Wednesday, September 8, 2010

More Thinking

Someone wondered what I am thinking about now that I'm starting to get tired of Annunciations and Trinities.  Well, it is more elaboration of the stuff that those are parts of the foundations for.

It starts off, of course, with my life-long goal of understanding the universe.  I've done a bunch of science, and think I have a general understanding of that part of it.  But psychology and religion are another matter.  One often hears that the scientific view has no place for religion, but that is only true in a rather peculiar sense.  Science dismisses a lot of mythology as non-scientific, which is fine, but it is also a fact that science has not the first clue about what consciousness or self-awareness is.  It simply does not appear as a consequence of anything else or a physical phenomenon or anywhere in the body of scientific understanding of the world as we know it.  There are studies of aspects of consciousness, but of its nature and how it arises, nothing.  So of course science has no place for religion, in the specific sense that all the phenomena of religion are outside the world-view of science.  It is hard to see how to do experiments in the field, absent some basic theory.

But there are some starts to understanding mental phenomena, even if the central mystery of awareness is missing.

I view models of complex systems as interconnected structures of simpler systems.  Each of the simple systems does whatever it does, but the overall system is designed to carry out its function regardless of variation in the components.  If something goes wrong in one part, another part (or more specifically the interaction of all the parts) corrects for it.  I built such systems out of hardware and computer programs for years, so I have some understanding of the processes and possibilities.

Carl Jung wrote "Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche" (and other books) in which he laid out the various components of the human psyche and their interactions.  His theories were different from Freud's in being both more abstract and more general.  They match my own approach, so I prefer them.  He invented the concept of archetypes, which are standard built-in modes of operation, which are invoked as needed.  One of those is the perfect person archetype, or god archetype, in which all parts of the conscious and unconscious mind work together in perfect harmony.

Terminology:  Freud's term subconscious was intended to mean occurring below the level that rises to consciousness, but the prefix sub also tends to mean less important.  For that reason Jung preferred unconscious, meaning simply processes that are not part of consciousness, but it also means asleep.  So maybe non conscious would be better?  Anyway, whatever the term, what I mean is things that go on in our brains that we are not aware of.  They are the substrate upon which consciousness is created.

In a recent issue of Science magazine there was a research article that I think deserved much more prominent recognition.  They did some experiments giving their subjects some basic tactile experiences like heavy vs. light and rough vs. smooth, that were physically experienced in ways that were incidental to and completely irrelevant to their task of making intellectual judgements about things.  It turned out that the metaphorical meanings of those terms (light, heavy, rough, smooth) was relevant to the decisions people made.  It changed the mean value of the quantitative judgement about 2/3 of a standard deviation.  This is a remarkable finding supporting the idea that the higher order (intellectual) processes are made up of the lower order (physical senses) processes.  In terms of a complex system described above, if you poke one of the components of the larger system, there is a noticeable effect on the outcome (the results were statistically significant) but the overall system corrects (a difference of 2/3 standard deviation in human response is generally considered pretty small).

So, given that there are all these pieces of the psyche, they need to work together for the person to function well, and the role of the consciousness is to handle things that the automatic unconscious processes are uncertain about or in conflict over.  A first task is to see how to get in touch with the organizing principles of the psyche.  Given (watch out for this next step) that the god archetype is the perfect person archetype, the way to handle this is to get in touch with god.  (Capital left out on purpose.)  Becoming conscious of the unconscious is tricky, but the trickiness is largely in semantics.  It's a matter of getting comfortable with noticing inspirations and intuitions and dealing with them.  Something apparently much easier for some of us than others.  We can find those things in art.

I look at Annunciations and see lots of fear, worship, self-righteousness, pride, and even contempt, and recognize them as the normal range of reactions to religion.  I am strongly drawn to the ones that look like a serious conversation, so that's for me.  In Trinities, I don't care for the strong patriarch or the suffering or wimpy Jesus -- I prefer the abstract spirit.  So that's where I am, how about you?  I really believe that the approach each of us finds best depends on where we start from.  Like the Buddhist multiple paths to the same truth.

Jung introduced the concept of the "collective unconscious".  Our unconscious minds have two parts, the one distinct to each of us based on our own experience, and the collective one common to everyone.  I generally think of the collective unconscious as genetically based, inherited processes, but a lot of its shape is determined by our culture and so "inherited" from society.  Jung never clearly said so, but I think he probably considered it as some kind of mental network that involves all people, or maybe as God or an aspect of God.  Whatever, it seems to have been changing over the centuries, as we gradually get more civilized and we get further from the God of Wrath and closer to the God of Love.  One of the problems we deal with as society, as part of our "collective unconscious", is how to deal with the problems that arise from human interactions.

On one of my trips through the Uffizi, which is laid out in basically chronological order, I suddenly noticed this picture (this is taken from the internet, not my camera).

It is Il Gattamelata, by Giorgione, about 1508.  References in Google talk about its being from the time of the decline of chivalry, about the time of the rise of firearms.

I was struck by the care used in depicting the hardware, although earlier pictures were all very careful and detailed about clothing.  Even more, I was struck by the coldness of the face.  There is no trace of sympathy or understanding..  This is something I don't have any idea how to deal with.  But it is truly part of the human race.  Earlier pictures had lots of battle scenes alright, but they were either mass confusion where it is hard to make out much detail, or rather bloody things intended to shock.  This is just a peaceful depiction of an attitude.  It is considered one of the masterpieces of its time.

I accept (for the sake of argument) that when a person is speaking for God, it may be their god-archetype talking.  Of course, they may also just be crazy, but when a lot of people take them seriously, it indicates that what is being said resonates with the god-archetype in the listeners, so that the fact that many people take some such pronouncements seriously means those should be considered carefully.  I use this approach in reading the Bible.  That is where we find an evolution of the concept of God and what he wants over a thousand years or so.  I have also read The Dialogues of Catherine of Sienna, written in about 1370, and the concept of God presented there (in the first person) is consistent with the idea of the god-archetype explaining what it is and how it is supposed to function within people, wrapped in the terminology of a medieval mystic.  It emphasises that selfishness is the basis of all sin:  that is, of everything that causes friction in society.  What we should do is love our neighbors as ourselves.  That's fine in itself, but it doesn't really say much about how to handle conflict until the collective consciousness or whatever evolves to the point where everyone is nice.

Another case of God speaking through someone is the Koran, or Qu'ran.  It is half way between the new testament and Catherine in time.  It has conflict.  I am working my way through a modern translation, a gift from a Muslim school teacher from Indonesia.  I am reading it some on this vacation (along with the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita) but I haven't found anything yet that really gives me a better understanding of conflict.

How can I construct a rational understanding of the kinds of relations that are handled  automatically by the unconscious?  My only clue to a starting point is to remember that mental models are just models, and that the basic principle of science is that natural phenomena take precedence over theories.  The question is, especially in dealing with human behavior and its causes, just what are phenomena and what are interpretations?  Put in other terms, we face the problem that what we consider as basic perceptions are theory-laden.  We don't see a behavior in the direct way we see a physical object, we see it as a social phenomenon.  For that matter, we see most objects as things with known names, properties, etc.  So in thinking about them, we are already in the midst of interpretation before we start.  So this takes me off down another track.  This track was emphasized when I was a student at MIT:  determine what are the basic concepts that apply to a problem and start from there.

If the phenomena that we are trying to model are outside our experience, how can we construct a model, and what are the criteria for usefulness and/or accuracy.  Just what are our mental models like, what are their capabilities and limits?

To Be Continued . . . .

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