Note: this is the most difficult of the three postings on Harris’s ideas. The other two are available here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). Much of this is taken from my first book, Maps of Meaning, which has been available since June of 2018 in what I hope is the easier-to-understand audio version.
- Introduction: Reality as Forum for Action as well as Place of Things (taken from Chapter 1 of Maps of Meaning):
The world can be validly construed as forum for action, or as place of things.The former manner of interpretation – more primordial, and less clearly understood – finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature, and mythology. The world as forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or – at a higher level of analysis – implication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action.
The latter manner of interpretation – the world as place of things – finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually-validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely-determined things as tools (once the direction such use is to take has been determined, through application of more fundamental narrative processes).
No complete world-picture can be generated, without use of both modes of construal. The fact that one mode is generally set at odds with the other means only that the nature of their respective domains remains insufficiently discriminated. Adherents of the mythological world-view tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from empirical “fact,” even though such statements were generally formulated long before the notion of objective reality emerged. Those who, by contrast, accept the scientific perspective – who assume that it is, or might become, complete – forget that an impassable gulf currently divides what is from what should be.
We need to know four things:
what there is,
what to do about what there is,
that there is a difference between knowing what there is, and knowing what to do about what there is
and what that difference is.
To explore something, to “discover what it is” – that means most importantly to discover its significance for motor output, within a particular social context, and only more particularly, to determine its precise objective sensory or material nature. This is knowledge, in the most basic of senses – and often constitutes sufficient knowledge.
Imagine that a baby girl, toddling around in the course of her initial tentative investigations, reaches up onto a counter-top to touch a fragile and expensive glass sculpture. She observes its color, sees its shine, feels that it is smooth and cold and heavy to the touch. Suddenly her mother interferes, grasps her hand, tells her not to ever touch that object. The child has just learned a number of specifically consequential things about the sculpture – has identified its sensory properties, certainly. More importantly, however, she has determined that approached in the wrong manner, the sculpture is dangerous (at least in the presence of mother); has discovered as well that the sculpture is regarded more highly, in its present unaltered configuration, than the exploratory tendency – at least (once again) by mother. The baby girl has simultaneously encountered an object, from the empirical perspective, and its socioculturally-determined status. The empirical object might be regarded as those sensory properties “intrinsic” to the object. The status of the object, by contrast, consists of its meaning – consists of its implication for behavior. Everything a child encounters has this dual nature, experienced by the child as part of a unified totality. Everything is something, and means something – and the distinction between essence and significance is not necessarily drawn.
The significance of something – specified in actuality as a consequence of exploratory activity undertaken in its vicinity – tends “naturally” to become assimilated to the object itself. The object, after all, is the proximal cause or the stimulus that “gives rise” to action conducted in its presence. For people operating naturally, like the child, what something signifies is more or less inextricably part of the thing, part of its magic. The magic is of course due to apprehension of the specific cultural and intrapsychic significance of the thing, and not to its objectively determinable sensory qualities. Everyone understands the child who says, for example, “I saw a scary man”; the child’s description is immediate and concrete, even though he or she has attributed to the object of perception qualities that are in fact context-dependent and subjective. It is difficult, after all, to realize the subjective nature of fear, and not to feel threat as part of the “real” world.
The automatic attribution of “meaning” to “things” – or the failure to distinguish between them initially – is a characteristic of narrative, of myth, not of scientific thought. Narrative accurately captures the nature of raw experience. Things are scary, people are irritating, events are promising, food is satisfying – at least in terms of our basic experience. The modern mind, which regards itself as having transcending the domain of the magical, is nonetheless still endlessly capable of “irrational” (read motivated) reactions. We fall under the spell of experience whenever we attribute our frustration, aggression, devotion or lust to the person or situation that exists as the proximal “cause” of such agitation. We are not yet “objective,” even in our most clear-headed moments (and thank God for that). We become immediately immersed in a motion picture or a novel, and willingly suspend disbelief. We become impressed or terrified, despite ourselves, in the presence of a sufficiently powerful cultural figurehead (an intellectual idol, a sports superstar, a movie actor, a political leader, the pope, a famous beauty, even our superior at work) – in the presence, that is, of anyone who sufficiently embodies the oft-implicit values and ideals that protect us from disorder and lead us on. Like the medieval individual, we do not even need the person to generate such affect. The icon will suffice. We pay vast sums of money for articles of clothing worn or personal items used or created by the famous and infamous of our time.
The “natural,” pre-experimental, or mythical mind is in fact primarily concerned with meaning – which is essentially implication for action – and not with “objective” nature. The formal object, as conceptualized by modern scientifically-oriented consciousness, might appear to those still possessed by the mythic imagination – if they could “see” it at all – as an irrelevant shell: as all that was left after everything intrinsically intriguing had been stripped away. For the pre-experimentalist, the thing is mostly truly the significance of its sensory properties, as they are experienced in subjective experience – in affect, or emotion. And, in truth – in real life – to know what something is still means to know two things about it: the first is its motivational relevance; the second is the specific nature of its sensory qualities. The two forms of knowing are not identical; furthermore, experience and registration of the former necessarily precedes development of the latter. Something must have emotional impact before it will attract enough attention to be explored and mapped in accordance with its sensory properties. Those sensory properties – of prime import to the experimentalist or empiricist – are meaningful only insofar as they serve as cues for determining specific affective relevance or behavioral significance. We need to know what things are not to know what they are but to keep track of what they mean – to understand what they signify for our behavior.
- Things to Actions; Facts to Values: The Translation
What is a fact? A fact, as the term is used by empiricists and rationalists, is a statement about a consensually validatable (and therefore “objective”) phenomenon. There are, in principle, as many facts as there are phenomena. Worse: there are as many facts as there are combinations of phenomena. For all practical purposes, therefore, the world of facts is an infinite expanse. What should be selected? How is selection possible? What should be attended to, and perceived? What should be acted upon? Upon what aims should action be predicated? What, in a word, should be valued? These problems cannot be solved by the mere presentation of the facts themselves. To put it bluntly: Facts cannot be translated into values in the absence of an intermediary mechanism. For Harris, that mechanism appears to be “reason,” (or, perhaps, truth–and what exactly is the relationship between those two?), but a scientist might object: what exactly is this black box, this ‘reason’? It’s at minimum something that has to be considered at a much higher level of resolution.
Here is a presentation of the problem (taken from Maps of Meaning, Chapter 2.2., which provides a behavioral and neuropsychological explanation of the facts-to-values translation process):
It is particularly difficult to specify the value of an occurrence [a fact] when it has one meaning, from one frame of reference (with regards to one particular goal), and a different or even opposite meaning, from another equally equally or more important and relevant frame. “Stimuli” [facts?] that exist in this manner constitute unsolved problems of adaptation – still present us with a mystery, which is what to do in their presence (whether to pause, consume, stop, or move backwards or forwards, at the most basic of levels; whether to feel anxious, satisfied, hurt, or hopeful). Some things or situations may be evidently satisfying or punishing – at least from the currently extant “framework of reference” – and can therefore be regarded (valued, acted towards) in an uncomplicated manner. Other things and situations, however, remain rife with contradictory or indeterminate meanings. (Many things, for example, are punishing in the “short term” but satisfying or promising in the “medium” to “long term.”) Such circumstances provide evidence that our systems of valuation are not yet sophisticated enough to foster complete adaptation – demonstrate to us incontrovertibly that our processes of evaluation are still incomplete:
“A brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley, approaching a fork in the track. The brain is hooked up to the trolley in such a way that the brain can determine which course the trolley will take. There are only two options: the right side of the fork, or the left side. There is no way to derail or stop the trolley, and the brain is aware of this. On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If Jones lives he will go on to kill five men for the sake of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans’ bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans who will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who made good, utilitarian men do bad things, another would have become John Sununu, a third would have invented the pop-top can.
If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill another railman, Leftie, and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that would have been transplanted into ten patients at the local hospital who will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he, too, will kill five men – in fact, the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, Leftie will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men as he rushes the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of Leftie’s act is that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by Leftie is the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley. If the ten hearts and Leftie are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, but the brain does not know this.
Assume that the brain’s choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains in vats, and thus the effects of its decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, whereas if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a way that the brain is never sure that it is being deceived.
Question: Ethically speaking, what should the brain do?”
We cannot act in two ways at one time – cannot move forwards and backwards, cannot stop and go, simultaneously. When faced with stimuli, whose meaning is indeterminate, we are therefore placed in conflict. Such conflict must be resolved, before adaptive action may take place. We can actually only do one thing, at one time – although we may be motivated by confusing, threatening, dangerous or unpredictable circumstances to attempt many incommensurate things simultaneously.
- Too Many Facts: The Necessity for Reduction
There are not only too many facts, and too many combinations of facts: the facts themselves speak of too many things, as this example is designed to indicate. And we have only scraped the surface here: we have barely outlined the problems with the facts, and have already made things very complex. We still have to address the problems with ‘value’ (and, for that matter, for ‘reason,’ which presents a problem just as large.
What is a value? It is apparently something other than a fact, at least in principle, or (1) there would be no reason for the separate terms (I understand that this is only a suggestive argument, not one that is conclusive) and (2) the issue of the fact/value distinction and relationship would not have emerged as a paramount and somewhat intractable philosophical problem (interweaving itself, for example, into the debate about the nature of and relationship between the domains of science and religion). Here’s a potential definition, which is influenced at least in part by the efforts of behavioral scientists to empirically assess the existence and strength of motivation (an organism will expend effort to obtain something of value): A value is, in part, the process by which facts are selected for perception and, in part, a target for action.
Now, the simple truth of the matter is that it is virtually self-evident that there can be no translation of fact into value without a mechanism to undertake that translation. Something must exist to perceive the fact and to act upon it, or the issue of value never arises. It is biological entities which undertake that translation. Thus, it is to biology that we could and perhaps must look to understand the nature of the mechanism (AI systems arguably constitute an exception, but their functions are analogous by design to those of biological entities). This is something that Harris does not seem to take into account in any serious manner, despite his standing as an evolutionary psychologist and neuroscientist. This is particularly strange, given that his scientific publications emphasize the role that emotion (a clearly embodied and biologically-instantiated set of phenomena), as well as cognition, play in the mechanisms and processes of belief. It is even reasonable to consider a biological organism precisely as that the mechanism by which a fact (or set of facts) is turned into a value (or set of values). If this is not true of biological organisms in general, it is certainly and indisputably true of nervous systems.
Simple organisms, such as the marine sponge (to take a concrete example) are composed of sensorimotor cells that essentially map certain facts of the environment (in the form of patterns) directly on to motor output in an essentially one-to-one relationship, contracting and opening pores for filter food, for example, under some conditions of wave action and not under others. Among more specialized creatures, the sensory and motor functions separate and specialize, such that cells undertaking the former functions detect patterns in the world and cells in the latter produce patterns of motor output. A third type of cell – neural – emerges at even higher levels of complexity and serves as a computational intermediary between them. As nervous systems increase in sophistication, more and more layers of neural intermediation emerge, and the relationship between simple fact and motor output becomes more complex, opaque, unpredictable and sophisticated.
In the simplest organism fact “A” (more accurately stable pattern “A”) is mapped directly on to action “A”. Among more complex organisms, where specialization for sensory function and motor function have been independently established, finer and more diverse patterns can be detected, and more responses generated. Among organisms who have a nervous system as well as specialized sensory and motor functions the same sensory pattern can be mapped onto very different motor outputs (depending, for example, on changes in environmental context or the internal psychophysiological milieu of the animal). It is possible that these mapping functions are deterministic, but they are not so in any simple manner: it is very difficult to constrain even a laboratory animal so thoroughly that it will behave predictably under circumstances that have been made as similar across trials as possible.
To put it a different way: direct (as well as self-evidently deterministic) mapping from fact to value only occurs among simple organisms, with absent or rudimentary nervous systems. Reflexes (which are conserved in many forms even among complex organisms, not least for their speed of implementation) might be regarded as a vestigial remnant of such one-to-one mapping, and reflexes can be mediated in vertebrates with circuitry no more complex than spinal (and such reflexes can be quite complex: involuntary walking itself can be undertaken by human paraplegics suspended upright over a treadmill). If facts could be translated into values with no intermediation, then (a) organisms could be simply deterministic and (b) complex nervous systems—brains, in a word—would not be necessary.
Since complex nervous systems are apparently (1) necessary (or at least indubitably exist); (2) characterized by both inherent structure and function, and (3) do not merely map the world of facts one-to-one onto values then analysis of their structure and function may be required if we are to properly understand the translation of facts into values. Think about it this way (this is taken again from Chapter 2.2. of Maps of Meaning):
We tend to move forward (to feel hope, curiosity, joy), and then to “consume” (to make love, to eat, to drink), in the presence of good things; and to pause (and feel anxious), then withdraw, move backwards (and feel pain, disappointment, frustration, loneliness), when faced by things we do not like. In the most basic of situations – when we know what we are doing; when we are engaged with the familiar – these fundamental tendencies suffice. Our actual situations, however, are almost always more complex. If things or situations were straightforwardly or simply positive or negative, good or bad, we would not have to make judgments regarding them; would not have to think about our behavior, and how and when it should be modified – indeed, would not have to think at all. We are faced, however, with the constant problem of ambivalence in meaning, which is to say that a thing or situation might be bad and good simultaneously (or good in two conflicting manners; or bad, in two conflicting manners). A cheesecake, for example, is good when considered from the perspective of food deprivation or hunger, but bad when considered from the perspective of social desirability and the svelte figure that such desirability demands. The newly toilet-trained little boy who has just wet his bed might well feel simultaneous satisfaction, at the attainment of a biologically vital goal, and apprehension, as to the likely interpersonal socially-constructed consequence of that satisfaction. Nothing comes without a cost, and the cost has to be factored in, when the meaning of something is evaluated. Meaning depends on context; contexts – stories, in a word – constitute goals, desires, wishes. It is unfortunate, from the perspective of conflict-free adaptation, that we have many goals – many stories, many visions of the ideal future – and that the pursuit of one often interferes with our chances (or someone else’s chances) of obtaining another.We solve the problem of contradictory meanings by interpreting the value of things from within the confines of our stories – which are adjustable maps of experience and potential, whose specific contents are influenced by the demands of our physical being. Our central nervous systems are made up of many “hard-wired” or automatized subsystems, responsible for biological regulation – for maintaining homeostasis of temperature, ensuring proper caloric intake, and monitoring levels of plasma carbon dioxide (for example). Each of these subsystems has a job to do. If that job is not done, within a certain variable span of time, the whole game comes to a halt, perhaps permanently. Nothing gets accomplished then. We must therefore perform certain actions – by necessity – if we are to survive. This does not mean, however, that our behaviors are determined – at least not in any simplistic manner. The subsystems that make up our shared structure – responsible, when operative, for our “instincts” (thirst, hunger, joy, lust, anger, etc.) – do not appear to directly grip control of our behavior, do not transform us into driven automatons. Rather, they appear to influence our fantasies, our plans, and alter and modify the content and comparative importance of our goals, our ideal futures (conceived of in comparison to our “unbearable” presents, as they are currently construed).
Each “basic” subsystem has its own particular, singular image of what constitutes the ideal, so to speak – of what constitutes the most valid goal, at any given moment. If someone has not eaten in several days, it is highly likely that his vision of the (immediately) desirable future will include the image of eating. Likewise, if someone been deprived of water, she is likely to make drinking her goal. We share fundamental biological structure, as human beings, so we tend to agree, broadly, about what should be regarded as valuable (at least in a specified context). What this means, essentially, is that we can make probabilistic estimates about those things that a given individual (and a given culture) might regard as desirable, at any moment. Furthermore, we can increase the accuracy of our estimates by programmed deprivation (because such deprivation specifies interpretive context). Nonetheless, we can never be sure, in the complex normal course of events, just what it is that someone will want.
Judgment regarding the significance of things or situations becomes increasingly complicated when the fulfillment of one biologically-predicated goal interferes with the pursuit or fulfillment of another. To what end should we devote our actions, for example, when we are simultaneously lustful and guilty, or cold, thirsty, and frightened? What if the only way to obtain food is to steal it, say, from someone equally hungry, weaker and dependent? How is our behavior guided, when our desires compete – which is to say, when wanting one thing makes us likely to lose another, or several others? There is no reason to presume, after all, that each of our particularly specialized subsystems will agree, at any one time, about what constitutes the most immediately desirable “good.” This lack of easy agreement makes us intrinsically prone to intrapsychic conflict, and associated affective (emotional) dysregulation. We manipulate our environments, and our beliefs, to address this conflict – we change ourselves, or the things around us, to increase our hope and satisfaction, and to decrease our fear and pain.
It is up to the “higher” cortical systems – the phylogenetically newer, more “advanced” executive portions of the brain – to render judgment about the relative value of desired states (and, similarly, to determine the proper order, for the manifestation of means). These advanced systems must take all states of desire into account, optimally, and determine the appropriate path for the expression of that desire. We make decisions about what is to be regarded as valuable, at any given time, but the neurological subsystems that keep us alive, which are singularly responsible for our maintenance, in different aspects, all have a voice in those decisions – a vote. Every part of us, kingdom that we are, depends on the healthy operation of every other part. To ignore one good, therefore, is to risk all. To ignore the demands of one necessary subsystem is merely to ensure that it will speak later with the voice of the unjustly oppressed; to ensure that it will grip our fantasy, unexpectedly, and make of the future something unpredictable. Our “optimal paths” therefore, must be properly inclusive, from the perspective of our internal community – from the perspective of our basic physiology. The valuations and actions of others, additionally, influence our personal states of emotion and motivation, as we pursue our individual goals, inevitably, in a social context. The goal, writ large, towards which our higher systems work must therefore be construction of a state where all our “needs” – and the “needs of others” – are simultaneously met. This higher goal, to which we all theoretically aspire, is a complex (and oft-implicit) fantasy – a vision or map of the promised land. This map, this story – this framework of reference, or context of interpretation – is the (ideal) future, contrasted necessarily with the (unbearable) present, and includes concrete plans, designed to turn the latter into the former. The mutable meanings that make up our lives depend for their nature on the explicit structure of this interpretive context.
- Hierarchy: Necessity, Function, Derivation and Neuropsychological Instantiation
The process of translation from too-many-facts with too-many-meanings appears to occur in a hierarchical fashion (mirroring the existence of the hierarchical structure that gives rise to that process). Reflex exists at the bottom of the hierarchy (assuming that we are starting with organisms with a central nervous system). As more layers of nervous tissue and their attendant calculations are interleaved between pattern, sensory stimulation, and perception/action, the more opaque, complex and emergent the prices of mapping becomes (why juxtapose perception and action? Because perception requires motor output. Your eyes, for example, are always moving, actively inquiring, rather than passively absorbing self-evidence information. Your eyes are selecting and acting to ensure that selection).
The complexity, opaqueness and emergent quality of the fact-to-value mapping is evident even in the case of modern and still-comparatively-primitive AI/machine-learning systems, whose modes of mapping from fact to perception/action remain hidden even from and incomprehensible to the creators of the systems.
As nervous systems increase in complexity, reflexes are superseded by the operation of the basic motivational systems often known (too simplistically) as drives (too simplistically because they are not simply reflexive or deterministic). Superseding motivations, in turn—with no clear line of demarcation—are systems of emotion. Much later, from the phylogenetic perspective, emerge those systems that are cognitive, first taking form, arguably, as imagination, and later—and only among human beings—in the form of communicable language.
How does this hierarchy—a structure that emerged in large part from the bottom up over the vast spans of evolutionary time—attain its organization? Answer: Through the constant jockeying for position—the cooperation and competition—that defines the struggle for survival and reproduction in the environment. This jockeying for position organizes organisms into the omnipresent hierarchies that govern access to resources such as food and shelter, as well as reproductive opportunities. The learning of hierarchical position that must accompany actual hierarchical position means the reflection of the hierarchy in the processes of perception and action that define an individual organism. In a phrase: the internal hierarchy that translates facts into actions mirrors the external hierarchy of social organization. It is crystal clear, for example, that the chimps in a chimpanzee troupe understand their social world and its hierarchical strata at an extremely fine level of detail. Indeed, they understand it as if their survival and reproduction depends upon it, which it in fact does.
The reflexes of a baby organize themselves into basic functional motivational drives, each subsumed by specialized but plastic neutral architecture, in an intensely social context that is defined primarily by the presence of the mother and other immediate family members as well as the existence of other competing internal or psychological reflexes and drives. The developing infant must hone and perfect the operation of his or her various motivational states, in harmony with all the other internal motivational states, as well as in sufficient keeping with the demands, routines and opportunities of the social environment. This honing and perfecting first occurs within the confines of the maternal relationship and in the spontaneous play behaviour manifested by the child in that circumscribed but still social context. When the child has matured to the point where their hierarchy of motivational and emotional functions can be subsumed, even temporarily, within the organizational framework provided by a conscious and communicable abstract goal, then the child is prepared to play with others—and to do so, over time, in an increasingly complex and sophisticated manner.
Such play is dependent (as the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget observed) upon the collective establishment of a shared goal with the play partners. The collective establishment of a shared goal, conjoined with rules governing cooperation and competition in relationship to that goal, constitutes a true social microcosm. All societies might be regarded as variations upon this play/game theme—and in all societies (with important exceptions made for certain specialized games) the basic rules of fair play, predicated upon reciprocity across situation and time, inevitably come to apply. Games must be playable to survive, and there are principles that apply to and undergird what constitutes “playable” (Piaget suspected, for example, that games that are undertaken voluntarily will outcompete games that are imposed and played under the threat of force. The importance of this assumption can hardly be overstated, and there is certainly evidence that exists indicating the emergence of such voluntary game-like arrangements among our non-human kin).
The rules of fair play include the ability to focus and to regulate emotion and motivation while cooperating and competing in pursuit of the goal during the game (that is part and parcel of being able to play at all) as well as the ability and will to establish reciprocally beneficial interactions across time and situation (as indicated previously). That process of fair play—that ability to win and lose gracefully, to maintain the game, to act in a manner that is of mutual benefit and to be an engaging and desirable play partner constitutes (1) an emergent ethic and (2) (more complexly) enactment of the process by which facts are in fact turned into values. The repetition of that process—in repeated practice—instantiates the complex sophisticated structure whose increasingly automatic function is the translation of fact into value.
And life is not a game, but a series of games, each of which has something in common (the fact of the game) and something unique (or there would be no reason for multiple games). Because of the commonality, there is an ethic—or, more properly a meta-ethic—that emerges, from the bottom up, across the set of all games. For example: the best player might be, among other things, he or she who is invited to play the largest number of games. How should you play, to be that player? What structure must take form within you so that such play is possible? And those two questions are inter-related, because the structure that will enable you to play properly (and with increasing and automated or habitual precision) will only emerge in the process of continually practicing the art of playing properly.
Each game is a microcosm of society. Its proper mode of play therefore constitutes a micro-ethic. The proper mode of play—the micro-ethic—involves perception of the relevant facts and undertaking of the actions necessary to play (and, if possible, within the confines of fair play, to win). The meta-ethic is the ethic that emerges across the set of properly played games. It involves perception of the relevant facts and undertaking of the actions to be invited constantly to play as all of the games that make up life unfold and present themselves (although, as stated earlier, that is not all it involves). The meta-ethic is, therefore, the process whereby the structure that generates the set of all necessary values from all possible facts is itself generated.
What is that process and structure? The answer is: we don’t know. Because it has been generated from the bottom up in the complex, opaque manner outlined (as a consequence of continually social shaping and jockeying for position and striving), we do not have direct access to its contents (any more than we have direct access to the function of an AI neural net). What we do have access to, however, are the perceptions and actions generated by the operations of that process and system. It is those perceptions and actions that we observe and evaluate and judge and reward and punish both explicitly and even more importantly implicitly when we watch ourselves and others perceive and act.
We capture those observations in stories. We tell stories about success and failure in adventure and romance. Success moves us forward to what is better, to the promised land; failure dooms us and those who become entangled with us to the abyss. The good moves us upward and ahead, and evil drags us downward, across the universe of stories. What is noble and good in perception and action is a process and a structure, like what is contemptible and evil. The stories reflect the structure and the operation of the structure that give rise to the perceptions and behaviors described in the stories (and those stories are themselves a summary of patterns of behavior across contexts, or they contain no depth: no story is about exactly what anyone did, in all its detail, in an ordinary day). In this manner, stories come to mirror the unconscious and processes and structures that help us translate the intransigent world of facts into the sustainable, functional reciprocal social world of values.
Here is another section from Chapter 2.2. of Maps of Meaning that explains this process in some detail, as well as providing a description of its functional, neuropsychological basis:
Our brains contain two emotional systems, so to speak – one functions when we do not know what to do, and initiates the (exploratory) process that creates secure territory; the other functions when we are in fact secure. The fact of the presence of these two subsystems, but not their “locale,” has been known for a good while; Maier and Schnierla and Schnierla hypothesized more than five decades ago that mechanisms of “withdrawal” and “approach” (characteristic of animals at virtually all levels of the evolutionary scale) provided the foundation for motivation, as such. The nature of these two systems can best be understood by relating emotional state to motor activity, as we have done previously.Each hemisphere, right and left, appears to have what might be described as a family of related functions, portrayed in Figure 11: The Twin Cerebral Hemispheres and their Functions. The right hemisphere, less language-fluent than its generally more dominant twin, appears specialized for the inhibition and extinction of behavior (and, therefore, for the production of negative emotion), for generation and manipulation of complex visual (and auditory) images, for coordination of gross motor actions, and for rapid and global recognition of patterns. The right hemisphere appears to come “on-line” when a particular situation is rife with uncertainty – appears particularly good at governing behavior when what is, and what to do, has not yet been clearly specified. It might be posited, in consequence, that this hemisphere is still under limbic control – since the limbic system is responsible for detecting novelty and initiating exploratory behavior. This archaic control mechanism would then “drive” the processes of imagistic “hypothesis” generation that constitute the processes of abstract exploration – fantasy – we use to give determinate (and oft-bizarre) form to the unknown.
The left hemisphere, by contrast, appears particularly skilled at linguistic processing and communication, at detailed, linear thinking, at fine motor skill, and at the comprehension of wholes in terms of their constituent elements. The left hemisphere – particularly its frontal or motor (sub)unit – also governs approach behavior, in the presence of cues of satisfaction, is integrally involved in the production of positive affect, and appears particularly good at carrying out practiced activities, at applying familiar modes of apprehension. The left seems at its best when what is and what should be done are no longer questions; when tradition governs behavior, and the nature and meaning of things has been fixed. The dual specialization of the left – for what has been practiced, and for what is positive – can be understood, in part, in the following manner: positive affect rules in known territory, by definition: a thing or situation has been explored most optimally (and is therefore most well known) if it has been transformed by behavioral adaptations manifested in its presence into something of determinate use (or satisfaction) or into potential for such (into promise).
The right hemisphere, in contrast to the left, appears to have remained in direct contact with – appears specialized for encounter with – the unknown and its terrors, which are apperceived in the domain of instinct, motivation, and affect, long before they can be classified or comprehended intellectually. The right hemisphere’s capacity for inhibition and extinction of behavior (for inducing caution during exploration, for governing flight, for producing negative affect) ensures that due respect is granted the inexplicable (and therefore dangerous) when it makes its appearance. The right’s aptitude for global pattern recognition (which appears as a consequence of its basic neurophysiological structure) helps ensure that a provisional notion (a fantastic representation) of the unknown event (what it is like, how action should be conducted in its presence, what other things or situations it brings to mind) might be rapidly formulated. The right hemisphere appears integrally involved in the initial stages of analysis of the unexpected or novel – and its a priori hypothesis is always this: this (unknown) place, this unfamiliar space, this unexplored territory is dangerous, and therefore partakes in the properties of all other known dangerous places and territories, and all those that remain unknown, as well. This form of information-processing – “a” is “b” – is metaphor; generation of metaphor (key to the construction of narratives – dreams, dramas, stories and myth) might well be regarded as the first stage of hypothesis construction. As situation-specific adaptive behaviors are generated, as a consequence of exploration, this provisional labelling or hypothesis (or fantasy) might well undergo modification (assuming nothing actually punishing or determinately threatening occurs); such modification constitutes further and more detailed learning. Anxiety recedes, in the absence of punishment or further threat (including novelty); hope occupies the affective forefront, accompanied by the desire to move forward, and to explore (under the governance of the left hemisphere).
The right hemisphere appears capable of dealing with less determinate information; can use forms of cognition that are more diffuse, more global, and more encompassing to come to terms initially with what cannot yet be understood, but which undeniably exists. It uses its capacity for massive generalization and comprehension of imagery to place the novel stimulus in an initially meaningful context, which is the a priori manner of appropriate categorization. This context is defined by the motivational significance of the novel thing, which is revealed first by the mere fact of novelty (which makes it both threatening and promising) and then in the course of its detailed exploration – and not by its objective sensory qualities (at least not primarily). The right hemisphere remains concerned with answering the questions: “what is this new thing like?” and this means – “what should be done in the presence of this unexpected occurrence?” not “what is this thing objectively?” “What is the new thing like?” (which is a question about its fundamental nature) means “is it dangerous, or threatening (first and foremost), satisfying or promising?’ [although each of these basic categories of affective value can be subdivided more particularly (can it be eaten? can it eat me? will it serve as mate?)]. Categorization according to valence means that the thing is what it signifies for behavior.
The chaos that constitutes the unknown is rendered predictable – is turned into the “world” – by the generation of adaptive behaviors and modes of representation. It is the process of novelty-driven exploration that, in the individual case, produces such behaviors and strategies of classification. However, we are not only individuals; we exist in a very complex social environment – an environment characterized by the constant exchange of information, regarding the means and ends of “proper” adaptation. The human capacity for the generation of self-regulatory behavior and representation has been expanded immensely – expanded in some ways, beyond our own comprehension – by our capacity for verbal and non-verbal (primarily mimetic) communication. We can mimic – and learn from – everyone who surrounds us, and who we can directly contact. In addition, we can obtain information from everyone who can write – assuming we are literate – or who could write, when they were alive. But there is more – we can also learn from everyone who can act, in the natural course of things, or dramatically, and we can also store the behaviors of individuals we come into contact with (directly, by copying them; or indirectly, through the intermediation of narrative and dramatic art forms). Furthermore, our capacity for copying – for mimesis – means that we are capable of doing things that we do not necessarily “understand” (that is, cannot describe explicitly). It is for that reason, in part, that we need a “psychology.”
Patterns of behavioral and representational adaptation are generated in the course of active exploration and “contact with the unknown.” These patterns do not necessarily remain stable, however, once generated. They are modified and shaped – improved and made efficient – as a consequence of their communicative exchange. Individual “a” produces a new behavior; “b” modifies it, “c” modifies that, “d” radically changes “c’s” modification – and so on, ad infinitum. The same process applies to representations (metaphors, say, or explicit concepts). This means that our exploratory assimilative and accomodative processes actually extend over vast periods of time and space (as anyone who has had a document-mediated “conversation” with a great figure of the past is sure to appreciate). Some of this “extension” – perhaps the most obvious part – is mediated by literacy. An equally complex and subtle element, however, is mediated by mimesis.
Patterns of behavioral adaptation and schemas of classification or representation can be derived from the observation of others (and, for that matter, from the observation of oneself). How we act in the presence of things, in their constantly shifting and generally social context, is what those things mean (or even what they are), before what they mean (or what they are) can be more abstractly (or “objectively”) categorized. What a thing is, therefore, might be determined (in the absence of more useful information) by examination of how action is conducted in its presence – which is to say that if someone runs from something it is safe to presume that the thing is dangerous (the action in fact defines that presumption). The observation of action patterns undertaken by the members of any given social community – including those of the observing subject – therefore necessarily allows for the derivation and classification of provisional value schema. If you watch someone (even yourself) approach something then you can assume that the approached thing is good, at least in some determinate context – even if you don’t know anything else about it. Knowing what to do, after all, is classification, before it is abstracted: classification in terms of motivational relevance, with the sensory aspects of the phenomena serving merely as a cue to recall of that motivational relevance.
It is certainly the case that many of our skills – and our automatized strategies of classification – are “opaque” to explicit consciousness. The fact of our multiple memory systems, and their qualitatively different modes of representation – described later – ensures that such is the case. This opaqueness means, essentially, that we “understand” more than we “know”; it is for this reason that psychologists continue to depend on notions of the “unconscious” to provide explanations for behavior. This unconsciousness – the psychoanalytic god – is our capacity for the implicit storage of information about the nature and valence of things. This information is generated in the course of active exploration, and modified – often unrecognizably – by constant, multigenerational, interpersonal communication. We live in social groups; most of our interactions are social in nature. We spend most of our time around others and, when we are alone, we still wish to understand, predict and control our personal behaviors. Our maps of the “understood part of the world” are therefore in large part maps of patterns of actions – of behaviors established as a consequence of creative exploration, and modified in the course of endless social interactions. We watch ourselves act; from this action, we draw inferences about the nature of the world (including those acts that are part of the world).
We know that the right hemisphere – at least its frontal portion – is specialized for response to punishment and threat. We also know that damage to the right hemisphere impairs our ability to detect patterns and to understand the meaning of stories. Is it too much to suggest that the emotional, imagistic and narrative capabilities of the right hemisphere play a key role in the initial stages in the process of transforming something novel and complex – such as the behaviors of others (or ourselves) and the valence of new things – into something thoroughly understood? When we encounter something new, after all, we generate fantasies (imagistic, verbal) about its potential nature. This means we attempt to determine how the unexpected thing might relate to something we have already mastered – or, at least, to other things that we have not yet mastered. To say “this unsolved problem appears to be like this other problem we haven’t yet solved” is a step on the way to solution. To say, “here is how these (still essentially mysterious) phenomena appear to hang together” is an intuition, of the sort that precedes detailed knowledge – is the capacity to see the forest, though not yet differentiating between the types of trees. Before we truly master something novel (which means, before we can effectively limit its indeterminate significance to something predictable, even irrelevant) we imagine what it might be. Our imaginative representations actually constitute our initial adaptations – constitute part of the structure that we use to inhibit our responses to the a priori significance of the unknown – even as they precede the generation of more detailed and concrete information. There is no reason to presuppose that we have been able to explicitly comprehend this capacity – in part because it actually seems to underly (to serve as a necessary or axiomatic precondition for) our ability to understand, explicitly.
It appears that the pattern-recognition and spatial capacities of the right hemisphere appear to allow it to derive from repeated observations of behavior images of action patterns that the verbal left can arrange, with increasingly logic and detail, into stories. A story is a map of meaning, a “strategy” for emotional regulation and behavioral output – a description of how to act in a circumstance, to ensure that the circumstance retains its positive motivational salience (or at least has its negative qualities reduced to the greatest possible degree). The story appears generated, in its initial stages, by the capacity for imagery and pattern recognition characteristic of the right hemisphere, which is integrally involved in narrative cognition, and in processes that aid or are analogous to such cognition: the ability to decode the nonverbal and melodic aspects of speech, to empathize (or to engage, more generally, in interpersonal relationships), and the capacity to comprehend imagery, metaphor, and analogy. The left-hemisphere “linguistic” systems “finish” the story: adding logic, proper temporal order, internal consistency, verbal representation, and possibility for rapid abstract explicit communication. In this way, our explicit knowledge of value is expanded, through the analysis of our own “dreams.” Interpretations that “work” – that is, that improve our capacity to regulate our own emotions (to turn the current world into the desired world, to say it differently) qualify as valid. It is in this manner that we verify the accuracy of our increasingly abstracted presumptions.
The process of creative exploration – the function of the knower, so to speak, who generates explored territory – has as its apparent purpose increase in the breadth of motoric repertoire (skill) and alteration of representational schema. Each of these two purposes appears served by the construction of a specific form of knowledge, and its subsequent storage in permanent memory. The first form has been described as knowing how. The motor unit, charged with origination of new behavioral strategies when old strategies fail (when they produce undesired results), produces alternate action patterns, experimentally applied, to bring about the desired result. Permanent instantiation of the new behavior, undertaken if the behavior is successful, might