Category Archives: language

Winter 2020 discussion prompts

  • What is humanity’s situation with respect to surviving long-term with a good quality of life? (Frame the core opportunities and obstacles.)
  • What attributes of our evolved, experientially programmed brains contribute to this situation? (What are the potential leverage points for positive change within our body-brain-mind system?)
  • What courses of research and action (including currently available systems, tools, and practices and current and possible lines of R&D) have the potential to improve our (and the planetary life system’s) near- and long-term prospects?

Following is a list of (only some!) of the resources some of us have consumed and discussed online, in emails, or face-to-face in 2019. Sample a few to jog your thoughts and provoke deeper dives. Please add your own additional references in the comments below this post. For each, give a short (one line is fine) description, if possible.

Divided brain, divided world

I was reminded of the video below, and this longer examination of the ideas therein. Here’s the blurb from the latter:

“Divided Brain, Divided World explores the significance of the scientific fact that the two hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’. It argues that our failure to learn lessons from the crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in mental health conditions may stem from a loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain. 

“Divided Brain, Divided World examines how related issues are illuminated by the ideas developed in author and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. It features a dialogue between McGilchrist and Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, Dr Jonathan Rowson, which informed a workshop with policymakers, journalists and academics.

“This workshop led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique, clarification and illustrations of relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.”

40 year update on memes

From this piece:

“There is not one, but at least four, hereditary systems recognized by biologists today. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb lay this out clearly in their 2006 book, Evolution in Four Dimensions, as they walk through the research literature on genetics, epigenetics, behavioral repertoires, and symbolic culture as four distinct pathways where traits are ‘heritable’ in appropriately defined fashion.”

“Specifically, I am thinking of three areas where significant progress has been made during the last forty years: the birth of complexity science in the early 1980’s, developments in the study of human conceptualization and cognitive linguistics since the mid-70’s, and the explosion of digital media in the age of personal computers and later via the internet.”

“Applied to meme theory, this body of tools and techniques [cognitive linguistics] demonstrates that researchers across many fields have found value in the perspective that culture can be studied as information patterns that arise in a variety of social settings routinely and with modular elements that are readily discernible in each new instance. The claim that information patterns do not replicate is contradicted by the evidence for image-schematic structures.”

The Map and the Territory

Recent book by Wuppulari and Doria. F___ing Amen man. This would be a good one for discussion. From the Intro by Penrose:

“Is there a global map that can simulate every other map under some constraint? […] If two maps cannot be integrated, is this a limitation of our scientific cartography or is it the nature of the underlying territory itself that prevents us from such an attempt? […] It is safer to let the gaps remain as gaps while we let our maps remain as maps, rather than giving in to the seemingly seductive approach of trading in our understanding and intermingling maps with territory to fill in the conceptual gaps—however, much this may comfort us and appeal to our tastes!”

From the blurb at

This volume presents essays by pioneering thinkers including Tyler Burge, Gregory Chaitin, Daniel Dennett, Barry Mazur, Nicholas Humphrey, John Searle and Ian Stewart. Together they illuminate the Map/Territory Distinction that underlies at the foundation of the scientific method, thought and the very reality itself.

It is imperative to distinguish Map from the Territory while analyzing any subject but we often mistake map for the territory. Meaning for the Reference. Computational tool for what it computes. Representations are handy and tempting that we often end up committing the category error of over-marrying the representation with what is represented, so much so that the distinction between the former and the latter is lost. This error that has its roots in the pedagogy often generates a plethora of paradoxes/confusions which hinder the proper understanding of the subject. What are wave functions? Fields? Forces? Numbers? Sets? Classes? Operators? Functions? Alphabets and Sentences? Are they a part of our map (theory/representation)? Or do they actually belong to the territory (Reality)? Researcher, like a cartographer, clothes (or creates?) the reality by stitching multitudes of maps that simultaneously co-exist. A simple apple, for example, can be analyzed from several viewpoints beginning with evolution and biology, all the way down its microscopic quantum mechanical components. Is there a reality (or a real apple) out there apart from these maps? How do these various maps interact/intermingle with each other to produce a coherent reality that we interact with? Or do they not?

Does our brain uses its own internal maps to facilitate “physicist/mathematician” in us to construct the maps about the external territories in turn? If so, what is the nature of these internal maps? Are there meta-maps? Evolution definitely fences our perception and thereby our ability to construct maps, revealing to us only those aspects beneficial for our survival. But the question is, to what extent? Is there a way out of the metaphorical Platonic cave erected around us by the nature? While “Map is not the territory” as Alfred Korzybski remarked, join us in this journey to know more, while we inquire on the nature and the reality of the maps which try to map the reality out there.

The book also includes a foreword by Sir Roger Penrose and an afterword by Dagfinn Follesdal.

Bezos projects capitalism into space

Yes, space exploration is critical but we need to do it for the right reasons. And Bezos and other futurists want it without awareness or regard for the socio-economic system that has created hell on earth. So dump the earth and take our destruction into space? How about we change our worldview and socio-economic system and do it for the right reasons? And invest most of our time, energy and money into saving this world?

“The saying ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’ is very clear in Bezos’ future imaginings. He is unable to challenge the capitalist system from which he’s derived so much wealth. Thus the only positive future he can imagine involves leaving the only planet habitable to human beings. […] We don’t need space colonies; we need to get rid of billionaires and let the future be decided collectively, instead of letting a few powerful men rule the world.”

Their are alternatives to capitalism consistent with the above. As but one example see “From capitalism to the collaborative commons” in this journal issue.

Book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David J. Epstein investigates the significant advantages of generalized cognitive skills for success in a complex world. We’ve heard and read many praises for narrow expertise in both humans and AIs (Watson, Alpha Go, etc.). In both humans and AIs, however, narrow+deep expertise does not translate to adaptiveness when reality presents novel challenges, as it does constantly. 

As you ingest this highly readable, non-technical book, please add your observations to the comments below. 

The agency of objects

An interesting take on the agency of artifacts in light of the discussion of memes and temes. From Sinha, S. (2015). “Language and other artifacts: Socio-cultural dynamics of niche construction.” Frontiers in Psychology.

“If (as I have argued) symbolic cognitive artifacts have the effect of changing both world and mind, is it enough to think of them as mere ‘tools’ for the realization of human deliberative intention, or are they themselves agents? This question would be effectively precluded by some definitions of agency […] In emphasizing the distinction, and contrasting agents with artifacts, it fails to engage with the complex network of mediation of distinctly human, social agency by artifactual means. It is precisely the importance of this network for both cognitive and social theory that Latour highlights by introducing the concept of ‘interobjectivity.’ […] Symbolic cognitive artifacts are not just repositories, the are also agents of change. […] We can argue that the agency is (at least until now) ultimately dependent on human agency, without which artifactual agency would neither exist nor have effect. But it would be wrong to think of artifactual agency as merely derivative.”

News startups aim to improve public discourse

A Nieman Reports article highlights four startups seeking to improve public discourse. Let’s hope efforts to create methods and technologies along these lines accelerate and succeed in producing positive outcomes.

Can we understand other minds? Novels and stories say: no

by Kanta Dihal

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.

The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.

This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.

Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.

Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.

For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.

Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.

Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.

All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.

Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.

As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Can children learn to read without explicit instruction from adults?

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An experiment in a remote Ethiopian village demonstrates the potential of mobile devices to enable children to learn and teach each other how to read without traditional schooling.

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See also: How Reading Rewires Your Brain for Empathy

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