Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Index to pages for Critical Applied Linguistics

Keywords #1 Introduction

Keywords #2 Basic background knowledge

Keywords #3 Historical/political terms

Keywords #4 Linguistic/pedagogical terms

Keywords #5 Key background knowledge

Keywords #6 Key concepts


Ch. 1 Introducing Critical Applied Linguistics

Ch. 2 The Politics of Knowledge

Ch. 3 The Politics of Language

Ch. 4 The Politics of Text

Ch. 5 The Politics of Pedagogy

Ch. 6 The Politics of Difference

Ch. 7 Applied Linguistics with an Attitude

Language on the move

Video by TESOLacademic.org (http://www.tesolacademic.org/)

Friday, August 13, 2010

"After Babel: Aspects of language and translation" by George Steiner

Quotation from

Oxford University Press, 1998

Translation in communication in general

Steiner's concept of translation is more comprehensive, as far as I know, than any other's. He sees translation not just in communication across different languages but also in communication in general. Behind this idea is his emphasis on intricacy and complexity of speech even in a 'monolingual' situation.

Any model of communication is at the same time a model of trans-lation [sic], of a vertical or horizontal transfer of significance. No two historical epochs, no two social classes, no two localities use words and syntax to signify exactly the same thing, to send identical signals of valuation and inference. Neither do two human beings. (p. 47)

'Private' aspect of human speech

Of more emphasis is a 'private' aspect of human speech.

Each living person draws, deliberately or in immediate habit, on two sources of linguistic supply; the current vulgate corresponding to his level of literacy, and a private thesaurus. The latter is inextricably a part of his subconscious, of his memories so far as they may be verbalized, and of the singular, irreducibly specific ensemble of his somatic and psychological identity. (p. 47)

Against the trend in the current linguistics

This emphasis on peculiarities of speech is not shared by the current linguists, who prefer to see regularities in language. Steiner's approach to language is unconventionally radical.

Much of current linguistics would have things neater than they are. Before conceding that the deeper, more important proceedings of language lie far beyond the level of actual or potential consciousness (Chomsky's postulate), we must look to the vital disorders of literature in which that consciousness is most incisively at work. To know more of language and of translation, we must pass from the 'deep structures' of transformational grammar to the deeper structures of the poet. (p. 114)

We only speak 'at the surface' of our selves.

A corollary of this approach is denial of complete understanding in communication. We only communicate 'superficially', with the complexity and subtlety of our mind mostly untapped.

In short, whether consciously or unconsciously, every act of human communication is based on a complex, divided fabric which may, fairly, be compared to the image of a plant deeply and invisibly rooted or of an iceberg largely under water. Active inside the 'public' vocabulary and conventions of grammar are pressures of vital association, of latent or realized content. Much of these content is irreducibly individual and, in the common sense of the term, private. When we speak to others we speak 'at the surface' of our selves. We normally use a shorthand beneath which there lies a wealth of subconscious, deliberately concealed or declared associations so extensive and intricate that they probably equal the sum and uniqueness of our status as an individual person. It was from this central fact of the dual or subsurface phenomenology of speech that Humboldt derived his well-known axiom: 'All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding, all agreement in thought and feeling is also a parting of the ways.' (p. 181)

Translation is no mechanical decoding/encoding.

So, in a sense, this is an argument for 'private language', but not in the sense Wittgenstein argued. And this prompts Steiner to believe that every act of communication involves some aspect of translation, for we have to infer or interpret the private and thus unspoken part of the speech of the other.

Thus, in a general sense, though not in that of the Wittgenstein-Malcom argument, there is 'private language' and an essential part of all natural language is private. This is why there will be in every complete speech-act a more or less prominent element of translation. All communication 'interprets' between privacies. (p. 207)

Language describes and creates the world.

Steiner departs from the conventional view of language in logic as well as from that in linguistics. He does not see 'falsity' as of lesser importance than 'truth' in linguistic expressions.

My conviction is that we shall not get much further in understanding the evolution of language and the relations between speech and human performance so long as we see 'falsity' as primarily negative, so long as we consider conter-factuality, contradiction, and the many nuances of conditionality as specialized, often logically bastard modes. Language is the main instrument of man's refusal to accept the world as it is. Without that refusal, without the unceasing generation by the mind of 'counter-worlds' -- a generation which cannot be divorced from the grammar of conter-factual and optative forms -- we would turn forever o0n the treadmill of the present. (p. 228)

For Steiner, language is not just a means to describe the world truthfully in a standardized way; it is more of an attempt to express the inexpressible, and to create the world as the speaker wishes to see it.

Dialectics of translation across languages

Given this view of language in general, it is no surprising that Steiner's idea of translation is much more complex and subtle than conventional ideas. If we are to see much behind a common language, we'll see far more that is to be understood in translation behind a different language.

Given the difference of the language, some thoughts may compromise the authenticity of the home language into which a person translates the text; the translation may distort and disfigure the home language. In defence of the authenticity of the home language, the translator may cripple the potentialities of the meaning of the original text. Indeed, "Traduttore, tradittore" (Translator, traitor).

However, out of this dilemma arises a linguistic creation. In translation, people experience the emergence of new expressions between the constraints of the home language on the one hand and the substance to be expressed in the foreign language.

In translation the dialectic of unison and of plurality is dramatically at work. In one sense, each act of translation is an endeavour to abolish multiplicity and to bring different world-pictures back into perfect congruence. In another sense, it is an attempt to reinvent the shape of meaning, to find and justify an alternate statement. The craft of the translator is, as we shall see, deeply ambivalent: it is exercised in a radical tension between impulses to facsimile and impulses to appropriate recreation. In a very specific way, the translator 're-experience' the evolution of language itself, the ambivalence of the relations between language and world, between 'languages' and 'worlds'. In every translation the creative, possibly fictive nature of these relations is tested, Thus translation is no specialized, secondary activity at the 'interface' between languages. It is the constant, necessary exemplification of the dialectical, at once welding and divisive nature of speech. (p. 246)

Translating a foreign language and evolving the mother tongue

One of the best translators, as Steiner sees, is Hoelderlin [do forgive me for not using the umlaut], who evolved the German language out of his attempt to translate Greek classics.

Hoelderlin's genius reaches its final realization in translation because the clash, mediation, and dialectic fusion of Greek and German were to him the readiest, most tangible enactment of the collisions of being. The poet brings his native tongue into the charged field of forced of another language. He invades and seeks to break open the core of alien meaning. He annihilates his own ego in an attempt, both peremptory and utterly humble, to fuse with another presence. Having done so he cannot return intact to home ground. (p. 349)

Translation as a communal act

The act of translation that may even evolve the home language is an communal act. If the whole purpose of a translator is to understand the text herself, she doesn't have to translate (or finish translating) the text. Commitment to translation is commitment to the community of the home language, as a language that never ceases to evolve.

Undoubtedly translation contains a paradox of altruism -- a word on which there stresses both of 'otherness' and of 'alteration'. The translator performs for others, at the price of dispersal and relative devaluation, a task no longer necessary or immediate to himself. But there is also a proprietary impulse. It is only when he 'brings home' the simulacrum of the original, when he recrosses the divide of language and community, that he feels himself in authentic possession of his source. Safely back he can, as an individual,discard his own translation. The original is now peculiarly his. Appropriation through understanding and metamorphic re-saying shades, psychologically as well as morally, into expropriation. (pp. 399-400)

Translation that never ends

Yet, given the complexity and subtlety of the original language and the evolving nature of the home language, one is never to believe that any translation is ultimate. Ideal translation is impossible. However this impossibility drives another attempt of translation, an act of domestigating/naturalizing the foreign and of foreignizing/alienating the domestic.

Understanding is always partial, always subject to emendation. Natural language is not only polysemic and in process of diachronic change. It is imprecise, it has to be imprecise, to serve human locution. And although the existence of a 'perfect translation' or 'perfect exchange of the totality of intended meaning' between two speakers is theoretically conceivable, there could be no way of verifying the actual fact. For how would we know? by what means except an alternate formulation and explicative rephrasing could we demonstrate that the case in point was indeed 'perfect'? Yet such demonstration would necessarily reopen the question. In other words: to demonstrate the excellence, the exhaustiveness of an act of interpretation and/or translation is to offer an alternative or an addendum. There are no closed circuits in natural language, no self-consistent axiomatic sets. (p. 428)

Overall, this book is a great attempt to grasp the richness of translation. In the age when reasonable machine translation is readily available, we should consider sophisticated aspect of translation, and for such a purpose this book is a must.

Go to Questia Online Library

Monday, August 9, 2010

Consciousness as a process that is entailed by molecular interactions

I'm now convinced more than ever that we are able to think unconsciously, for I actually came up with the following idea in my dream. I woke up in my dream (or half-woke up in my half-dream), saying to myself that I needed to write this down: Consciousness is a process just like a storm is a process; physical constituents of consciousness are molecules that constitute neurons and other elements in the brain, just like physical constituents of a storm are molecules that constitute air and other things that fly in the storm; consciousness is what appears to us when the molecules move in a particular way, just like a storm is what appears to us when the molecules move in a certain way.

Let me elaborate more. This idea arose from a question I had when I encountered the next passage about 15 hours before I had that (half-) dream. The passage was in Second nature by Gerald Edelman.

It is commonplace to talk of mental events or phenomenal experience as if they were causal. But in asmuch as consciousness is a process entailed by integration of neural activity in the reentrant dynamic core, it cannot itself be causal. At the macroscopic level the physical world is causally closed: only transactions at the level of matter or energy can be causal. So it is the activity of the thalmocortical core that is causal, not the phenomenal experience it entails. (pp. 91-92)

This passage is Edelman's answer to the classical question: "Are consciousness and 'mental events' causal?", but, to me, this was one of the only few parts that I felt not exactly convinced of in this otherwise brilliantly lucid book. I just wondered what a process is exactly. Edelman argues that consciousness is not causal because it is only a process. Although I was obviously able to understand the literal meaning of this argument, the argument didn't exactly feel right to me. What does Edelman mean when he says that consciousness is only a process? I needed some analogy or something to feel convinced.

That's how I woke up some 15 hours later in my (half-)dream. In it I said to myself the above statement (" Consciousness is a process just like a storm is a process") and that I need to write this down in order not forget this (I actually woke up and wrote it on my computer at 4:30).

In ordinary language, we often say a sentence like "the storm destroyed the house completely" as if the storm had the causal power. It makes perfect sense in conversation. Yet, the 'storm' is just a convenient expression in our ordinary talk, and in physical terms the 'storm' is nothing but the collection of multitude of molecules that constitute air and other things that fly in the storm.

The causal power lies in these physical elements (the physical world is causally closed). 'Storm' is a name we give to a particular type of process of the movements of these molecules. So in physical terms, it is molecules (or any other physical terms if you like), rather than the 'storm', that cause the destruction of the house (which is also constituted by the molecules. 'House' is another convenient word in our ordinary life). After all, "the storm destroyed the house completely" is all about causal interactions of molecules. In this sense, the storm is only a process that we give the name "storm", and not causal.

Likewise, consciousness is also a process, not an entity on its own. It is only entailed, Edelman argues, by neurons in interaction. When he talks about 'qualia' -- let's temporarily define 'qualia' as a particular state of consciousness that is 'felt' by the first person; I therefore equate qualia with consciousness here --, he says as follows:

Qualia are entailed by states of core neurons acting to yield complex integrative states that can shift to yield new states and conscious scenes. Qualia are thus no more caused by neural states than is the spectrum of hemoglobin caused by that protein's structure -- its so-called Soret spectrum is entailed by its molecular structure. (p. 145)

(Because of the lack of scientific knowledge, I have to assume that 'Soret spectrum' is (or similar to, or related to) 'Soret peak'.)

Given a particular molecular structure, a certain spectrum appears to us. However, the molecular structure does not exactly cause the appearance in the strict sense of physics because the structure doesn't appear that way in non-human beings with different mechanism of vision (or other perception). The appearance is rather a matter of the system that observes the structure. The appearance is, we should say, more entailed for us than generally caused by the structure in the sense of a physical law whose effect is not human-specific.

In sum, consciousness is entailed by certain interactions of molecules, not caused by them. Consciousness is not within the boundary of physics in the strict sense, but within human subjectivity. Consciousness is a process that humans become aware of given our biological structure. Assigning causal power to consciousness is like assigning a storm causal power; it makes sense in our ordinary language, but not in physics, as an ultimate form of science.

Go to Questia Online Library

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"MIND TIME" by Benjamin Libet (and some thoughts of mine)


Libet (2004) - MIND TIME (Harvard University Press) - reports two very important findings concerning two important aspects of consciousness: awareness and free will.

Finding 1 [about awareness]: The brain needs a relatively long period of appropriate activations, up to about half a second, to elicit awareness of the event. (p. 33)

Finding 2 [about free will]: The process leading to a voluntary act is initiated by the brain uncousciously, well before the conscious will to act appears. (p. 136)
The conscious will could decide to allow the volitional process to go to completion, resulting in the motor act itself. Or, the conscious will could block or "veto" the process, so that no motor act occurs. (p. 138)

These two findings (F1 & F2) invites two tough questions.

Question 1 [from F1]: How can one explain the fact that subjectively we feel that we are aware at the actual moment of a sensory event? (pp. 70-71)

Question 2 [from F2]: If the veto itself were to be initiated and developed uncousciously, the choice to veto would then become an uncouscious choice of which we become conscous, rather than a consciously causal event. (p. 145) [Translation: Is free will to be totally denied?]

Let's first take a look at the two findings. I'll add my analogy of a football coach to explain the function of consciousness when I mention the second finding.

F1: The brain needs about half a second to elicit awareness of the event.


Before we discuss, we need to clarify some of the possibly confusing concepts.

First, about consciousness and mental functions. Consciousness is only a tiny (and edited) reflection of mental functions. As Libet says, "many of our mental functions are carried out uncousciously, without conscious awareness. (p. 2)" To borrow Edelman's term, many of mental functions are carried out nonconsciously.

The second point is about awareness being the essential featrue of consciousness. Libet maintains that "the essential feature of introspective reports of conscious experience is awareness, or being aware of something." (p. 13) For Libet, the different contents of awareness do not matter. He argues from his experimental evidence that "awareness per se is a unique phenomenon, and it is associated with unique neuronal activities that are a necessary condition for all conscious experiences. (pp. 13-14)

The third point is the difference between the awareness of a signal and the detection of a signal. Whereas becoming consciously aware of a signal requires the relatively long time, detecting a signal can occur unconsciously, without any awareness of the signal. (p. 34) For example, we can discriminate between two different frequencies of tactile vibration, even though the intervals between two pulses in each vibratin frequency are only a few milliseconds (msec) in lenghth. (p. 33)


Libet discuss 12 points from this finding. Here are the first five. For some readers, Point (1) may sound like a confirmation of the contention of Julian Jaynes, (2) that of Stephen Krashen. The remaining three points may be like scientific affirmation of our common experience.

(1) Perhaps all conscious mental events actually begin uncousciously before any awareness appears. ... Thoughts of various kinds, imaginations, attitudes, creative ideas, solving of problems, and so on initially develop uncousciously. Such uncouscious thougths only reach a person's conscious awareness if the appropriate brain actitivies last a long enough time. (p. 107)

(2) Vocalizing, speaking, and writing fall into the same category; that is, they are all likely to be initiated uncousciously. ... In the case of speech, for example, this means that the process to start speaking, and even the content of what is to be spoken, has been initiated and prepared unconsciously before the speaking begins. If the time-on requirement for awareness holds here, it would be manifestly impossible to rapidly speak a series of words, in the usual fashion, if one first had to become consciously aware of each word. ... In smoothly flowing speech, words are allowed to appear "on their own," in other words, they are initiated unconciously. As E. M. Forster reportedly stated, "How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?" (p. 108)

(3) The playing of a musical instrument, like the piano or violin, or singing must also involve a similar uncouscious performance of the actions. (p. 109)

(4) All quick behavioral, motor responses to a sensory signal are performed uncousciously. These are responses that can be made withing 100-200 msec after the singal, well before arareness of the signal could be expected. Many actions in sports fall into this category. (p. 109)

(5) Uncouscious mental functions can proceed at higher speed, if they are carried out by shorter-lasting neuronal activities. This implies that the series of uncouscious processes involveld in solving a problem can proceed speedily, each brief process after another. (p. 111)

It seems that these implications are particulary important for those of us obsessed with the modern notion of conscious-self, the grand master that takes a complete control of our action. We seem to need not just psychatry but also neuroscience to be free from this notion. (If you're a Buddhist, you'd have no trouble in the first place.)

F2: Our conscious will does not really initiate our action; it can only veto the action. (Or analogy of a football coach)

This finding was actually implied in the five points above. Our conscious will is not the grand master of our action.

At this point, I'd like to indulge in some analogical thought.

Consciousness is like a boy on an elephant, trying to control the elephant's move. His control is not to his satisfaction, because, after all, it is the elephant that moves. Indeed, it is the elephant that initiates the move. However, once the elephant begins to move, the boy can lead it to move in a certain direction over the long period of time. He is not useless.

Or, if I may introduce my analogy, consciousness is like a football coach. He may try to, but he cannot dictate every single move of his eleven players. Contrary to his ambitious expectation, the coach can only attempt to change the course of actions taken by the players after he saw their movements. Likewise, the control our consciousness has over our actions is only delayed and very limited.

What you should do as the football coach/concsious will is let the player/body practce and play/act. You just give a general instruction.

Don't try to give specific command to every sigle movement of the players/body. You'll never succeed for you cannot give commands as specific or as fast as the play/act demands. Should you synchronize the movement of the players/body with your command, the play/act is awefully slow and not functional at all.

When you direct the players/body generally, always remember that you (the coach/conscious will) is not the actor. You're not even the agent (at least as you wish to be). The players/body are the actor. They are the agent, too, althogh they are incapable of representing their collective sense of agency by themselves. Each one of the eleven players moves respectively in his complex interaction with the environment (the ball, the other players, the field and so on). He improvises his complex action because he responds to the complexity of the situation in which he's embedded. Only you, the coach, who try to observe the entire game can have a unitary sense of the entire game.

You, the coach/conscious will, can only help and direct the players/body in a lmited way. However, you're not useless. Far from it. Your wise long-term strategy can make the players/body better in the long run. However indirect and delayed your connection is to the players/body, you're the one that is the most responsible for their actions.

Yet, because you're not the actor or agent, don't forget that your direction does not constitute the action. If you spend most of the time of practice just talking, not letting the players/body move, you're completely mistaken. The coach doesn't play; consciousness doesn't act. It's categorical. It's a categorical mistake if the coach thinks he can play in the field or if you as the conscious-will are the body movement.

You can't even make the players/body move in the first place. It is the players/body that initiates the move. You only clap your hands and cheer them up as the players enter the field, reminding them of the general strategy you taught. When they fail miserably, you can stop the game and give them a new strategy. But when the interval is over, you keep staying outside of the field and start observing again.

This is how I interprets Libet when he says: The process leading to a voluntary act is initiated by the brain uncousciously, well before the conscious will to act appears (p. 136); The conscious will could decide to allow the volitional process to go to completion, resulting in the motor act itself. Or, the conscious will could block or "veto" the process, so that no motor act occurs (p. 138).

OK, now that explanation of the two findings are over for the moment, let's go back to the tougher part of the argument: the two questions that the two findings invite.

Q1 [from F1]: How come we don't usually feel we're as late as half a second in our awareness of the sensation?

This question comes from Finding 1: The brain needs about half a second to elicit awareness of the event. But how did Libet know this in the first place? Isn't 500 msec too long for a neural response?

Libet, in his exceptional experimental environment (which is completely ethical, of course), had electrode contacts sitting on the surface of the primary somatosensory cortex of the subject (the primary somatosensory cortex is the area of cerebral cortex that receives the directo sensory input from all the areas of the body and skin). Electroical stimulation to this area elicits a conscious sensation (awareness) in some specific skin or body structure (we don't feel any sensation in the brain itself). (p. 35)

The most interesting finding was that, to elicit a report of a weak, threshold-level sensation, the stimulus had to continue for about 0.5 sec. If the stimulus is shorter than that, the subject may detect it at the sub-conscious level, but not become consciously aware of it. Therefore, it is argued that to be conscious/aware of a stimulus takes about half a second after its onset (the duration time of half a second is called "Time-On").

Given that, though, the finding is couter-intuitive because we don't usually feel that we're so late in sensation. As I tap the keyboard now, I feel that the touch and the sensation, more or less, at the same time. The gap of half a second between the touch and the sensation seems too long.

Then comes a new experiment (p. 72-79). Libet stimulated the subject in two different places: one in the sensory cortex and the other in the skin. The time when the the sensory cortex is stimulated is to be called "neuronal time", whereas the time when the subject become conscious/aware of the perception (produced either by the stimulus in the sensory cortex or the one in the skin) is to be called "subjective time." So there are two lines of stimulus-perception.

(SC) Stimulus in the cortex ==> (PSC)Perception of SC (to be felt, though, in some part of the body, not in the brain itself)
(SS) Stimulus in the skin ==> (PSS) Perception of SS

After learning to distinguish the two different Stimulus/perception (SC ==> PSC and SS ==>PSS), the subject was given the two types of stimulus either at the same time or at different times.

(SC/SS) SC and SS are given at the same time.
(SC->SS) SC is given first and then SS.
(SS->SC) SS is given first and then SC.

In SC/SS, the subject reported that they felt that SS was given first, althogh both SC and SS were given at the same time.

In SC->SS, the subject also reported that they felt SS before SC when the delay of SS after SC is a few hundreds of miliseconds; the subject reported that they felt the sensation almost simultaneously when the SS is given 500 msec later than SC.

In SS->SC, the subject always felt SS before SC.

A conclusion to be drawn here is that stimulus in the skin was subjectively felt earlier than the stimulus in the cortex. Given the physical distance between the skin (where the skin stimulus is given) and the cortex (the destination to which the neural message of the skin stimulus is to be transmitted), it is unlikely that SS ==> PSS is faster than SC ==> PSC. (The opposite would be quite possible considering that SS ==> PSS should take a longer time because of the physical distance of the transmission of the stimulus). The paradox is this: how come the subjective time is perceived earlier than the actual neuronal time.

The hypothesis that Libet gives to account for the paradox is that there must be a subjective referral of the timing for the experience back to the time of the time of the neuronal time (p. 75). The subjective time must be created or invented to be perceived before the physical stimulus time. In other words, the brain cheats us into believing that the brain is giving a perception more or less simultaneously with the actual experience.

Given that the brain often edits the information to make a coherent story to our consciousness, I guess this trick is not so surprising. After all, the evolution has made the brain as it is so that it promotes our survival. The evolutionary brain is not committed to the truth (The chance of survival should be higher, if it is closer to truth, though.)

Moreover, we have just seen that the brain "refers" the stimulus in the cortex in a different place of the body. If there is a subjective projection in space, we might guess that a subjective projection in time is also possible.

A candidate for this subjective projection in time is unconscious suppression of vision. When a highly prudish man is shown a picture of a naked lady, he might report seeing something quite different and he is not lying (a Freudian topic) (p. 71). If he perceived the naked lady and was aware of the image simultaneously, the brain would have no time to suppress and distort the image. If we assume that there's a time lag between the stimulus and the awareness/consciousness, we can readily explain that the suppression is possible because the brain has time to distort the content of the vision.)

So there's an answer to Q1. We don't feel the time lag between the stimulus and its awareness because the brain cheats us and creates the subjective time. This is probably a better, or fitter way of living when we have the neural delay of 500 msec and still want to believe that we're a reasonable being, responding to the environment.

Additional note: I now remembered that a tape recorder for professional use has two contacts to the tape. The first contact to the tape is to pass on the sound that the microphone picks up (that is, for recording), and the second contact is to listen to the recording that the first contact has made only a short time ago (that is, for monitoring). Thus, the technician monitoring on the professional tape recorder listens to the music always a bit later than the actual performance. This delay is necessary to check that the sound was really recorded. To respond to a professional demand, you have to pay a price.

However, the usual tape recorder has only one contact for recording only. Someone who "monitors" the recording on such a tape recorder actually only listens to the sound that the microphone picks up, the sound that is to be recorded onto the tape. He therefore cannot really monitor the recording, and on some unfortunate situations, he may find that the sound was not really recorded at all (or awfully recorded) because of some mechanical problems only after the music was over.

Apparently, the professional tape recorder is more functional. However, it must have been a rather uncomfortable experience when someone monitors on the professional tape recorder and sees the music performance at the same time. The sound he monitors comes slightly after the vision. The sound and the vision do not synchronize. If it had been technically possible, people would have wanted a device to listen to the recorded sound for monitoring as he sees the visual image. A special tape recorder which can magically project the recorded sound earlier than the actual recording time to synchronize the sound with the vision would be a solution. Our brain may be like such a magical device.

Q2 : If the conscious will is actually initiated unconsciously before and the function of the consciousness is only to veto the continuation of the unconscious initiation, is it not the case that the conscious veto, too, was actually initiated unconsciously? Aren't we completely determined unconsciously and there is not such a thing as free will?

This question which stems from F2 (Our conscious will does not really initiate our action; it can only veto the action) is tougher because, it seems to me, the hypothesis that Libet provides to deal with this question is not as strong as the hypothesis in Q1. The hypothesis Libet provides in Q2 is only a possible hypothesis, not necessarily a plausible one.

If the veto is part of consciousness, it is likely that the veto-consciousness is also initiated unconsciously. That leads to total denial of our free will as we know it. To which possibility, Libet proposes as follows:

I propose, instead, that the conscious veto may not require, or be the result of, preceding unconscious processes. The conscious veto is a control function, different from simply becoming aware of the wish to act. (p. 146)

He defends this proposal as follows:

There is no logical imperative in any mind-brain theory, even in identity theory, that requires specific neural activity to precede and determine the nature of a conscious control function. And there is no experimental evidence against the possibility that the control process may appear without specific development by prior unconscious processes. (p. 146)

OK, it is possible. And since I don't have a more plausible hypothesis, let's assume that the conscious veto doesn't need prior unconscious processes. An answer is given: In the veto function of consciousness, we have free will.

But still, a new question arises.

Q3: Is what we call 'free will' only the veto? Is our 'free will' only a matter of cancellation of an ongoing processes that was initiated unconsciously? Are we 'free' only in such a short term? Are we otherwise determined?

Here's my attempt to give an answer.

I have the short term freedom of the veto, but that's not the end of the story of my freedom. I attain something close to 'free will' or at least I can influence my future course of action in the long run by externalizing my consciousness to make it the environment of the autopoietic system, that is commonly called 'I'.

Providing that I'm an autopoietic system, my action is self-produced by the complex interaction of the multitudes of components within the system. This view accords with the above view that our action is unconsciously initiated, only partially realized in consciousness later. In this sense, we have almost no free will.

However, the consciousness that I become conscious of, typically in the linguistic form, becomes conspicuously physical. The consciousness becomes a sound that echos in my mind, which is retained in my short term memory just like sounds from the outside world (i.e. the environment).

To make the argument simpler, let's suppose that I write down the consciousness on a piece of paper "DON'T EAT TOO MUCH." I always carries the piece and put it on the table when I eat.

The message "DON'T EAT TOO MUCH", which originally was in my mind, is now externalized. It is part of the environment to the system called "I". The piece of paper is beyond the immediate influence of "I". It stays there irrespective of my status. Even when my uncousciousness wants otherwise, the message stays there and becomes an independent stimulus to the system called 'I' and affects 'I'. In other words, an Ex-'I' affects the current 'I'. The current 'I' has only the veto function over the action that was initiated my unconsciousness. But this ex-'I' which is now the enviromnent to the system constantly 'irritates' me as an independent stimulus. ('Irriation' is a term used by Luhmann in his systems theory.)

Let's also suppose that I have a variety of other means to guide me into the direction that I want. I often say my principles to my friends and they sometimes quote these to me or ridicule me when I fail to respect these principles. I buy books that are very close to my free will and make it a rule to read them regularly. I keep a good TO-DO list so that I can behave as I wanted to behave when I planned.

Despite these various means, I may still fail to do what I wanted to do. But over a long period of time, if I keep these part of my environment, constantly affecting or 'irritating'the system ('I'), independent of the status of 'I', I may successfully lead myself to do what I wanted; I may even change myself in a way I wanted. I'd like to call this sort of guidance "free will".

This may be a distortion of the concept of 'free will', but this is my current response: You have free will: You can choose to do what your conscious will wants, or at least you can influence yourself to do what your conscious will wants, by changing the environment in which you're embedded.

Externalizing yourself is what you do in psychiatry and narrative and both have some special functions which otherwise cannot be achieved.

Do we have layers of us?: nonconsciousness / primary consciousness / higher-order consciousness / externalized consciousness in some linguistic form. Do we have a still higher layer, publicly shared wisdom in some linguistic form? Can we be free to the extent we make ourselves go up the layers?

Let me think more. Thank you for your reading.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

"wider than the sky" by Gerald Edelman

Quotation from

Yale University Press, 2004

A great book written by a great researcher in great clarity.
Here are some points that I found most interesting.

Definition of primary consciousness

Edelman divides consciousness into primary consciousness and higher-order consciousness. The former is defined as follows:

Primary consciousness is the state of being mentally aware of things in the world, of having mental images in the present. (p. 9)

Definition of higher-order consciousness

Humans and other animals with semantic or linguistic capabilities also have higher-order consciousness.

[H]igher-order consciousness involves the ability to be conscious of being conscious, and it allows the recognition by a thinking subject of his or her own acts and affections. (p. 9)

Theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS)

Edelman uses the theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS), a.k.a. Neural Darwinism, in order to explain consciousness, both primary and higher-order. (Thereafter when the term "consciousness" appears, it means both.) TNGS has three tenets: (1) Developmental selection; (2) Experiential selection; (3) Reentry. Of particular importance is the notion of reentry.

Reentry is the ongoing recursive interchange of parallel signals among brain areas, which serves to coordinate the activities of different brain areas in space and time. Unlike feedback, reentry is not a sequential transmission of an error signal in a simple loop. Instead, it is simultaneously involves many parallel reciprocal paths and has no prescribed error function attached to it. (p. 41)

Explanation of primary consciousness

With this idea of reentry, Edelman explains primary consciousness; primary consciousness is the dynamic interactions between perception and memory to make "the remembered present."

These dynamic reentrant interactions in the thalamocortical system must be thought of as successive in time -- new perceptual categorizations are reentrantly connected to memory systems before they themselves become part of an altered memory system. This bootstrapping between memory and perception is assumed to be stabilized within time periods ranging from hundreds of milliseconds to seconds -- the so-called specious present of William James. I have called this period "the remembered present" to point up the dynamic interaction between memory and ongoing perception that gives rise to consciousness. (p. 55)

Explanation of higher-order consciousness

Higher-order consciousness is indeed higher-order, or more extensive than primary consciousness because of the use of symbols. Symbols, typically language, created higher-order consciousness. Reentry in primary consciousness in the form of language made it possible to deal explicitly with the future, the past and the self. Use of symbols altered primary consciousness into higher-order consciousness.

[T]he subsequent evolution of additional reentrant circuits permitting the acquisition of semantic capability, and finally language, gave rise to higher-order consciousness in certain higher primates, including our hominine ancestors (and arguably a number of other ape species). Higher-order consciousness confers the ability to imagine the future, explicitly recall the past, and to be conscious of being conscious. (pp. 58-59)

Mechanism of primary consciousness

Then, how consciousness works in our physical body? If we are to regard consciousness as the mental, in strict opposition to the physical, we're trapped in the dualism and have to break out of the physical of physical causalities; claiming that the non-physical causes the physical phenomena is untenable in science. On the other hand, if we are to strip consciousness of any causal features associated with it, it betrays our common sense too much.

Edelman's solution is to regard consciousness as a phenomenal transform, a process, (C) that is entailed by the neural activity (C').

We have pointed out that C is a process, not a thing, that it reflects higher-order discriminations, and that it does not occur in the absence of C'. but, given the laws of physics, C itself cannot be causal; it reflects a relationship and cannot exert a physical force either directly or through field properties. It is entailed by C', however, and the detailed discriminatory activity of C' is causal.
that is, although C accompanies C', it is C' that is causal of other neural events and certain bodily actions. The world is causally closed -- no spooks or spirits are present -- and occurrences in the world can only respond to the neural events constituting C'. (pp. 78-79)

After all, the capacity of our consciousness (C) is quite limited to cover all the neural activities (C'). C is only a partial and biased reflection of C's and such a reflection, just like a glimpse in an unclear and broken mirror, cannot directly affect the true thing. A reflection can only monitor the thing to a reasonable degree.

Mechanism of higher-order consciousness

However, when this self-reflective process (C) is harnessed by language, it is not only a reasonable monitor of C' but also a good means in communication to understand of mutual C's between language users. (p. 80)

On top of that, with many linguistic means, the possibilities of the worlds that can be dealt with increase.

Clearly, one of the largest steps toward the acquisition of true language is the realization that an arbitrary token -- a gesture or a word -- stands for a thing or an event. When a sufficiently large lexicon of such tokens is subsequently accumulated, higher-order consciousness can greatly expand in range. Associations can be made by metaphors, and with ongoing activity, early metaphor can be transformed into more precise categories of intrapersonal and interpersonal experience. The gift of narrative and an expanded sense of temporal succession then follow. While the remembered present is, in fact, a reflection of true physical time, higher-order consciousness makes it possible to relate a socially constructed self t past recollections and future imaginations. (p. 103)

(Read a very interesting report of how a "language-less person" experienced such a difficulty in acquiring language, particularly words of metaphorical concepts: Life without language

Consciousness and truth

We must abandon the idea, perhaps a modern idea, that our consciousness is the true master of our actions. Consciousness is only a partial and biased reflection of our neural activities; the phenomenal process of our self-reflection can only have a limited and indirect control over our actions, which are, after all, physical events.

Why did God make us so incomplete? Well, it is because, if you don't mind, it's evolution, not God, that made us.

The take-home lesson is that our body, our brain, and our consciousness did not evolve to yield a scientific picture of the world. Instead, sufficient adaptation to an econiche is what saves the day, even in the presence of emotions and imaginings that would be irrelevant or unavailable to a precise third-person description. (pp. 136-137)

Consciousness and unconsciousness

Likewise, Levit's contention that consciousness emerges up to half a second later than its corresponding neural activity is no paradox.

Primary consciousness is, however, tied only to successive intervals of present time -- the remembered present. The lag of up to five hundred milliseconds that is found between intended action, neural response, and conscious awareness is not a paradox if one understands the relationship between nonconscious automaticity and conscious planning. Consciousness is not involved in automatic motor processes (except during the learning leading to automaticity), but instead is related to planning and to the creation of new combination of already automatic routines. (p. 144)

We have to be clear here that nonconsciousness, the term coined to avoid the ambiguity of unconsciousness, is different from Freudian unconsciousness. A larger part of our actions is determined by nonconsciousness rather than Freudian unconsciousness.

Nonconscious. Refers to brain activities unable to become conscious, in contradistinction to the Freudian uncouscious. (p. 169)
Freudian unconscious. A domain of which a subject is not conscious but that is capable of being made conscious by psychoanalytic techniques. (p. 159)

Consciousness is "wider than the sky," but its capacity is not as wide as we wanted to believe.


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Sunday, July 4, 2010


Quotation on wisdom from "The loss of wisdom" by John A. Meacham  found in "The Wise Men (and Women!)" By Jessa Crispin

To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. Wisdom is thus not a belief, a value, a set of facts, a corpus of knowledge or information in some specialized area, or a set of special abilities or skills. Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known.

See also Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall.


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Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Making up the mind" by Chris Frith

Quotation from

This is another excellent book written by an eminent scientist for the general reader. The purpose of the book is clearly stated.

In this book I shall show that this distinction between the mental and the physical is false. It is an illusion created by the brain. Everything we know, whether it is about the physical or the mental world, comes to us through our brain. But our brain's connection with the physical world of objects is no more direct than our brain's connection with the mental world of ideas. By hiding from us all the unconscious inferences that it makes, our brain creates the illusion that we have direct contact with objects in the physical world. And at the same time our brain creates the illusion that our own mental world is isolated and private. Through these two illusions we experience ourselves as agents, acting independently upon the world. But, at the same time, we can share our experiences of the world. Over the millennia this ability to share experience has created human culture that has, in its turn, modified the functioning of the human brain.
By seeing through these illusions created by our brain, we can begin to develop a science that explains how the brain creates the mind. (p. 17)

Take the blind spot in the eye, the saccade in the eye movement or the range of electromagnetic spectrum for the human eye. Or why do we not feel we're moving every time we turn our face, just as we feel we are moving when we see the next train moving through a window of a train that is stopping at a station? It is evident that what we 'see' is something that is constituted by the brain. It is not a 'true' representation of the reality ("thing in itself" by Kant).The "I" believes it directly sees the reality, but it is its brain that makes it believe so. We only see or indeed experience anything just as our brain prepares for us.

Through its ability to learn and predict, my brain ties me to the world with many strong threads. Because of these threads, the world is not a buzzing, confusing mass of sensations; instead, everything around me exerts a push or pull because my brain has learned to attach values to them. And my brain creates more than mere pushes and pulls. It even specifies all the actions I might need to perform to reach some things and avoid others. But I am not aware of these strong connections -- my brain creates the illusion that I am independent being quite separate from this physical world.
Whenever I act in the world, moving my limbs and moving myself from one place to another, I cause massive changes in the signals striking my senses. The pattern of sensations on the retina at the back of my eye really changed. And my brain manages to create for me the experience of a constant, unchanging world through which I move. I can choose to attend to the various parts of my body, and then they too become part of this external world. But most of the time I, the actor, move through the world invisibly, a shadow that one can sometimes catch a glimpse of from the corner of one's eye before it moves on. (pp. 109-110)

Our 'reality' is a model that is produced by the brain. The "I" only sees the end product of the model. Since the world as the "thing in itself" is beyond our cognitive capacity, the model that our brain provides is only an appropriate creation, or fantasy if you may, for us (Poor little earthling!).

Our brains build models of the world and continuously modify these models on the basis of the signals that reach our senses. So, what we actually perceive are our brain's models of the world. They are not the world itself; but, for us, they are as good as. You could say that our perceptions are fantasies that coincide with reality. Furthermore, if not sensory signals are available, then our brain fills in the missing information. (p. 135)

This "fantasy" evolves into a more finely tuned one when its carrier (You) interacts with something (a.k.a. your neighbor) that you assume to be another carrier of the "fantasy" or the mind, to use a less provocative word. In communication, you realize that your model (mind) is slightly (if not incommensurably) different from that of your neighbor. Assuming that your neighbor is another carrier of the mind like you, you compare the two models and try to accommodate yours (or your neighbor's if you dare) so that two models can co-exist better. In the process, you just don't emit your ideas; you edit your ideas so that the different mind can understand them better.

I can know that my communication has been unsuccessful when my prediction about what you will do next is not quite right. But the process does not stop there. If I know that my communication has not been successful, I can then change the way I communicate. I should also have a clue as to how I should change the way I communicate. I compare my idea and my model of your idea and I see that they are different. This is the prediction error. But I can also look at the nature of the error. Where precisely are the differences between my idea and my model of your idea? The nature of the prediction error tells me how to change my communication: which points I should emphasize and which points are not important. I don't just choose my words because of what they mean; I choose my words to suit the person I am talking to. The more I talk to someone, the better an idea I get of what words will suit -- just as I get a better idea of how to perceive the world around me the more I look at it. (p. 171)

When communication is successful, I'm able to understand your model of the world and you're able to understand mine. I share your model and you share mine. I'm not alone, and neither are you.

In a successful communication the point is reached where my model of your meaning matches my own meaning, and I no longer need to show you that there is a problem. And, critically, at the same time, you too have reached that point where there is no discrepancy between your model of my meaning and your own meaning. At this point of mutual agreement communication has been achieved. By building models of the mental world, our brains have solved the problem of how to get inside the minds of others. And it is this ability to make models of the mental world that has created the great gap between humans and all other species. Without the ability to build and share mental models of the world, there would be no such thing as language and culture. (p. 175)

Communicating minds are much better than a solitary mind, for you can share other person's mind which is better at predicting about the physical world. You can not only borrow the better mind, but also adapt your mind to make it like the better mind. If you have many other minds and those minds interact and exchange ideas, chances are that we're better off. (Cf. The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley)

In the very distant past our ancestors too were alone, constructing their models of the physical world, but unable to share them with others. At that time truth had no relevance for these models. It did not matter whether the model was a true reflection of the physical world. All that mattered was that the model worked by predicting what would happen next. But once we can share our models of the physical world, then we discover that other people's models are slightly different from our own.(p. 179) Some people are experts who clearly have better models of some aspects of the world. By putting together the models of many people, we can construct a new model that is better than any model produced by a single individual. And our knowledge of the world is no longer derived from a single lifetime -- knowledge passes from one generation to the next. (p. 181)

But not always with a happy ending. If what we share is a better approximation of the truth as in the culture of science, we're better off. But if it is a collective deception (as in the crazy speculation in the financial market) or an insane delusion (as in the belief in the cult group), we're doomed.

By making models of the minds of others (in the same way that it makes models of the physical world), my brain enables me to enter a shared mental world. By sharing my mental world with others, I can also learn from their experiences and adopt the models of others that are better than my own. From this process, truth and progress can emerge, but so can deception and mass delusions. (p. 183)

Despite these occasional unfortunate endings, it's better to communicate. And in communication, we assume that we're detached and we only have to guess other person's mind. This assumption is correct in that our qualia are inaccessible by others. But we're not unreachably separate because we can borrow and share other person's mind. We have the learning culture that we've developed over the past millenniums. In the culture, we've learned that it's better to treat other persons well, for that's the way we can learn better mutually.

There is an intimate relationship between our experience that we are free agents and our willingness to be altruistic, feeling pleased when we are behaving fairly ourselves and feeling upset by the unfairness of others. For these feelings to arise it is crucial that we experience ourselves and others are free agents. We believe that all of us make deliberate choices. Otherwise our willingness to cooperate would fall apart. This final illusion created by our brain -- that we are detached from the social world and are free agents -- enables us to create together a society and a culture that is so much more than any individual. (p. 193)

That's all for my arbitrary summary. I hope I was not unfair. But for a fairer share, get the book and read yourself.

Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World


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Monday, June 7, 2010

'The society of selves' by Nicholas Humphrey

Quotation from

The society of selves
by Nicholas Humphrey

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (2007) 362, 745-754

Available at:

The thought that your consciousness (or 'the true you', if you like) is inaccessible by anybody else than you may be depressing. You may feel you're so isolated that nobody understands you really.

But what if other people know that they themselves are inaccessible by you or anybody else than themselves? What if we, human beings, mutually know that our consciousness is only private? (In fact, we usually think we do!)

What our consciousness is about is private and not shared, but that our consciousness is private is not private but shared. This shared knowledge (actually assumption, to be exact) grants the sense of awe from your private perspective in every single human being, a carrier of consciousness.

Private use of your consciousness is one thing; your consciousness is (in many cases) only known to yourself; you can lie or cheat to defeat others.

Public use of the private nature of consciousness is another. It may give rise to a society in which every member is treated with greater dignity than the one a member receives in a society with no shared assumption of consciousness.

Human being is "we-being with separate Is."

If you didn't assume that other person's consciousness is private, you'd probably behave like an omniscient being. You'd be a dictator or a final judge, interfere with other persons too much and make yourself unhappy as a result.

If, on the other hand, you believed that while other people's consciousness is inaccessible, yours alone is accessible, you'd behave as if people around you are all predators. You'd be so scared as to attack others in your 'self-defense.'

The sense of "we-being with separate Is" makes our society as sane and reasonable as it is now.

Here's what Humphrey says:

If I myself have this astonishing phenomenon, known only to me, at the centre of my existence, and if (it is, of course, a big if ) I can assume that you do too, then what does this say about the kind of people that we are? It is not just me. Each of us is a creative hub of consciousness, each has a soul, no one has more than one. All men have been endowed by the creator with an inalienable and inviolable mind-space of their own.

We are a society of selves. The idea that everyone is equally special in this way is extraordinarily potent -- psychologically, ethically and politically. And I dare say it would be and is highly adaptive. I believe it is likely to have arisen within the human community as a direct response to reflecting on the remarkable properties of the conscious mind. And from the beginning, it will have transformed human relationships, encouraging new levels of mutual respect, and greatly increasing the value each person puts on their own and others’ lives. (p. 753)

Human beings need relationships. But the deepest and best relationships are going to be those between people who recognize the existence in others of a conscious self that is as strange and precious --and private--as their own. (p. 754)

'Otherness of other people' may make you feel lonely in relationship, but it makes you respect other people, which I believe in turn makes you happy.

The conviction that our consciousness is categorically inaccessible and only contingently inferable by others forms a basis of our civilication.


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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chapter 5 of Orality and Literacy (How prints affected human consciousness)

Quotation from

By Walter J. Ong
Routledge: London, 2002 (first published in 1982).
also available in Questia


Alphabet letterpress printing

Print culture substantially started with the invention of alphabetic letter press print in fifteenth-century Europe, although other types of printing with carved surfaces of wood blocks were in use since the seventh or eighth century China, Korea and Japan. (p. 116)

Print culture reified the word

Ong argues that "it was print, not writing, that effectively reified the word" (p. 117) because "in the West through the Renaissance, the oration was the most taught of all verbal productions and remained implicitly the basic paradigm for all discourse, written as well as oral. Written material was subsidiary to hearing in ways which strike us today as bizarre. " (p. 117)

Prints and science

Prints made the repetition of exactly worded descriptions possible, which accompanies exact observation. Exact description and observation is apparently the basis of science. (p. 125)

Print eventually removed the ancient art of (orally based) rhetoric from the center of academic education. It encouraged and made possible on a large scale the quantification of knowledge, both through the use of mathematical analysis and through the use of diagrams and charts. (p. 127)

Prints and literature

Production of many copies of exact verbalization, made possible by prints, affected literature as well. Detailed attention to natural phenomena was not in pre-Romantic prose. (p. 125)

The 'correctness' of language

With exact copies of the same verbal expressions in print amply available, the idea of 'correct' language began to emerge. With the tradition of Learned Latin, the paradigmatic form of language was now the printed text, not the written text, let alone the oral discourse. (p. 128) Moreover, the printed text is considered as 'final' and this sense of finality probably enhanced the sense of the 'correctness.' (p. 130)

A new sense of the private ownership of words

Ong argues that resentment at plagiarism developed with writing. Print added another step.

[P]rint encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space. (p. 129)

The romantic notion of 'originality' and 'creativity' started with the printing culture.

Manuscript culture had taken intertextuality for granted. Still tied to the commonplace tradition of the old oral world, it deliberately created texts out of other texts, borrowing, adapting, sharing the common, originally oral, formulas and themes, even though it worked them up into fresh literary forms impossible without writing. Print culture of itself has a different mindset. It tends to feel a work as ‘closed’, set off from other works, a unit in itself. Print culture gave birth to the romantic notions of ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’, which set apart an individual work from other works even more, seeing its origins and meaning as independent of outside influence, at least ideally. (p. 131)

'Reading public'

Print promoted a text detached from specific readers or contexts. The writer now seems to describing from nowhere, as it were, and likewise the writer imagines the 'reading public,' a new imaginary invention.

The fixed point of view and fixed tone showed in one way a greater distance between writer and reader and in another way a greater tacit understanding. The writer could go his or her own way confidently (greater distance, lack of concern). (...) The writer could be confident that the reader would adjust (greater understanding). At this point, the ‘reading public’ came into existence?a sizable clientele of readers unknown personally to the author but able to deal with certain more or less established points of view. (pp. 132-133)

Electronic technology and 'secondary orality'

The electronic technology of the 20th century brought back the oral culture, but with the print culture long established, the orality was no longer the same as the primary orality.

This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas (Ong 1971, pp. 284-303; 1977, pp. 16-49, 305-41). But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well. (pp. 133-134)

Secondary orality is not only more deliberate and self-conscious, but also much larger in scale.

Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture --McLuhan’s ‘global village’. (p. 134)

But the sense of a 'global village' is probably only beginning to be shared by us all with the rise of the Internet culture. The analysis must continue.


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'Final Theory' and Isaac Newton

Quotation from
'What Price Glory?'
The New York Review of Books, JUNE 10, 2010

I find it ironic that Weinberg, after declaring so vehemently his hostility to religious beliefs, emerges in his writing about science as a man of faith. He believes passionately in the possibility of a Final Theory. He wrote a book with the title Dreams of a Final Theory, and the notion of a Final Theory permeates his thinking in this book too. A Final Theory means a set of mathematical rules that describe with complete generality and complete precision the way the physical universe behaves. Complete generality means that the rules are obeyed everywhere and at all times. Complete precision means that any discrepancies between the rules and the results of experimental measurements will be due to the limited accuracy of the measurements. (p. 12)


Isaac Newton, the scientist who took the biggest single step toward the understanding of nature, saw clearly how far he was from any Final Theory. “I do not know what I may appear to the World,” he wrote toward the end of his long life,

but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Newton wrote more modestly than Weinberg of the ability of the human mind to penetrate the mysteries of Nature. Newton was a devout Christian, as dedicated to theology as he was to science. Newton was no fool.(p. 12)


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