on humanism and environmental crisis

Archive for April, 2022

Origins of materialism (reading A.Hinton’s Understanding context)

Reading Andrew Hinton’s Understanding Context. ( version 7.11.21)

  1. Introduction: animals’ language, human language, and computer language: three languages, same principles. 
  2. Part I: A case against relativism and homo translensis. 
  3. Part II: The origin of things
  4. Conclusions: three languages linked to three events.


  Eve is a very, very smart 5 year old. She sits in front of the basket of apples, the knife in her hand. Her sister, Fiona, barely 18 months old, walking, talking, and asking questions, noticed that one apple fell from the basket. “What’s that?” she asks and points to the apple.

 Miraculously, Eve answers: “apple!”.

I will try to explain why this answer was really a miracle. 

 Now we have to add that they sit in front of a cave, the knife is made of stone, and it is all happened 50 thousand years ago. It means that in Eve’s brain there are many, many neural networks, useful for homo sapiens, that include different fruits. These algorithms help Eve “ find apples”, “tell apples from pears”, “chop apples for sauce”, “eating an apple” and so on. But in her brain- and this is a part of this essay’s hypothesis-there is no “apple” as an object. But, somehow, miraculously, breaking the algorithm, separating a piece of her reality, her environment, from its function, she answers “apple”! 

    This essay is about the nature of our surroundings. It might also, while discussing surroundings, give us some glimpses at our nature. 

    The surroundings of an animal are, from the point of view of this animal (sic!), determined by the activity and sophistication of its nervous system. From our, human, point of view, we can only muse: “What is it like to be a bat” and agree that we’ll never be sure. 

It doesn’t stop science from working on the nature of experience. Ecology, ethology, and semiotics are all about it. And philosophy- like phenomenology and natural philosophy.

    The animal’s senses and its brain create the animal’s world which Jacob von Uexkull called Umwelt. Again, depending on the point of view, the same thing, we can call a “habitat”, “niche”, “environment” or just “what’s outside”.

Depending on the point of view… or “context” ( we are going to abuse this term mercilessly). When scientists are talking about an animal’s surroundings some more shifts occur( I mean shifts in the conversation’s perspectives we usually do not notice because it is so ”normal” for us). In biology, like in modern physics, the results of investigations change with the actions of the observer, his or her attitude, purpose, method, and prevailing scientific paradigm. Think about the interpretation of prehistoric fossils or ancient artifacts. And using the term “context” emphasizes the fluidity of the thing or even its arbitrariness.

I have been working on people’s personal worldviews for the last 10 years. What is the worldview if not a point of view ( or context) from which we see the world? And what is understanding context if not transforming the implicit, unconscious, gut felt, and acted worldview into an explicit, spelled out, clarified set of rules and structures that help us navigate our life? 

When a postmodernist like Derrida or Foucault talks about their beloved context it becomes something very abstract, like a cloud of meanings surrounding a concept or a story.

“This does not suppose that the mark is valid outside its context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center of absolute anchoring. This citationality, duplication, or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is not an accident or anomaly, but is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could no longer even have a so-called “normal” functioning”. (Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy)

Yes, the philosophers and scientists tried to handle the question of context/surroundings (see above), but it was not until computer people explained this to us that we got some traction.  Computers help us to solve the problems of the real physical world. We need them for health, economy, research, communication, basically for everything we do. 

The computer people squeeze all our problems into the screen.  Then, they have to translate or shift the domain of the physical world into language and symbols, then translate these semantic elements into a digital world. Then, after they crunched the numbers they proceed to reverse the process back to the screen jargon, and voila, they are done. 

When computer guys (like Hinton) talk about context, this cloud of meaning, even if stuck inside a computer screen, becomes much more physical, more like a place or a map. This concreteness, physicality even if strange in the virtual world, feels natural for them. They are living there, working there, creating and designing the content and the contexts itself around it. They interchangeably use the terms for context like “environment” and for working with it – “architecture”. It is why Hinton uses Gibsonian ecology as the model for understanding context in this novel, rich and useful way. Following his lead in this essay, we will blend discussion on the computer environment with the physical human environment and cultural-semantic environment.

Part One: A case against relativism – introducing homo translensis and “domain hopping”.

 This introduction might suggest that the nature of our surroundings- which is nothing else than our reality, our solid, real Universe is not so solid. This talk about shifting domains, of the point of view, of the role of the observer in modifying reality; it all smells like relativism. And, how properly for our times when relativity rules. Gone are our basics, our standards, and our rocks.  God is dead (Nietsche ), the President lies (everybody knows)  the corporations cheat (they mean to do it) and the media is full of fake news.  But humans know better. Relativism doesn’t help, doesn’t solve any conflict, it is the queen of the stalemate.

The trick of relativism failed us with religious wars, with religion versus science dilemma, even with biology vs humanities squabble. Where did Cartesian duality take philosophy? Well, pretty close to its demise.

 The insight for the better way comes to me from Andrew Hinton’s Understanding Context. Hinton starts with a story- him, a computer geek, catching a plane. He leads the reader through a number of overlying contexts: his iPhone, with his calendar and schedule, his office computer, a colleague’s laptop, the airport’s computers-security, and the cashier’s – the main object of interest hops from screen to screen- his flight. He switches domains and environments- digital, physical, and linguistic – he walks (or runs) through the airport, the shuttle, and (at last) the plane. He has to understand and hop through all these meanings -symbols, icons, messages from outside and inside. Unlike Derrida’s contexts- his are very, very real.  I realized while reading his book that coping, conquering, and understanding different contexts and environments sits deep in human nature. Switching domains- actually holding them simultaneously in the mind for a moment- this what understanding is- it is like translating from language to language and comprehending- using them both. I also realized that these processes- these “domain hopping”- are everywhere.

Cartoon # 1

As a senior pediatrician, I talk to every new employee, a doctor, a nurse, or a front desk person. I always draw for them and explain these symbols: “The circle. This means empathy- we are one-we are equal- we embrace them with real or symbolic arms. The second is a square: we translate their square problems into something we can help him with, the third is “plugin” or action- or complete- do what you need to do and document it so you can have a clear mind ready for the next one”. 

Both, understanding and following these instructions – require constant shifting contexts or domains. The other examples are meditation and prayer- you shift between the transcendent and your mind.

So, the truth is there, real and important. It is not the truth that is relative, it is the context, the view, the way of looking, that shifts. I mentioned “domain hopping” and I will return to it, but I think it is how our curiosity and obsession with figuring things out, works. We are ” homo translensis”- we know one thing, then we stick the same thing in different domains or media, or modes. It is like translating from one language to another: for a precious moment, we have to hold both things or thoughts or truths in our minds. This is understanding and it is everywhere.

Our computerized world just made it so obvious.  

So, was it always like that?

Part II.  A hypothesis. “The origin of things”.

     No, it was not. In his recent book, Peter Godfrey-Smith explains how the mind works for very simple and very ancient animals- mollusks, cephalopods, or fish. Their simple brains connect perception with action and maybe “presence” in one experience of living. From “if”- perception, to “then”- action, like a procedure code in your desktop. 

It is extremely hard to imagine a world without things. In my hypothesis – this was the world until about 50,000 years ago. The forests were full of birds, monkeys, and hominids – full of life, intelligence, and communications, but none of these creatures had discrete objects in their worlds.

What was going on 50.000 years ago? 

This we know:

Like dinosaurs 260 million years ago, about the last 10 million years witnessed a phenomenal expansion of great apes. 

 These monkeys invented complexity unheard of before. They were, as great E.O Wilson tells us,  hypersocial or eusocial, rivaling only a few other genera like ants, bees, termites, etc. But unlike others they had huge brains, hands to manipulate objects, and communications based on vision and sound. Many bands and tribes evolved and were selected for cooperation, and altruism. They were spreading to more and more diverse habitats. They invented axes, spears, and fire. They developed cultures with burials, art, stories, and gods. And they were avid learners. We know of 27 major branches of hominids.

They all died out, except for one small group or tribe- 10,000 individuals or less- us.

 This part is pretty much accepted and non-controversial. 

But from now on- hold on to your seat.

Their communication or proto-language was based on procedure code. Just like very primitive animals’ communication.

The animal brain as we understand it contains only algorithms coding for evolutionary beneficial behaviors (traits), probably nothing more. Anything else would be energetically prohibited- impossible. And the more complex these neural networks are, the more “costly” they are and benefits have to be more striking for the new trait to survive and expand. It is the pressure to develop the brain versus the pressure to evolve muscles or fur. Example: the process of domestication of wolves to dogs-  dogs can “ handle” and “understand” humans better than wolves but they “pay” with weaker muscles and smaller teeth.

Over the eons of evolution, big brains become very costly- and still are.

The communication algorithms allow for social and cultural complexity-equivalent of our knowledge-were becoming more and more elaborate- say like bee dance or skill to become alpha male, or telling a story and false story and magic story. It is difficult to imagine that, but half of the algorithm, like in procedure code, has no sense. The algorithms have branches, maybe thousands of them but no modularity. So the learning slowed down, the evolutionary pressure and competition between muscle and intelligence became more fierce. !00 thousand years ago it might appear that robust, stronger hominids ( h. Neanderthalensis )prevail over “gracile” (sapiens). Over the last 6 million years the increase in complexity slowed down. Stone axes were still stone axes after millions of years!

Note: Everybody agrees with these simple biological facts… when we talk about bacteria, spiders, even fish. When we start to talk about more complex animals, magically they become more like us, especially pets or animals one spent all one’s life investigating ( chimpanzees, octopuses). Their behavior might look like ours, but their minds and learning work more like neural nets of modern AI than ours hybrid brains.

So, it is like the story of “primordial soup” to explain the creation of life with the abundance of all rare elements, warmth, sun, lightning storm, oxygen, and nucleotides swimming around and hoping for a stroke of luck…

Similarly, our ancestors, with super socially intelligent people, migrating under the pressure of stronger hominids had great language, and great parenting, and Eve and Fiona had a moment of genius.  Eve was in the “magic years” period, Fiona in the “joint attention” pointing phase, and humanity was in the “dream world” phase.

Thus, Eve, miraculously, shares the piece of the procedure code her sister pointed to. Preposterous! The pieces of codes have no meaning- well, they did not until now- from now on her and her sister share the concept and a piece of a new reality- an apple. This single event has to be combined with creating or just naming each other’s self (thanks for the close-knit family, talking constantly)- otherwise, it would have to be invented over and over-and this is impossible! The apple was Fiona’s and Eve’s first shared, independent from the procedure code, thing. I imagine that the next step was to share this with Mom and Dad.

     Animals do not do that, there are no objects in the Umwelten.*  With the object, like an apple, there is a cascade of benefits, there is no looking back. The things do not exist unless and until named. The name/thing duo can be easily shared with others, it has attributes, it has quantity. This brings abstract concepts floating around our apple. Most importantly with a thing, you can want it, own itand share it. Actually, the meaning of “apple” contains its origins. It is as if  Eve said, “I  call it apple”- pointing to the metaphoric and cultural nature of this thing. I imagine that for many, many generations the new world of things coexisted with an old world of procedure codes, of perception-action arc, where if is a primitive agent that does the action- then. Animals have in their brains plenty of procedure codes for actions, truly beneficial actions, but completely anonymous- benefiting the species which is- a concept- a nobody. The huge advantage of the you-me-object -attribute system was the gate for fast technological and social progress. And, to prove it, we survived.**

 Like in this essay: it is what we humans do: “hopping domains”. The existence of named objects enables shifting perspectives, it is like advancing from a two-dimensional world to three-dimensional space, when you get it, you’ll use it all the time.

Another Note: It is difficult to imagine life without things. It is, I guess, like all you know would be the type of knowing how to ride a bike, how to play piano, how to make out with other humans?

Part 3. Conclusions.

Look at these three parallel events. In each, the world of the procedure code breaks and develops into a different reality or domain or metaphor.

1.Rare or just a single event:

Ca 50,000 years ago, a small band of homo sapiens acquired modularity of language, the concept of objects which expanded to a shared reality.   All other brands and branches of hominids that did not get this died out.

 2. Very common:

 It happens to every baby 6  to 12 months old since event #1. Babies develop “object permanence”.  She now knows that the toy that is hidden will not disappear forever, it is still there!

Pre-linguistic communication shifts to language and shared reality. Now we can see that the term “acquiring object permanence” is an oxymoron- in our shared reality objects are permanent by definition, until then, in the infant’s world, there were no objects separated from functions.

3. Recently very common,

Computer programmers and object-oriented user experience people perform similar tricks. The anonymous, pre-linguistic concepts, tasks, and problems defined in the form of the procedure code are transformed and transferred into shared by users pseudo-reality or (nicer) computer reality.

   All three events describe the now-famous “domain hop”: from procedure language, shared object-oriented, user’s reality emerges. ( thank you, Fiona and Eve). The original event was so rare that it looks like a miracle. Then every human baby learned to repeat that. And recently humanity learned how to perform it, with computers, “on-demand”. 

Content creates context. The object creates an agent – self. Understanding, translating, domain shifting, domain hopping is at the core of our human nature. It is how we survived.                                    

                                                  * * *

                                              * * *

*  Wait, and how about Japanese monkeys who learned how to wash potatoes? It was not an object, it was socially sharing the behavior, an algorithm.  But without the object independent from function there is no breakthrough, another skill, that’s it. 

** This broad description of the hypothetical event skips linguistic jargon of “qualia” and “memes”, and skips evolutionary mechanism’s details of spreading of beneficial traits.

Tom Voychehovski