Breakthroughs in imagination

When thinking about human history, it’s tempting to see some developments as inevitable.  Some certainly were, but the sheer amount of time before some of them took place seem to make them remarkable.

The human species, narrowly defined as Homo sapiens, is about 200,000 years old.  Some argue that it’s older, around 300,000 years, others that full anatomical modernity didn’t arrive in total until 100,000 years ago.  Whichever definition and time frame we go with, the human species has been around far longer than civilization, spending well more than 90% of its existence in small hunter-gatherer tribes.  (If we broaden the definition of “humanity” to the overall Homo genus, then we’ve spent well over 99% of our history in that mode.)

For tens of thousands of years, no one really seemed to imagine the idea of a settled, sedentary lifestyle, until around 10,000-12,000 years ago in the Middle East.  I’ve often wondered what those first settlers were thinking.  Did they have any idea of the world changing significance of what they were doing?  More than likely, they were solving their own immediate problems and judged the solutions by the immediate payoff.

The earliest sedentary, or semi-sedentary culture appears to have been a group we now call the Natufians.  Living on the east coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, they were in a nexus of animal migrations and, in their time, a lush environment.  Life for them was relatively good.  They appear to have gotten a sedentary lifestyle effectively for free, in other words, without having to farm for it.

Then the climate started to change, an event called the Younger Dryas cooled the world for a brief period (brief in geological time, over a millenia in human time), but it was long enough to endanger the easy lifestyles the Natufians had probably become used to.  After centuries or millenia of living in a sedentary environment, they likely had little or no knowledge of how to live the way their ancestors had.

Victims of circumstance, they were forced to innovate, and agriculture emerged.  Maybe.  This is only one possible scenario, but it strikes me as a very plausible one.  The earliest evidence of nascent agriculture reportedly appears in that region in that period.

Early proto-writing from Kish, c. 3500 BC
Image credit: Locutus Borg via Wikipedia

Another development that took a long time was writing.  The oldest settlements arose several thousand years before writing developed.

The traditional view of the development of writing was that it evolved from pictures.  But as Mark Seidenberg points out in his book, Language at the Speed of Sight, picture drawing is far more ancient than writing.  The oldest cave art goes back 40,000 years, but what we call writing only arose about 5000 years ago, in Mesopotamia according to most experts (although some Egyptologists insist the Egyptian system came first).

It appears that the mental jump from pictures to symbols representing concepts was not an easy transition.  What caused it?  Seidenberg presents an interesting theory developed by archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat.

Starting around 8000 BC, people in the Middle East started using small clay figures, called “tokens” today, as an accounting tool.  The tokens were simple shapes such as cones, disks, or shell like forms.  A token of a particular shape represented something like a sheep, or an amount of oil, or some other trade commodity.  Pragmatic limitations in producing the tokens kept their shapes simple, instead of being accurate detailed depictions of what they represented.

A number of tokens were placed in sealed clay containers, presumably one for each actual item.  The container was sent along with a trade shipment so the recipient would know they were receiving the correct items in the correct amounts.  In time, in order to know what kinds of tokens were in a particular container, a 2D impression, a picture of the token, was often made on the container, in essence a label indicating which tokens it contained.

It then gradually dawned on people that they could get by with just the labels, with the token shape and some indicator of quantity.  No container or actual physical tokens required.  According to the theory, written symbolic representation of concepts had arrived.

The earliest proto-writing systems were a mixture of symbols and pictures.  Over time, the picture portions did evolve into symbols, but only after the conceptual breakthrough of the symbols had already happened.

The early Bronze Age writing systems  were difficult, requiring considerable skill to write or read.  Reading and writing was effectively a specialty skill, requiring a class of scribes to do the writing and later reading of messages and accounts.  It took additional millenia for the idea of an alphabet, with a symbol for each language sound, to take hold.

The earliest known alphabet was the Proto-Sinaitic script found in the Sinai peninsula dating to sometime around 1800-1500 BC.  It appears to have been the precursor to the later Canaanite script, which itself was a precursor to the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets that arose around 1100-1000 BC.  The Phoenicians were sea traders and spread their alphabet around the Mediterranean.  The Greeks would adapt the Phoenician alphabet, add vowels to it (a necessity driven by the fact that Greek was a multi-syllable language, as opposed to the Semitic languages, which were dominated by monosyllable words), and then use it to produce classical Greek civilization.

The development of these alphabets would lead to a relative explosion in ancient literature.  This is why studying Bronze Age societies (3300-1200 BC) is primarily an exercise in archaeology, but studying the later classical ages of Greece and Rome is primarily about studying historical narratives, supplemented by archaeology.

Why did so much of this take place in the Middle East?  Probably because, for thousands of years, the Middle East lay at the center of the world, a nexus of trading paths and ideas.  It seems entirely possible to me that some of these breakthroughs happened in other lands, but that we first find archaeological evidence for them in the Middle East because they were imported there.  The Middle East only lost this central role in the last 500 or so years, a result of the European Age of Exploration and the moving of world trade to the seas.

So, are there any new ideas, any new basic breakthroughs on the scale of agriculture or writing that are waiting for us, that we simply haven’t conceived of yet?  On the one hand, you could argue that the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, along with the rise of the internet in the last couple of decades, and the dramatically increased collaboration they bring in, have ensured that the low hanging fruit has been picked.

On the other hand, you could also argue that all of these systems are built using our existing paradigms, paradigms that are so ingrained in our cognition that they simply may not point to breakthroughs waiting to happen.  We don’t know what we don’t know.

It’s worth noting that the execution of agriculture and writing are not simple things.  Most of us, if dropped unto an ancient farm, despite the techniques being much simpler than modern farming, would have no idea where to even begin.  Or know how to construct an appropriate alphabet for whatever language was in use at the time.  (Seidenberg points out that not all alphabets are useful for all languages.  The Latin alphabet this post is written may be awkward for ancient Sumerian or Egyptian.)

It may be that the idea of farming or writing did occur to people in the paleolithic, but they simply had no conception of how to make it happen.  In this view, these seeming breakthroughs are really the result of incremental improvements, none of which individually were that profound, that eventually added up to something that was profound.  Consider again the two theories above on how farming and writing came about.  Both seem more plausible than one lone genius developing them out of nothing, primarily because they describe incremental improvements that eventually add up to a major development.

Ideas are important.  They are crucial.  But alone, without competence, without the underlying pragmatic knowledge, they are impotent.  On the other hand, steady improvements in competence often cause us to stumble on profound ideas.  I think that’s an important idea.

Unless of course, I’m missing something?

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22 Responses to Breakthroughs in imagination

  1. john zande says:

    What amazes me is that it took until the late 19th Century before toilets (a simple device powered by gravity alone) became common. That’s 8,000 generations, give or take. EIGHT THOUSAND GENERATIONS before someone figured a little confort and privacy (and hygeine) might be a colossally fantastic idea.




    Liked by 2 people

  2. Michael says:

    Fascinating post, Mike, which leads to so many questions. I wonder if prior to the advent of sedentary communities agriculture wasn’t already underway in a sort of distributed fashion–meaning that perhaps there were various niches of beneficial plants that were known in the landscape, and there may have even been practices employed to protect and sustain them. I’ve heard, and I don’t remember where exactly, that Native American tribes used to initiate fires at times in the prairie in order to renew the grasslands. Likewise nomadic tribes might have visited specific areas on a periodic basis, and returned to them, and learned over time how to nurture them. It could have come about accidentally, as perhaps the first use of fire may have been to drive prey in a particular direction, but then observation may have revealed unexpected benefit. What strikes me is that, just as you said, the first sedentary communities probably didn’t become sedentary because they understood the future upside, but because of immediate pressures. So maybe there was population growth or some other factor that made the previous mode of existing untenable. But maybe by then it wouldn’t have been a huge leap to create those niches based on previous practices, rather than just nurture them in situ.

    I also wonder how the concept of ownership may have played into this, if it did at all. We take ownership more or less for granted today, but it strikes me as though it must have been a revolutionary idea in its time, and perhaps a response to those pressures they felt–lack of access due to climate or population perhaps. Ownership seems a much more necessary idea when the shift to sedentary lifestyles occurred. It would have been a complete shift in mental perception.

    You’ve also touched upon that I think about often, and that is how the structure of our awareness has such a far-reaching impact on our sense of what is occurring, and what is possible. My opinion is that we literally build templates of awareness–structured ways of processing information–and that it is profoundly difficult to interpret phenomena outside of them. I think there is a sort of circular feedback between these conceptual scaffolds and our movement in the world, and that shifting them is inherently a stepwise process. Leaping directly from the modes of awareness a nomadic tribe may have possessed 100,000 years ago to our present ideas of what the universe is, and who we are, would probably have been psychologically untenable.

    My only takeaway is that there’s no end in sight. I think it would be a sort of hubris to think we’ve made all the breakthroughs that are possible…


    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Michael!

      Interesting info on the practices of Native Americans. And good questions. I don’t know the answers, although from I have read, agriculture was definitely an incremental thing. The earliest versions probably were hybrid practices. But I think it’s hard for archaeologists to establish those practices exactly. They find grains, and can tell by the genetics of that material whether it was wild or domesticated, but of course the earliest domesticated crops would have been the wild version before millenia of selective breeding changed them.

      I think ownership was a consequence of settled life. I shared an article a few years back that looked at the early neolithic settlements, many of which appeared to be very egalitarian, but noted that these settlements eventually failed and that it took a more hierarchical structure for those societies to work.
      Although it was extremely well done, I didn’t find the particular hypothesis presented in the article convincing, but the overall idea that humanity had to move from an egalitarian mode in its hunger-gatherer days to a more hierarchical structure for civilization to work seems self evident. It seems like civilization has been trying to figure out a way to moderate the hierarchies ever since.

      I agree with your comments about our perceptions. Our perceptions are, in fact, models. We perceive the model while error checking it against sensory data. In other words, we see what we expect to see and, maybe, error correct our way closer to what’s actually there. It’s definitely worth the effort to be open minded, but it has limitations. We are fundamentally corralled by the models we’ve spent a lifetime building.

      On hunter gatherers processing the modern world, we actually have examples from how contacted native peoples reacted to the modern world. Jared Diamond covers some of it in his book ‘The World Until Yesterday’. I don’t remember much of it, but one story sticks in my mind, the case of a woman from a tribe who moved to a city, but couldn’t go anywhere near busy streets because they terrified her.

      Totally agreed on your last point.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Steve Morris says:

    Very good. My own take is that we’re only at the beginning of the exponential curve that is human culture. It seems obvious that we are spinning out more and more new ideas with every passing decade. Do some of these have the impact of language or agriculture? Quite possibly – the Industrial Revolution, modern medicine, universal education, the development of computers, and the Internet have all had profound and far-reaching changes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Steve. I agree with all your points. The industrial revolution in particular has arguably had just as large an effect on our physical lifestyles as the agricultural revolution. Agriculture changed us from a nomadic species to one settled in rural settings. Industry has concentrated humanity into the cities and their surrounding regions.

      And I don’t think we know the full implications of the internet yet. Although one of them is that two guys in different countries on different continents are casually interacting.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Hariod Brawn says:

    I’m with the Natufians. 😉 Great article, Mike, for which many thanks. I began to think about cryptocurrencies, and whether they may yet prove the kind of groundbreaking innovation you allude to. There will be — and increasingly are — attempts to nullify their rise, given the threat they pose to national interests in terms of tax collection. If cryptocurrencies win out, meaning their rise in usage continues, that could perhaps create a massive paradigm shift in how world trade operates, couldn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Hariod. Agreed on the Natufians.

      Good question on the cryptocurrencies. I remember when bitcoin first came out, reading the manifesto of the people who developed it. They talked about bringing down banks, particularly the large international ones. Me and a group of friends at work played around with it for several months, using it to keep balances of who owed who for lunch. (I guess my little bitcoin account is still out there. I haven’t done anything with it in years.)

      Does it have the potential to do what its advocates aim to do? I think so. It could conceivably make banks obsolete. Maybe. Unless they find a way to adapt to it. Nations? I see that as less likely. Nations ultimately have means of coercion available to them that banks don’t. In that sense, I wouldn’t see cryptocurrency being any more subversive than cash or gold.

      But who knows? It’s early days still. Just looked up the 2016 level of bitcoin, and it was around $11 billion. That’s orders of magnitude higher than when I first played with it, but a drop in the bucket in terms of the worldwide economy. Only time will tell.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        Thanks Mike. Don’t know if that’s a typo, but the market cap of Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash and Ethereum alone (the top three cryptocurrencies) is well over $100bn at today’s prices. And there are 135 other cryptocurrencies with market caps in excess of $20bn, 200 in excess of $10bn. You know one Bitcoin is worth $4,200? Check your Bitcoin wallet! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hmmm. I was going off the Wikipedia entry on cryptocurrency. The $11 billion Bitcoin figure was from November of 2016. But another chart shows it jumping to $42 billion by June of this year, which together with all the others totaling over $100 billion. That’s either the beginning of a revolution, or an investment bubble.

          Thanks for the tip. I actually checked after the last comment, but my wallet is empty. Typical. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hariod Brawn says:

            Since June, Bitcoin’s market cap has leapt to $70.47bn. Yes, it looks very much like a bubble, but who knows how much more it may inflate? US financial regulators have started moving against cryptocurrencies, but that hasn’t stopped the price rising as of yet. I hold no cryptocurrencies, by the way.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Regarding great human innovations, I like to begin with language itself. I suppose that happened way back when Homo sapiens began, or maybe 200,000 years ago. Of course it would have taken quite a bit of time and mental evolution for primitive languages to become highly effective tools. Then yes the next would be the agriculture which brought the potential for civilization, and specifically because this brought tremendous varieties of specialized occupations. Then yes written language, and I’d perhaps include the printing press and internet under this one as well.

    These three set the stage for yet one more innovation as I see it. This is “hard science”, which might roughly be a few centuries old. Before this we simply did what seemed to work without really understanding what was happening. Magic would have been fine as well there. But hard science seems to show us how nature actually functions, and apparently it harbors various properties that have great potential to be exploited. I don’t like to rank these four, since each seems required for the next, but consider the sheer power that this current innovation has had so far. I’d think that an objective observer from somewhere else might now consider us “drunk with power”, and unsustainably so. I’m likely to classify any future innovation that make us more powerful under this fourth one as well.

    So is that it? Actually I expect humanity to achieve a fifth and final classification of innovation, hopefully soon. Once our soft sciences and philosophy begin hardening up, I expect them to teach us how to effectively use our amazing power, or specifically to develop accepted theory regarding what’s best for any given subject, whether personal or social, regarding any given topic. Thus I expect science to largely rebalance us, or to fix the mess made when it quickly gave us power, though without also providing accepted theory regarding the effective use of power.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      Like so many of our discussions, a lot depends on definitions. I personally tend to think that language developed gradually over hundreds of thousands of years. Although if we could hear the language of Homo heidelbergensis (the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals), it would probably sound more like proto-language to us, without the rich syntactic structures we have. And Neanderthals had the anatomical requirements for speech, but who knows how rich or primitive it was.

      That said, I have to admit that the scant evidence for any other forms of symbolic thought before Homo sapiens makes me wonder about it. Anthropologist John Hawks did a post a while back speculating that the lack of evidence may be due to the fact that the relevant evidence decays over time, more than developments unique to Homo sapiens.

      Similarly with science, I don’t see it as something that sprang into existence a few centuries ago. Admittedly, I once held that view. It’s a pretty common one, but from what I’ve read of the history of science, it’s an oversimplification. I think many of the Greeks, such as Aristotle and Archimedes, count as scientists, or at least proto-scientists. Their methods wouldn’t pass muster today, but then the methods of most 19th century scientists wouldn’t pass muster today.

      What really accelerated our progress in recent centuries was the invention of the printing press, which dramatically increased the rate of collaboration. It’s no accident that the Reformation and Scientific Revolution both started in the immediate centuries after that invention. Our science is arguably much better than the science of the ancients, but so was Islamic medieval science, which was improved on in the scientific revolution period, and which was further improved in later centuries.

      Scientific methods are a pragmatic result of science, not axioms for it. I suspect science in the 22nd century will be methodologically better than science today, at least as long as we remain scientific about those methods.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Mike,
    We’re certainly in agreement that each ot these innovations have evolved and continue to evolve — with language still doing so after hundreds of thousands of years. I’m actually the last person who would ever claim that the great ancient philosophers didn’t contribute to the evolution of science, since I believe that philosophy will ultimately become a part of science. (I’m no epistemic dualist!) I merely use the three century mark for the emergence of science as a rough point where a respectable community existed with its own generally accepted understandings. I’m certainly flexible on the dates for this, pending historical evidence.

    The point of my comment was for us to acknowledge two additional basic varieties of innovation to the two that you’ve provided, one before and one after. To recap them:
    – 1. Oral language, perhaps about 200,000 years.
    – 2. Specialized occupations, perhaps about 11,000 years.
    – 3. Written language, perhaps about 5,000 years.
    – 4. Hard science, perhaps about 300 years.
    I consider it necessary for them to have occurred in exactly this order. Furthermore it seems remarkable to me that new innovation classifications never render older ones obsolete. Notice that in this age of science, oral language, specialization, and written language, remain just as prominent as ever. So does this larger list of innovation classifications seem reasonable?

    I’m able to go on to a separate bit of speculation as well. It seems to me that as far as providing humanity with”power”, hard science will be the end of the line. But given how quickly it has changed us, this may not be such a bad thing. Furthermore each of the four still seems to be going strong and thus we should keep getting more and more powerful anyway. But is more power what we need? I don’t think so. Observe that power might just as easily be used to our detriment as to our benefit.

    I believe that given our amazing abilities we instead need understandings of how to better lead our lives and structure our societies. I believe that this fifth and final basic classification of innovation, will occur through the hardening of our soft sciences and philosophy. Any thoughts on this proposed number five?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      I don’t have any problems with the list itself, but as I indicated above, I think the time frames are probably too simple. On “hard science” in particular, I did a post on this issue a long time ago which still is a good summation of my views:

      Does humanity need more power? I suppose it depends on how you define “power”. Certainly I don’t think we need more destructive power. We have plenty enough to destroy ourselves many times over.

      But if we mean access to more energy, then I think we could benefit from that. Of course, any means to get more energy will be inherently more dangerous. When I posted about interstellar travel a few weeks ago, the discussion ranged into antimatter and black hole engines. Those things would give us enough power to do some interesting things, but it comes with enormous danger. And if we ever did figure out a way to travel faster than light, such as with an Alcubierre drive or something, it would include enough power that we might be able to screw up the universe itself. So there’d be benefits, but those benefits inescapably come with dangers. With great power comes great responsibility and all that.

      On knowing how to better lead our lives and structure our society, I advise caution. Many times in history, people have concluded that they had the final answer to those questions. More than 99% of them now look misguided, at best, and there’s no consensus on which of the putative solutions belong in the 1%.

      A lot of what you talk about seems resonant with the hedons in ancient Greece. Myself, I’ve often found Epicureanism, one of the hedonistic philosophies, to be a productive outlook, but I make no claims that it’s a scientific one. If someone insists that stoicism is a better outlook, I can’t marshal any empirical research to prove them wrong. All I can do is explain why I personally don’t agree.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mike,
    I’m happy to hear that you agree with my list if human innovations — oral language, specialization, written language, and hard science (where I added the outside two to what you’ve already proposed). I don’t recall expressing them quite this explicitly in the past, though they’ve certainly been behind the scenes in me for quite some time.

    As I think you know, I’m more of a “broad theory” guy than “specific details” guy like you, since I don’t really sweat dates and such. Another way of saying this is that I look more for “the forest” while you’re sometimes more concerned about “the trees”. Thus given these separate fortes I think we complement each other quite well! You’re able to use your proficiency in specifics to consider the validity of my often radical models, while I’m able to challenge some of the big picture ideas that you seem to inherit. For example in our last discussion I poked fun at the apparently popular notion in science that rich emotional life happens to be a human aberration. (Lisa Feldman Barrrett seems to be exploiting this with the supremely top down theory that people don’t feel complex things like “guilt” unless they are taught to feel such things by means of language! Wow!)

    Actually I suspect that most everyone would agree that in the past few centuries the human has become amazingly powerful. Furthermore I think we’re all relatively agreed that greater power doesn’t quite translate into better existence for humanity as a whole. Much of the world today toils under horrible conditions given repressive governing, though there are all sorts of tragic problems in even the highly advanced countries which claim the vast majority of human power. (I’m fine with the standard definition of power as “work per unit of time”, like a joule per second, or watt.) An excellent case might be made that the more powerful that we’ve become, the worse things have actually gotten for humanity as a whole, given that it might take hundreds of extremely happy people to offset what’s felt by one extremely miserable person.

    My position is that humanity has now seen all classes of power innovation that it will ever see, which is not to say that these four won’t continue to make us far more powerful with time — they clearly will. (If you disagree then I’ll want examples of things which would make us more powerful in a different kind of way.) But given that human power doesn’t seem to translate too well into human welfare, I foresee a fifth variety of innovation that doesn’t concern work per time, but rather teaches us about our nature so that we might learn about how to more effectively use our power. I assert this as a forward looking person who sees a need that I believe science must ultimately fill as it progresses. Instead of saying, “It can’t be done because it hasn’t been done” you might say, “It hasn’t been done because there’s still too much crap in the system that needs to be unlearned”. I’m quite sure that the scientific community, which I consider to be a relatively modern institution, will prevail in decades to come rather than centuries.

    (I haven’t read too many of your oldest posts, so it was nice to see such a high quality 2014 account of how science evolved. I agree! Furthermore I’m pleased with your advocacy of epicureanism and the primacy of hedons in general. Like you I don’t believe that science will ever favor epicureanism over stoicism, though I do suspect that the theme to my ASTU will win favor some day, even if it takes a more talented person than myself to effectively illustrate its virtues to established interests.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      Barrett’s views of emotions are that they are high order concepts, which she does see as requiring a social framework. I do think our social milieu has a powerful effect on the emotions we feel, but I’m skeptical of the idea that without that milieu we wouldn’t feel emotions. So I think she goes too far. At times, if feels like she’s trying to justify the cultural anthropology view of emotions, which sees them as culturally relative. This has always struck me as a hammer user seeing everything as a type of nail.

      I do tend to drill down on details, although I usually stop well short of what the practitioners in each field have to go down to. For me, the details matter because many theories are falsified when you get down into them. “The Devil is in the details.” And I think it’s necessary to get into those details to see if a theory makes non-intuitive predictions, in other words if it actually gives us insight into a subject.

      It’s an extremely common sentiment that humanity’s lot is getting worse. But the reality is that the overall situation is actually getting better. A higher percentage of people today are in liberal democracies, literate, have decent sanitation and nutrition, and live in a relatively developed economy, than at any other time in history. And a smaller proportion of people are dying violently (Steven Pinker wrote a whole book on this, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’.) The day to day news tends to focus on the bad stories, so it’s easy to miss that the broad sweep of history is steadily moving in the right direction. (For some reason, a lot of people really don’t like hearing this.)

      I’m not sure what you mean by “all classes of power innovation”, but I’d be very reluctant to conclude that there won’t be future innovations, including new breakthroughs as fundamental as anything we’ve discussed. Can I say what those will be? No. But it’s doubtful anyone in 1000 BC could have identified the innovation of philosophy, or that natural philosophers in 1432 could have foreseen the scientific revolution. My inability to describe what those future fundamental breakthroughs might be isn’t evidence that they won’t come. The next one may require a superhuman AI, or a human mind enhanced by technology.

      Thanks for your kind words about the old post. In many ways, I made many of my most profound ones in the first year of this blog. (Of course, some of them I later contradicted.) The longer a blog is up, the harder it gets to find new topics to write about. Many I’ve revisited as I learned new things about the subject, but many other topics I’m reluctant to return to just to go over the subject again. But given that few readers will ever see that old material, it might be something I just need to get over.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Mike,
    If Barrett defines “emotion” such that it can only stem from society, or even from human society, then I can’t complain. Whatever way that she defines her terms, I consider it my obligation to consider her ideas based upon those definitions. My problem however concerns her Brainscience podcast ( where she implies that the human only feels complex things based upon being taught these feelings through language. That sort of speculation, which I believe she bases upon little more than our inability to document neural signatures for the various things that we feel, is simply ridiculous. She might instead have entertained the notion that we’re still too ignorant to understand how the brain causes us to feel what we do.

    A lot of the issue here, I think, is that it’s not yet formally understood that human consciousness essentially exists as a tiny computer that results from a vast supercomputer that is not conscious, and that this supercomputer services conscious function. Thus she considers it linguistically special that we automatically know that words come out of her (she stops here)… mouth. That doesn’t seem special to me however, given that consciousness seems to be aided by a vast computer that is not conscious. I consider oral language to be the first of the four basic human innovations, though I will not say that we learn to feel through language. With that notion she seems to have gone well off.

    On details, of course they must be respected. But failure here can occur when we extrapolate too far from evidence, as in Barrett’s case, as well as for “pretty theories” that don’t actually concern themselves with evidence. I’ve found my ideas to be both consistent with evidence, and also to present various repugnant implications that we’d rather not be true. Actually the paradigm of morality that seems their great obstacle.

    It’s good to hear that Steven Pinker thinks things are getting better. I like him. Still without estimates of the absolute magnitude of happiness that is experienced today, minus the unhappiness, I’m going to wonder. Even if the proportion of people living under violence has fallen, if more people today face such horrors than say 300 years ago, that would weight things heavily in the wrong direction. I just don’t know how things stack up.

    By “all classes of power innovation” I meant that whatever makes us more powerful in the future, should come under the headings of oral language, specialization, written language, and hard science. Superhuman AI could certainly fit under past innovation classes. But my point was that there should be one more classification of innovation to come, and this one won’t be about making us more powerful. Instead it should teach us how to use our incredible power. I believe it will occur as our soft sciences and philosophy harden up. This is my project.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      From what I recall about that Brain Science episode, I think you might have missed Barrett’s point in that language example. She was talking about how much our perceptions are predictions adjusted by sensory data, rather than just passive processing of that sensory data. The sentence with the last word delayed was just making that point.

      She sees every mental concept as the brain’s attempt at prediction. So, since she sees emotions as high level concepts, she essentially sees emotions as predictions. I’m not sure I buy that. To me, emotions are an input to the predictions, but I agree it depends on how we define “emotion”, where we draw the line between the emotion and the things that influence the emotion.

      On Pinker and suffering, I guess there are two ways of looking at it. Pinker’s case is that the proportion of humanity that is suffering is steadily decreasing. But you could look at it in terms of absolute numbers. The world population is much higher today than it’s ever been, so the number of humans suffering is much higher than it’s ever been. Of course, that also means the number of humans with the benefits I mentioned above is also higher than it’s ever been.

      Of course, determining whether those people are really happy is the problem. It’s usually done by surveying, in other words by self report. The problem is that some cultures discourage expressions of sadness, while others discourage any views that might be interpreted as pollyannaish. Still, there seems to be some correlation between economic wellbeing and how people respond to those surveys, so the data they provide, while of limited accuracy, still provides insights.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Mike,
    I suppose that I did misinterpret Barrett there. So her point wasn’t that complex emotions must be taught through language, but rather that predictions are extremely important to emotions, as well as for language comprehension, as well as for using a given context to help instantly decide someone’s intensions, and on and on. I agree!

    I already come from that end of the spectrum however, and probably well beyond her. I suspect that the conscious processor (which I call “thought”) does less than a thousandth of a percent of the processing that occurs on the non-conscious side of things. Actually if all inputs to the conscious processor occur through output of the non-conscious computer, we should at least begin to appreciate that consciousness might be best to consider as the very tip of an iceberg. This fits in well with your observation that emotions are conscious inputs used to make predictions rather than what we consciously predict. The line you spoke of between emotions and things that influence emotion, seems useful as “conscious” for the first, and “non-conscious” for the second.

    Perhaps a good deal of the issue here concerns Barrett’s tendency to talk about what the entire brain does, like it’s essential just one thing. Imagine if your mechanic were to speak so vaguely about what’s wrong with your car (as in “…then your car does this…” rather than referencing more specific areas). I think it’s best to at least acknowledge two separate forms of computer — one that is not conscious, and a tiny conscious one that the first one creates. Thus when she talks about emotions as “predictions”, she might then clarify that she’s referring to a non-conscious computer algorithmically creating emotions as it does, not the conscious prediction engine that assesses emotions.

    I would actually like to defend the “classical” theory of emotions from much of her criticism. A given conscious creature, such as the dog, should have a vast spectrum of things that make it feel good and bad, and in ways that are evolutionarily helpful given associated circumstances. For example there is the jealousy that my parents’ dog seems to have for my young nephew. Did the circumstances cause their dog to feel tired, frustrated, hungry, angry, board, or itchy? No, those wouldn’t have been appropriate feelings. Instead I presume that this jilting gave her an inner pang of loss and betrayal. So what did she do given her jealousy? She covertly took a doll that my nephew brought over, and chewed it up in my parents’ bedroom. Mom: “Ginger you turkey!” Ginger: “That’s right I’m a turkey, and so more than just your bitch!” 🙂

    Anyway I suspect that various forms of conscious life are set up to feel all sorts of good and bad things given associated evolutionary demands. Barrett’s theory of constructed emotions disputes this, and perhaps because of her preoccupation with “brain prediction”, when she might be better off distinguishing the non-conscious prediction by which emotions like jealousy are created, from the conscious prediction associated with what we know of existence.

    On Pinker, I suspect that he simply observed these positive trends in a proportional sense, but doesn’t actually consider himself to be an “average utilitarian”. Furthermore I’m not a “total utilitarian”. Instead I’m a “subjective total utilitarian”, and consider this to be a “real” rather than “moral” position. Here it’s important to define a given subject over a given period of time, where what’s best for it will be what maximizes its utility over that period.

    The reason that I go with “aggregate” rather than “mean” utility, is because I consider each unit of this stuff to matter in itself. The aggregate consept is consistent with this position, while the mean is not. For example, if two subjects end up with lives that have the same mean level of utility, though one lives for an hour while the other lives for a century, the mean assessement mandates a tie. To me this doesn’t respect each unit of utility that a given subject experiences. Conversely an aggregate assessment implies that the longer life will constitute 876,000 times the value of the shorter, whether positive or negative, and with a convergence at the neutral position.

    Regarding how difficult it is to effectively measure happiness, yes this is troubling. Barrett’s inability to even find signature signs of emotions between different people is also not welcome news. But even if we did have good data here, we might not be prepared to use it yet. What use is it to measure “happiness”, when everyone knows that ethics is all about doing what’s “moral”? But once we have effective value theory, there should finally be reason for innovative people to figure out how to measure it.

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