Words, when there aren’t any

Here’s a thought: What are you thinking – right now? Can you describe what is happening inside your head at any moment you are asked? If you can, is it in a decipherable stream of words… or in something else? And, further, if it is something else, then how could you ever describe it in words?

When I consider such a subject, I find that I am reminded of the Buddhist koan that asks the disciple to imagine the sound of one hand clapping. It is an endless labyrinth in which it is also too easy to think of Dante’s Divine Comedy in which he describes what is inscribed on the entrance gate to Hell: Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

But you see what is happening already: a flight of ideas, some of which can be described in words after the fact, and yet the journey -and indeed, the destination- are fluid, and wordless. Much like watching a Fellini film in a darkened movie theatre, and then emerging, confused, into a noontime street outside where different rules, different realities apply.

It happened again, didn’t it? Right now -the activity inside my head somewhere… I have just attempted to describe it in words, and yet there weren’t any while it was going on… But nonetheless it was happening. If we can remember them, dreams can be like that sometimes, can’t they? Wordless, and yet often transcribable; there is usually an emotional overlay, and yet is it just that when we emerge into the daylight reality we struggle for descriptors if we are asked to remember. Is consciousness merely the translator, hired for the job?

I suspect these ruminations are not common in our everyday lives that expect to be able to explain something -everything?- when asked. It is, after all, the mandate of Science to subject the world and everything in it to scrutiny. But can we ever hope to describe our interior machinations in words, if the world in there is not primarily verbal? If journeys inside are not even always pictorial? Evocative? Is there even a language that does not depend on features we would characterize as consciously recognizable? Translatable? Can we, in other words, understand our minds? We all want to, don’t we…?

Despite the fascinating venue, even deciding where to start any such attempt eluded me. There was an article in a BBC Future article, that started me wondering again, though: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190819-what-your-inner-voice-says-about-you

Kelly Oakes, a freelance writer for the BBC, starts out by suggesting, ‘Interrogating what’s going on inside our own minds doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult task. But by trying to shine a light on those thoughts, we’re disturbing the very thing we want to measure in the first place.’ She goes on to describe the attempts of the psychologist Russell Hurlburt at the University of Nevada to get around the questions we ask about our inner thoughts which obviously prompt us to translate the inner activity into words -and hence reporting more as inner speech than is actually the case. So, he uses a technique he calls Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) which involves carrying a device that beeps randomly but only occasionally throughout the day. That is the prompt to tune into whatever was in your mind just before the beep. At the end of the day, you are debriefed and are expected to describe ‘what form it took: words, pictures, an emotion, a physical sensation, or something else.’ And, not surprisingly, it varies.

It’s not ideal, I suppose, but it does attempt to characterize something evanescent and amorphous and translate it into meaningful categories. But even if we were to concentrate on one form of activity -inner speech- there are still imponderables that have to be sorted out.

Is it an inner dialogue, or monologue? Indeed, how could it be a dialogue with only one brain involved? Or, for that matter, to whom would a monologue be addressed? Maybe Freud, with his Ego, Id, and Superego divisions of the unconscious was on to something…

But, Oakes mentions a description written by someone after they had recovered from a stroke, that is both existentially chilling, and yet also helpful in understanding some of our inner processing: ‘After neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor recovered from a stroke she suffered aged 37, she wrote in My Stroke of Insight [my italics] about what it was like to experience a “silent mind” without inner speech for several weeks: “What a daunting task it was to simply sit there in the centre of my silent mind…’ It wasn’t just the absence of words that was occurring, it was the absence of anything. Although I haven’t read the book, I assume that her mind was also empty of -what?- pictures, emotions, sensations -even identity. So maybe you either get everything -the melange- or nothing.

I find that a really sobering thought, for some reason. That in our brains -our minds– the way we process input from the outside –or activities happening on the inside- is more a jumble than a formula. I’m sure it doesn’t actually work that way, but just like it’s difficult to accurately render a poem, a metaphor, or a Weltanschauung into a different culture and language, there are similar problems in translating the inner language into the outer one we need to use.

In our constant quest to understand, and master the unknown, I sometimes wonder if we expect too much of our questions. But maybe that’s just my outer voice that speaks -the one that translates for the me that lives inside. How do I know if it’s even on the right path?

Perhaps it takes a poet to interpret what’s really going on. My mind drifts to the words of Kahlil Gibran: For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

The Me of Science

This is going to sound trite, but have you ever wondered about your role in Science? Really. I mean that of your consciousness in apprehending and interpreting that which is measured: the ‘Me’-ness which separates each of us from whatever we’re doing -or, rather, which joins us to it: joins us to the other?

I don’t mean to sound Cartesian here; I don’t want to get into mind-body stuff, and yet it comes down to whether or not we believe that the Mind is reducible to a bundle of interconnected neurons, or something more, doesn’t it? An emergent phenomenon -a synergism- or merely a synthesis: an entity wholly explainable in terms of its constituents.

Where, in other words, do I come in? And if I don’t, is there any proof -apart from my saying so- that I even exist?

Of course, why should I even care? I mean, cogito ergo sum, eh? I know I exist, and so I can investigate anything I want, acting in my own right as a valid agent. Science and I can look into any box and measure its contents… except, perhaps, reality itself -I can assume no God’s-eye view of that. I cannot absent myself from that box while I measure it -I am immersed in it. The box, really, is all there is.

I have to say, I was re-seduced into this type of thinking by a very perceptive essay in Aeon written as a collaboration between Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience

‘In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature. Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.’

So, ‘Elementary particles, moments in time, genes, the brain – all these things are assumed to be fundamentally real. By contrast, experience, awareness and consciousness are taken to be secondary.’ And yet, ‘We never encounter physical reality outside of our observations of it… [and] these tests never give us nature as it is in itself, outside our ways of seeing and acting on things. Experience is just as fundamental to scientific knowledge as the physical reality it reveals… The point is that physical science doesn’t include an account of experience; but we know that experience exists, so the claim that the only things that exist are what physical science tells us is false.’ Or maybe misleading.

‘Husserl, the German thinker who founded the philosophical movement of phenomenology, argued that lived experience is the source of science. It’s absurd, in principle, to think that science can step outside it.’ And Alfred North Whitehead, who taught at Harvard University in the 1920ies, ‘argued that science relies on a faith in the order of nature that can’t be justified by logic. That faith rests directly on our immediate experience… he argued that what we call ‘reality’ is made up of evolving processes that are equally physical and experiential.’ You’ve gotta love this stuff.

Anyway, I suppose the importance of all this palaver is to point out that ‘When we look at the objects of scientific knowledge, we don’t tend to see the experiences that underpin them. We do not see how experience makes their presence to us possible.’ However, let’s face it, without an observer -a measurer- the results are unacknowledged. Science is not science, if we are not there to do it and record it.

The whole subject is reminiscent of the discussions I remember from my university days when we would sit around for hours in a pub exploring our growing awareness of the world.
“I don’t know how you could say that,” somebody at the table -Brian, usually- would exclaim, throwing his arms up. “Science is about objects! It’s not at all comparable to religion…”

“And why is that?” someone else -usually Jonathan- would answer. “It just deals with reality a little differently, that’s all.”

“A little differently?” The arms again. “Religion is completely subjective! You can’t prove anything…”

“And does Science prove anything -or is it just the scientist who looks at the instruments who proves it? Somebody has to read the data. Experience them…” This was always Jonathan’s argument, I remember.

Brian was a little more excitable, and he would roll his eyes at the slightest provocation as disdain dripped unchecked from the rest of his face. “Come on, Jonathan! You don’t experience science in the same way as religion. You do science!”

“How do you read an instrument, or interpret a result without experiencing it, Brian? There has to be someone who looks at the measurement.”

Brian would always shake his head in disgust when Jonathan disagreed with him. “But the measurement was not created by the scientist, it was made by the machine, or whatever -and that’s about as objective as you can ever get.”

A little smile would always creep onto Jonathan’s face at this point. “Well, who designed the machine? Who built it for the purpose…?”

“Give me a break, eh? Once it’s built, it’s an object!”

“But the experiment -the question- which the object is built to answer, is subjectively constructed, is it not? And the results have to be formulated into a conclusion, don’t they? Accepted, or rejected, the results have to pass their way through a mind. Through consciousness… They have to be experienced!”

“And what is doing the experiencing? It’s just your brain -a physical, an objective, thing.” Then Brian would smile and sit back in his seat with his beer to deliver the coup de grace. “The brain is not a ‘who’ but a ‘what’ isn’t it?”

But Jonathan would like this part of the argument, I remember -it always took this turn. “If that which interprets data is an objective ‘what’, and if that which it is experiencing is also a ‘what’, then everything is a ‘what’ -Religion included; it’s doing the same thing… sort of like Science, eh?”

The arguments, fuelled no doubt by the effects of alcohol on inquiring minds, would go on in increasing complexity and implausibility until the pub closed, and we would all wake up the next morning with hangovers -but still friends, willing to take each other on again at the next opportunity. In a way, it makes me wonder what those authors of the Aeon essay were going on about with their questions about what role subjectivity and experience has in dealing with the world -its role as the Blind Spot. My friends and I -subjects all- don’t experience it as anything like a problem -not really. We see it simply as friendship. And that is the foundation for everything isn’t it…?