not to say there is anything quantum going on in the brain, only that "quantum" mathematics really isn’t owned by physics at all, and turns out to be better than classical mathematics in capturing the fuzzy and flexible ways that humans use ideas. "People often follow a different way of thinking than the one dictated by classical logic," says Aerts. “The mathematics of quantum theory turns out to describe this quite well.”

It’s a finding that has kicked off a burgeoning field known as “quantum interaction”, which explores how quantum theory can be useful in areas having nothing to do with physics, ranging from human language and cognition to biology and economics. (…)

One thing that distinguishes quantum from classical physics is how probabilities work. Suppose, for example, that you spray some particles towards a screen with two slits in it, and study the results on the wall behind (see diagram below). Close slit B, and particles going through A will make a pattern behind it. Close A instead, and a similar pattern will form behind slit B. Keep both A and B open and the pattern you should get - ordinary physics and logic would suggest - should be the sum of these two component patterns.

But the quantum world doesn’t obey. When electrons or photons in a beam pass through the two slits, they act as waves and produce an interference pattern on the wall. The pattern with A and B open just isn’t the sum of the two patterns with either A or B open alone, but something entirely different - one that varies as light and dark stripes. (…)

The phenomenon may go well beyond physics, and one example of this is the violation of what logicians call the “sure thing” principle. This is the idea that if you prefer one action over another in one situation - coffee over tea in situation A, say, when it’s before noon - and you prefer the same thing in the opposite situation - coffee over tea in situation B, when it’s after noon - then you should have the same preference when you don’t know the situation: that is, coffee over tea when you don’t know what time it is.

Remarkably, people don’t respect this rule. (…)

Flexible logic

Suppose you ask people to put various objects, such as an ashtray, a painting and a sink, into one of two categories: “home furnishings” and “furniture”. Next, you ask if these objects belong to the combined category “home furnishings or furniture”. Obviously, if “ashtray” or “painting” belongs in home furnishings, then it certainly belongs in the bigger, more inclusive combined category too. But many experiments over the past two decades document what psychologists call the disjunction effect - that people often place things in the first category, but not in the broader one. Again, two possibilities listed simultaneously lead to strange results.

These experiments demonstrate that people aren’t logical, at least by classical standards. But quantum theory, Aerts argues, offers richer logical possibilities. For example, two quantum events, A and B, are described by so-called probability amplitudes, alpha and beta. To calculate the probability of A happening, you must square this amplitude alpha and likewise to work out the probability of B happening. For A or B to happen, the probability amplitude is alpha plus beta. When you square this to work out the probability, you get the probability of A (alpha squared) plus that of B (beta squared) plus an additional amount - an “interference term” which might be positive or negative.

This interference term makes quantum logic more flexible. In fact, Aerts has shown that many results demonstrating the disjunction effect fit naturally within a model in which quantum interference can play a role. The way we violate the sure thing principle can be similarly explained with quantum interference, according to economist Jerome Busemeyer of Indiana University in Bloomington and psychologist Emmanuel Pothos of the University of Wales in Swansea. "Quantum probabilities have the potential to provide a better framework for modelling human decision making," says Busemeyer.

The strange links go beyond probability, Aerts argues, to the realm of quantum uncertainty. One aspect of this is that the properties of particles such as electrons do not exist until they are measured. The experiment doing the measuring determines what properties an electron might have.

Hilbert's mathematics includes this effect by representing the quantum state of an electron by a so-called state vector - a kind of arrow existing in an abstract, high-dimensional space known as Hilbert space. An experiment can change the state vector arrow, projecting it in just one direction in the space. This is known as contextuality and it represents how the context of a specific experiment changes the possible properties of the electron being measured.

The meaning of words, too, changes according to their context, giving language a “quantum” feel. For instance, you would think that if a thing, X, is also a Y, then a “tall X” would also be a “tall Y” - a tall oak is a tall tree, for example. But that’s not always the case. A chihuahua is a dog, but a tall chihuahua is not a tall dog; “tall” changes meaning by virtue of the word next to it. Likewise, the way “red” is defined depends on whether you are talking about “red wine”, “red hair”, “red eyes” or “red soil”. “The structure of human conceptual knowledge is quantum-like because context plays a fundamental role,” says Aerts.

These peculiar similarities also apply to how search engines retrieve information. Around a decade ago, computer scientists Dominic Widdows, now at Google Research in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Keith van Rijsbergen of the University of Glasgow, UK, realised that the mathematics they had been building into search engines was essentially the same as that of quantum theory. (…)

Quantum leaps

An urgent challenge is to get computers to find meaning in data in much the same way people do, says Widdows. If you want to research a topic such as the “story of rock” with geophysics and rock formation in mind, you don’t want a search engine to give you millions of pages on rock music. One approach would be to include “-songs” in your search terms in order to remove any pages that mention “songs”. This is called negation and is based on classical logic. While it would be an improvement, you would still find lots of pages about rock music that just don’t happen to mention the word songs.

Widdows has found that a negation based on quantum logic works much better. Interpreting “not” in the quantum sense means taking “songs” as an arrow in a multidimensional Hilbert space called semantic space, where words with the same meaning are grouped together. Negation means removing from the search pages that shares any component in common with this vector, which would include pages with words like music, guitar, Hendrix and so on. As a result, the search becomes much more specific to what the user wants.

"It seems to work because it corresponds more closely to the vague reasoning people often use when searching for information," says Widdows. "We often rely on hunches, and traditionally, computers are very bad at hunches. This is just where the quantum-inspired models give fresh insights."

That work is now being used to create entirely new ways of retrieving information. Widdows, working with Trevor Cohen at the University of Texas in Houston, and others, has shown that quantum operations in semantic Hilbert spaces are a powerful means of finding previously unrecognised associations between concepts. This may even offer a route towards computers being truly able to discover things for themselves. (…)

Why should quantum logic fit human behaviour? Peter Bruza at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, suggests the reason is to do with our finite brain being overwhelmed by the complexity of the environment yet having to take action long before it can calculate its way to the certainty demanded by classical logic. Quantum logic may be more suitable to making decisions that work well enough, even if they’re not logically faultless. “The constraints we face are often the natural enemy of getting completely accurate and justified answers,” says Bruza.

This idea fits with the views of some psychologists, who argue that strict classical logic only plays a small part in the human mind. Cognitive psychologist Peter Gardenfors of Lund University in Sweden, for example, argues that much of our thinking operates on a largely unconscious level, where thought follows a less restrictive logic and forms loose associations between concepts.

Aerts agrees. “It seems that we’re really on to something deep we don’t yet fully understand.” This is not to say that the human brain or consciousness have anything to do with quantum physics, only that the mathematical language of quantum theory happens to match the description of human decision-making.

Perhaps only humans, with our seemingly illogical minds, are uniquely capable of discovering and understanding quantum theory. To be human is to be quantum.”

Mark Buchanan, American physicist and author, Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks, New Scientist, 05 September 2011 (Illustration source)

See also:

Vlatko Vedral: Decoding Reality: the universe as quantum information
Geoffrey West on Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster
The Concept of Laws. The special status of the laws of mathematics and physics, Lapidarium


George Lakoff on metaphors, explanatory journalism and the ‘Real Rationality’


Metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are “metaphors we live by”—metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them. (…)

We are neural beings, (…) our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything – only what our embodied brains permit. (…)

The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.”

George Lakoff, cited in Daniel Lende, Brainy Trees, Metaphorical Forests: On Neuroscience, Embodiment, and Architecture, Neuroanthropology, Jan 10, 2012.

"For Lakoff, language is not a neutral system of communication, because it is always based on frames, conceptual metaphors, narratives, and emotions. Political thought and language is inherently moral and emotional. (…)

The way people really reason — Real Rationality — coming new understandings of the brain—something that up-to-date marketers have already done. Enlightenment reason, we now know, was a false theory of rationality.

Most thought is unconscious. It doesn’t work by mathematical logic. You can’t reason directly about the world—because you can only conceptual what your brain and body allow, and because ideas are structured using frames.” Lakoff says. “As Charles Fillmore has shown, all words are defined in terms of conceptual frames, not in terms of some putative objective, mind-free world.”

“People really reason using the logic of frames, metaphors, and narratives, and real decision making requires emotion, as Antonio Damasio showed in Descartes’ Error.” 

“A lot of reason does not serve self interest, but is rather about empathizing with and connecting to others.”

People Don’t Decide Using ‘Just the Facts’

Contemporary explanatory journalism, in particular, is prone to the false belief that if the facts are presented to people clearly enough, they will accept and act upon them, Lakoff says. “In the ‘marketplace of ideas’ theory,  that the best factually based logical argument will always win. But this doesn’t actually happen.”

“Journalists always wonder, ‘We’ve reported on all the arguments, why do people vote wrong?’” Lakoff says. “They’ve missed the main event.”

Many journalists think that “framing” a story or issue is “just about choices of words and manipulation,” and that one can report factually and neutrally without framing. But language itself isn’t neutral. If you study the way the brain processes language, Lakoff says, “every word is defined with respect to frames. You’re framing all the time.” Morality and emotion are already embedded in the way people think and the way people perceive certain words—and most of this processing happens unconsciously. “You can only learn things that fit in with what your brain will allow,” Lakoff says.

A recent example? The unhappy phrase “public option.”

“When you say public, it means ‘government’ to conservatives,” Lakoff explains. “When you say ‘option,’ it means two things: it’s not necessary, it’s just an ‘option,’ and secondly it’s a public policy term, a bureaucratic term. To conservatives, ‘public option’ means government bureaucracy, the very worst thing you could have named this. They could have called it the America Plan. They could have called it doctor-patient care.”

According to Lakoff, because of the conservative success in shaping public discourse through their elaborate communication system, the most commonly used words often have been given a conservative meaning. “Tax relief,” for example, suggests that taxation is an affliction to be relieved.

Don’t Repeat the Language Politicians Use: Decode It

Instead of simply adopting the language politicians use to frame an issue, Lakoff argues, journalists need to analyze the language political figures use and explain the moral content of particular words and arguments.

That means, for example, not just quoting a politician about whether a certain policy infringes or supports American “liberty,” but explaining what he or she means by “liberty,” how this conception of liberty fits into the politician’s overall moral outlook, and how it contrasts with other conceptions of liberty.

It also means spelling out the full implications of the metaphors politicians choose. In the recent coverage of health care reform, Lakoff says, one of the “hidden metaphors” that needed to be explored was whether politicians we’re talking about healthcare as a commodity or as a necessity and a right.

Back on the 2007 presidential campaign trail, Lakoff pointed out, Rudy Giuliani called Obama’s health care plans “socialist,” while he himself compared buying health care to buying a flatscreen tv set, using the metaphor of health care as a commodity, not a necessity. A few liberal bloggers were outraged, but several newspapers reported his use of the metaphor without comment or analysis, rather than exploring what it revealed about Giuliani’s worldview. (…)

A Dictionary of the Real Meanings of Words

What would a nonpartisan explanatory journalism be like? To make nonpartisan decoding easier, Lakoff thinks journalists should create an online dictionary of the different meanings of words—“ not just a glossary, but a little Wikipedia-like website,” as he puts it. This site would have entries to explain the differences between the moral frameworks of conservatives and progressives, and what they each typically mean when they say words like “freedom.” Journalists across the country could link to the site whenever they sensed a contested word.

A project like this would generate plenty of resistance, Lakoff acknowledges. “What that says is most people don’t know what they think. That’s extremely scary…the public doesn’t want to be told, ‘You don’t know what you think.’” The fact is that about 98 percent of thought is unconscious.”

But, he says, people are also grateful when they’re told what’s really going on, and why political figures reason as they do. He would like to see a weekly column in the New York Times and other newspapers decoding language and framing, and analyzing what can and cannot be said politically, and he’d also like to see cognitive science and the study of framing added to journalism school curricula.

Ditch Objectivity, Balance, and ‘The Center ‘

Lakoff has two further sets of advice for improving explanatory journalism. The first is to ditch journalism’s emphasis on balance. Global warming and evolution are real. Unscientific views are not needed for “balance.”

“The idea that truth is balanced, that objectivity is balanced, is just wrong,” Lakoff says. Objectivity is a valuable ideal when it means unbiased reporting, Lakoff argues. But too often, the need for objectivity means that journalists hide their own judgments of an issue behind “public opinion.” The journalistic tradition of “always having to get a quote from somebody else” when the truth is obvious is foolish, Lakoff says.

So is the naïve reporting of poll data, since poll results can change drastically depending on the language and the framing of the questions. The framng of the questions should be part of reporting on polls.

Finally, Lakoff’s research suggests that many Americans, perhaps 20 per cent, are “biconceptuals” who have both conservative and liberal moral systems in their brains, but apply them to different issues. In some cases they can switch from one ideological position to another, based on the way an issue is framed. These biconceptuals occupy the territory that’s usually labeled “centrist.” “There isn’t such a thing as ‘the center.’ There are just people who are conservative on some issues and liberal on others, with lots of variations occurring. Journalists accept the idea of a “center” with its own ideology, and that’s just not the case,” he says.

Journalists tell “stories.” Those stories are often narratives framed from a particular moral or political perspective. Journalists need to be more upfront about the moral and political underpinnings of the stories they write and the angles they choose.

Journalism Isn’t Neutral–It’s Based on Empathy

“Democracy is based on empathy, with people not just caring, but acting on that care —having social as well as personal responsibility…That’s a view that many journalists have. That’s the reason they become journalists rather than stockbrokers. They have a certain view of democracy. That’s why a lot of journalists are liberals. They actually care about how politics can hurt people, about the social causes of harm. That’s a really different view than the conservative view: if you get hurt and you haven’t taken personal responsibility, then you deserve to get hurt—as when you sign on to a mortgage you can’t pay. Investigative journalism is very much an ethical enterprise, and I think journalists have to ask themselves, ‘What is the ethics behind the enterprise?’ and not be ashamed of it.” Good investigative journalism uncovers real facts, but is done, and should be done, with a moral purpose.

To make a moral story look objective, “journalists tend to pin moral reactions on other people: ‘I’m going to find someone around here who thinks it’s outrageous’…This can make outrageous moral action into a matter of public opinion rather than ethics.”

In some ways, Lakoff’s suggestions were in line with the kind of journalism that one of our partners,  the non-profit investigative journalism outlet ProPublica, already does. In its mission statement, ProPublica, makes its commitment to “moral force” explicit. “Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force,’” the statement reads. “We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

He emphasized the importance of doing follow-ups to investigative stories, rather than letting the public become jaded by a constant succession of outrages that flare on the front page and then disappear. Most of ProPublica’s investigations are ongoing and continually updated on its site.

Cognitive Explanation:’ A Different Take on ProPublica’s Mission 

But Lakoff also had some very nontraditional suggestions about what it would mean for ProPublica to embark on a different kind of explanatory journalism project. “There are two different forms of explanatory journalism. One is material explanation — the kind of investigative reporting now done at ProPublica: who got paid what by whom, what actions resulted in harm, and so on. All crucial,” he noted. “But equally crucial, and not done, is cognitive and communicative explanation.”

“Cognitive explanation depends on what conceptual system lies behind political positions on issues and how the working of people’s brains explains their political behavior. For example, since every word of political discourse evokes a frame and the moral system behind it, the superior conservative communication system reaches most Americans 24/7/365. The more one hears conservative language and not liberal language, the more the brains of those listening get changed. Conservative communication with an absence of liberal communication exerts political pressure on Democrats whose constituents hear conservative language all day every day. Explanatory journalism should be reporting on the causal effects of conservative framing and the conservative communicative superiority.”

“ProPublica seems not to be explicit about conflicting views of what constitutes ‘moral force.’ ProPublica does not seem to be covering the biggest story in the country, the split over what constitutes morality in public policy. Nor is it clear that ProPublica studies the details of framing that permeate public discourse. Instead, ProPublica assumes a view of “moral force” in deciding what to cover and how to cover it.

“For example, ProPublica has not covered the difference in moral reasoning behind the conservative and progressive views on tax policy, health care, global warming and energy policy, and so on for major issue after major issue.

“ProPublica also is not covering a major problem in policy-making — the assumption of classical views of rationality and the ways they have been scientifically disproved in the cognitive and brain sciences.

“ProPublica has not reported on the disparity between the conservative and liberal communication systems, nor has it covered the globalization of conservatism — the international exportation of American conservative strategists, framing, training, and communication networks.

“When ProPublica uncovers facts about organ transplants and nursing qualifications, that’s fine. But where is ProPublica on the reasons for the schisms in our politics? Explanatory journalism demands another level of understanding.

“ProPublica, for all its many virtues, has room for improvement, in much the same way as journalism in general — especially in explanatory journalism. Cognitive and communicative explanation must be added to material explanation.”

What Works In the Brain: Narrative & Metaphor

As for creating Explanatory Journalism that resonates with the way people process information, Lakoff suggested two familiar tools: narrative and metaphor.

The trick to finding the right metaphors for complicated systems, he said, is to figure out what metaphors the experts themselves use in the way they think. “Complex policy is usually understood metaphorically by people in the field,” Lakoff says. What’s crucial is learning how to distinguish the useful frames from the distorting or overly-simplistic ones.

As for explaining policy, Lakoff says, “the problem with this is that policy is made in a way that is not understandable…Communication is always seen as last, as the tail on the dog, whereas if you have a policy that people don’t understand, you’re going to lose. What’s the point of trying to get support for a major health care reform if no one understands it?

One of the central problems with policy, Lakoff says, is that policy-makers tend to take their moral positions so much for granted that the policies they develop seem to them like the “merely practical” things to do.

Journalists need to restore the real context of policy, Lakoff says, by trying “to get people in the government and policy-makers in the think tanks to understand and talk about what the moral basis of their policy is, and to do this in terms that are understandable.”

George Lakoff, American cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, interviewed by Lois Beckett in Explain yourself: George Lakoff, cognitive linguist,, 31 January, 2011 (Illustration source)

See also:

Professor George Lakoff: Reason is 98% Subconscious Metaphor in Frames & Cultural Narratives
Timothy D. Wilson on The Social Psychological Narrative: ‘It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world’
The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge. In the era of the Internet facts are not bricks but networks, Lapidarium notes
☞ Metaphor tag on Lapidarium notes


Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Logic takes care of itself; all we have to do is to look and see how it does it”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921):

1 — The world is everything that is the case.

2 — What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts

2.01 — An atomic fact is a combination of objects (entities, things)

2.013 — Every thing is, as it were, in a space of possible atomic facts. I can think of this space as empty, but not of the thing without the space.

2.032 — The way in which objects hang together in the atomic fact is the structure of the atomic fact.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian philosopher, mathematician, logician, who held the professorship in philosophy at the University of Cambridge (1889-1951), the first quote: Journal entry (13 Oct 1914), also in § 5.47 of Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921), (transl. by C.K. Ogden) Drawings by Jorinde Voigtsource


Lewis Carroll and psychoanalysis: Why nothing adds up in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s insight into meaning and interpretation remains of key interest to psychoanalysts intent on hearing all that he had to say about psychic life. (…)

What sparked their admiration,the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan explained (1966), was Carroll’s interest in “all kinds of truths – ones that are certain even if not self-evident”. The truth apparently snared in Carroll’s fiction is that our culture adopts rules that can seem absurd, even ridiculous, when seen too close and interpreted too literally. And while a lot of fiction strives quite diligently to imitate those rules, Carroll joined iconoclasts such as Jonathan Swift in upending them, to cast a wry light on their sometimes ludicrous foundations. (…) The ensuing paradox about meaning and nonsense, to assess what it might teach Alice and her reader as they meditate on Wonderland. (…)

What is Carroll’s nonsense about and what is its overall effect? (…)

Carroll advanced an approach to subjectivity that has much in common with psychoanalysis, given their shared interest in ontology and the limits of meaning. The Alice stories “manage to have such a hold” on readers, he declared, because they touch on “the most pure network of our condition of being: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.” In its commitment to analyzing all three registers, moreover, “psychoanalysis is in the best position to explain the effect” of such fiction on readers, including how and why Alice’s madcap adventures in Wonderland “won over the entire world.”

Interest in the most nonsensical aspects of our culture led Lacan to rethink an argument previously put forward by the Surrealist André Breton – that Carroll had used nonsense as a “vital solution to the deep contradiction between an acceptance of madness and the exercise of reason.” - To Breton, Carroll was the Surrealists’ first “master in the school of truancy,” because he offset the “poetic order” with the madness – even the supposed tyranny – of rationalism. - Rather than simply repeating that line, however, which downplays much of the interest and originality of Carroll’s creativity and thinking, Lacan’s tribute aimed at something more: He wanted to rescue Carroll’s insight into the way human beings are compelled to adapt to broader cultural demands. As Lacan put it, almost pitting his reading against generations of devoted readers seeking only innocent pleasure from the Alice stories, Wonderland generates ‘unease,’ even a type of ‘malaise,’ by revealing how individuals struggle to conform to cultural systems to which they are not especially well suited. (…)

Lacan here predates Gilles Deleuze’s insight, in The Logic of Sense, that Carroll’s nonsense has an internal logic to it, and thus a meaning of its own, which competes with that of standard, everyday sense. Carroll “remains the master and the surveyor of surfaces,” Deleuze later contended. “Surfaces which were taken to be so well-known that nobody was exploring them anymore. On these surfaces, nonetheless, the entire logic of sense is located” (1969, p. 93). (…)

With Carroll the praise that critics frequently bestow on his fiction seems commensurate with its artistry, adventurousness, and semantic intelligence. It is to Carroll that we attribute such outsized flights of fancy as a mad tea party peopled by raucous, acrimonious creatures – almost a mini-society in dissensus. He also gives us philosophically-minded insects imitating classical Athens as they debate the meaning of life; babies that turn into pigs at the drop of a hat; the surreal grin of a cat that floats eerily across the sky; and the queen of a chess game transfigured miraculously into a sheep dressed as a grandmother, before she morphs into a kitten whom Alice asks, in turn, whether it dreamed the whole scenario. (…)

Most of the antics that Carroll relays in Wonderland seem pointedly to flatter Alice into believing that she sees through the many escapades, to what is beyond them – as if she were partly outside the worlds of each novella and thus able to gauge them from a position of relative mastery. From the works themselves, we also learn that the comparison Carroll sets up between Wonderland and the Victorians’ symbolic order is not in the least flattering to the latter. Nor does that comparison – and its associated critique – end with the Alice stories. Both are extended with still greater anxiety in Sylvie and Bruno (1991[1889]), Carroll’s proto-Joycean novel, which styles Fairyland and Outerland as largely interchangeable. As Carroll writes in the novel’s preface, signaling his fascination with psychology and consciousness,

"I have supposed a Human being to be capable of various psychical states, with varying degrees of consciousness, as follows:—

– the ‘eerie’ state, in which, while conscious of actual surroundings, he is also conscious of the presence of Fairies;

– a form of trance, in which, while unconscious of actual surroundings, and apparently asleep, he (i.e. his immaterial essence) migrates to other scenes, in the actual world, or in Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence of Fairies.”

— Lewis Carroll (1977[1896]), Symbolic logic, Warren BartleyWIII, editor. Brighton, UK: Harvester Press.

Three additional criteria convey the novel’s imagined states of being, indicating how seriously Carroll tried to maintain such ontological distinctions. (…)

Art and biography appear to part company over these interpretive dilemmas. For how we interpret the enigmas attached to both of these registers is, as the Alice stories show, central to determining what questions she and the reader can ask about them. As Lacan put it in the passage cited earlier, Carroll seems to want to “prepare” her for the lesson that “one only ever passes through a door one’s own size” – a statement hinting that an answer can emerge only after one has discovered the question attached to it. Approach such a portal from the wrong direction, with the wrong premise or at the wrong time, and awareness of it – much less passage through it – is unlikely. The idea is rather like that of Wonderland itself, in which much happens the wrong way round, playing havoc with cause and effect, meaning and intention, inference and interpretation. Alice has to shrink or expand to enter a different ontological realm. She has to adapt to circumstances, and does so sometimes with relative ease, at other times with intense difficulty.

One of the questions Carroll implicitly poses at such moments is whether interpretation can decipher “the most pure network of our condition of being: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.” The matter bears heavily on psychoanalysis, Lacan averred, given its interest in the psychical patterns and distortions that magnify suffering, stoke unease, and prevent mourning. In Wonderland, as in Outerland, those distortions persist not just because both realms are thoroughly imbued with nonsense, but also because investigation into both novellas enables but does not end interpretation. In Through the Looking-Glass, for instance, in a significant metafictional moment, Humpty Dumpty adopts an interpretive code that is comically incapable of addressing what other characters say and mean. As he declares: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less … The question is … which is to be master”.

A successful outcome to such attempted mastery is of course as elusive to Humpty Dumpty as it is to other figures in Wonderland. Oblivious, however, he veers down another idiosyncratic track: how words assume – then seem almost to contain – a life of their own. Carroll himself dubs a few of them ‘portmanteau’ words, capturing the idea that meaning is almost literally encased in them. (…)

Carroll’s fiction most often focuses on the play and limits of meaning across semantic and ontological registers. As the narrator observes in Sylvie and Bruno, almost doffing his hat at the myriad philosophical and metafictional questions that ensue: “‘Either I’ve been dreaming about Sylvie,’ I said to myself, ‘and this is the reality. Or else I’ve really been with Sylvie, and this is a dream! Is Life itself a dream, I wonder?’” (…)

Carroll’s artistic and intellectual games render that language by such idiosyncratic signifiers as ‘Boojum,’‘Snark,’ and ‘slithy toves.’ Not all such neologisms are nonsensical. ‘Chortled,’ another Carrollian coinage, has since entered our language as a delightful verb. But the underside to this inventiveness is worth underlining because critics have found it easy to minimize: The ‘vertigo’ that ensues from Carroll’s model dramatizes a difficulty for Alice – and her reader – in adapting to the peculiar world of language and symbols. That is because the rules and rituals governing her world seem both whimsical and arbitrarily enforced. They serve as a check on contingency and freedom in Wonderland, while casting the adult world beyond it as authoritarian and almost willfully perverse. Consider the angry Queen of Hearts, whose face explodes with rage the moment others question her capricious, unjust orders. In each instance, her verdicts are a foregone conclusion. (…)

John Tenniel’s illustrations nicely capture this ontological challenge. They emphasize not just the difficulty but also the price of Alice’s attempts at adapting to circumstances. Alice is first too small (see Figure 1), then too big (see Figure 2) for the world she tries to inhabit. She is both unprepared for it, yet joining it long after it has established rules and laws with which she struggles to comply.

Carroll here deftly anticipates the radical argument that Lacan would popularize from Sigmund Freud’sBeyond the Pleasure Principle: because of our capacity for reflection and consciousness, we miss the ‘right moment’ of biology and arrive too quickly into a symbolic order that we can grasp and comprehend only quizzically and belatedly. (…)

In all senses, then, nothing quite adds up in Wonderland. None of the creatures in Wonderland easily coexists – each is peevish, irrepressible, and for the most part insistently singular. At the same time, nothingness amounts to an ontological dimension that Carroll and Lacan take very seriously, and with good reason. The patchwork quilt of our symbolic order is, they show, held pincers-like by the real. To confront the limits of the latter – as Alice does repeatedly, with her pointed questions, quirky imagination, preternatural respect for rules, and sometimes whimsical joy in breaking them – is to expose, in the 19th century no less, a rickety structure held together by desire, illusion and force, a volatile combination at the best of times. (…)

The Alice stories reveal both the generative possibilities and the unwelcome distortions of the symbolic order. In refusing to imitate or rationalize the comic pretensions of a system only loosely bound by rules and signifiers, Carroll gives us that world aslant and askew. His oblique perspective underscores the fantasies and psychical effects that exceed symbolization – fantasies that in his fiction come to assume ardent, impossible meaning.”

Christopher J. Lane (British-American literary critic and intellectual historian who is currently the Pearce Miller Research Professor of Literature at Northwestern University), Lewis Carroll and psychoanalysis: Why nothing adds up in wonderland, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, March 1, 2011. (Illustrations: John Tenniel)


The Process of Abstracting according to S. I. Hayakawa

"The concept, so defined, is precisely that abstraction which it is necessary to make if we are to discover the basis of our common understanding of that reality which we all know. On a day which is terribly long to me and abominably short to you, we meet, by agreement, at three o’clock, and thus demonstrate that we have a world in common."
C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order, Dover, 1956, p. 80.

“As words are not the objects they represent, structure – and structure alone – becomes the only link that connects our verbal processes with the empirical data.”Alfred Korzybski

"Insight into human symbolic behavior and into human interaction through symbolic mechanisms comes from all sorts of disciplines: not only from linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and cultural anthropology, but from attitude research and public opinion study, from new techniques in psychotherapy, from physiology and neurology, from mathematical biology and cybernetics. How are all these separate insights to be brought together? (…) I have examined the problem long enough to believe that it cannot be done without some set of broad and informing principles such as is to be found in the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski.”

S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991, Chapter 10.

Hayakawa’s version starts with a real live animal, Bessie the cow. Bessie lives at a farm, together with a lot of other cows and animals. (…)

This simple two-line statement is already full of abstractions. Starting its analysis with the initial subject, this abstracting begins with the use of the word “Bessie”. In fact, being a real live animal, Bessie is made up of numerous components, that are in constant interaction through an even greater number of processes, leading to ever changing behavior of the entirety. All this diversity is called “Bessie”, and by doing this, we have in fact dropped almost all detail of all of these components and processes. What we mean by “Bessie” is a limited number of visible, audible, and behavioral traits that are fairly constant, and will lead us to remember Bessie during intervals we are not in contact with her. This is the process of abstraction run by our sensory systems, and the associated basic processing and interpretation schemes of the brain. (…)

The second abstraction in the introductory section is the word “cow”. The visible, audible and behavioral traits that characterize the entity “Bessie”, also apply for a substantial part to some other entities, while they don’t apply to almost all others. Since these entities with common characteristics are of some importance to us humans, we have given this category of entities a name: “cow”. Bessie is one example from this category. In the category “cow”, some of Bessie’s characteristics have been lost, that is: all of the characteristics that distinguish her from other cows (perhaps now you already can guess the value of the remark “All humans are unique”, to be discussed further on). With some imagination one can also visualize this category of  “cows” in the illustration above, as one of the things the occupants in the cubicles on the left side are busy with - the occupants/cubicles being the separate processes that constitute our higher thinking.

The next steps should now be fairly clear - they have been collected by Hayakawa in his archetypal version of the abstraction ladder. First comes the collection of all animals living on the farm, gathered in the more general and abstract term “livestock”. Again many of the characteristics of Bessie are left out when characterizing her as “livestock”. Subsequent steps are “farm assets”, which takes out everything pertaining to her being alive, “assets”, which drops her bonds with the location, the farm, and finally “wealth”. The last one is also known as “money”, the level that many people think of as being the most or even only real one, and which in fact is the most unreal one, as the entire process of abstraction shows. The financial crisis of 2008 is a potent illustration of this - what seemed to be real, “money in the bank”, vanished without a trace. (…)

The important thing about the knowledge of the ladder of abstractions, now almost obvious,  is that what may be true as a rule between things at the same level of abstraction, almost certainly isn’t true when one changes the level of the entities in the rule. For example, going back to the farm one might formulate the rule that putting cow with cow (if the latter is a male specimen) leads to more cows. However, applying the rule to livestock or farm animals, will in general not lead to more farm animals, and in some unfortunate cases to less.”

The ladder of abstractions

See also: Kenneth G. Johnson, General Semantics: An Outline Survey, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee