2/24/04: Re-building the Tower of Babel in Ruins:

by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as represented @ Amersterdam-Holland-Travel.com

With The Tower of Generate-and-Test

(where, according to Dennett, pp. 374ff, there are five different floors, occupied in turn by
Darwinian creatures (blind generation of best surviving designs)
Skinnerian creatures (blind trial-and-error learning/ conditionable plasticity: simple invertebrates)
Popperian creatures (pre-selection among possible behaviors: mamamals birds, reptiles, fish)
Gregorian creatures (inner environments informed by designed portions of outer environment: us)
Scientific creatures (who engage in deliberate, foresight-ful generate-and-tests)

"Science is ... a matter of making mistakes in public ...
for all to see, in the hopes of getting the others to help with the corrections."
(Dennett, p. 380).

So, last week we had arrived @ (at least!) the fifth floor, with lots of questions about Altruism from
Aia (who actually talked about its "opposite," imperialism), and
Daniela (who asked, more generally, whether) "emotions sometimes do undermine...strength and determination... exert pernicious influence on the ability to survive...."

In the time since, we've had a couple more comments about altruism from
Heather : "'the oppressors'... want to be charitable only to the extent that they can still be in the position to be charitable," and
Ro: "Is altruism ...physiological, eg. the level of testosterone..tips a person's instinct towards aggression or altruism..?"

There were also related comments about
--memes, from Diane: "I keep getting bogged down by [Dennett's] use of metaphors.... I need the stripped down, concise version of the meme."

--intention, from Orah, who compared "stories in which things started with consiousness, an intention, a wish, and stories that started with an impulse, without consiousness..."

--time, from Em, who said, "if we are in the moment, then we cannot know anything except that moment. however, if we are looking at context, then we can never truly be in the moment," and
Julia: "telling a story in the present... is it possible?... I didn't feel like that was really a story or at least not a good one....we only have an imprinting in our mind of our body's state (emotional, physical, etc...) at the time of the memorable moment...."

--the bipartite brain, from Orah: "damn! scientists beleive that there are two sections of the brain? one that makes us do what we do and another that tells stories about ourselves to explain what we do?" and
Nancy (well, TRIpartite...): "So freud basically thinks of thoughts as being organized into separate parts....We have memories that we can easily access (the conscious), those that we cannot access, except by psychoanalysis of dreams etc (the unconscious), and then something called the preconscious, which we can't readily access, but we can get to it when something jogs our memory. "

--and (this week's "winner"=most -returned-to query): what is the relation between language and thought?

Sarah: "Are thought and language inextricably linked? My initial response is that, yes, they are. This response comes from my inability to conceive of my own thinking indepedent of linguistic ties. "

Ro: "I found an abstract of a book called 'Thinking Without Words'.... Which led me to thinking about games of strategy...where I don't think I think in words before making move....

Mary: "Ro gives her examples of thinking without words ....Makes me think of that 'in the zone feeling' when I am focused deeply with the experience of the current state....I've been there in the zone of thought and no language..."

Julia: "this idea of having thoughts without having words. Possible?... makes me think that so much of our knowledge must be somewhat limited in a way because of our need to translate everything to words."

Elizabeth D: "Language is definitely a boost to thought, at least to some point. At another, later point, it is a constraint on thought.... ideas are huge, multidimensional continuums. And our minds, used to thinking with the relatively clear, modular parts of language, have a hell of a time trying to handle all those ideas without words."

Elizabeth C: "I'm thinking about Howard Gardner's ideas about multiple intellegences in conjunction with Ro's thoughts (then followed up by Mary and others) about whether or not language is needed in order to make certain decisions....I feel that all decisions have to be made based on units of meaning. But the units that I used were more spacially based...Going back to Gardner I wonder if people have different units of meaning which they use more frequently... does someone with more physical/kinesthetic intellingence 'think' in units of touch... does someone with intrapersonal intelligence think with deep, intuitive feelings... it's important to know that there is so much more than language...."

Lindsay: "I agree that thoughts are inextricably linked to language. What I don't know is whether this is the nature of the way we think or how we are taught to think... Maybe we are taught to separate these two ways of 'understanding' in our speech."

Katherine P: "does language and thought have to go hand in hand, or can we have one without the other? ...aren't my thoughts just responses to the environment around me- to the sights and smells, etc? ...does thought need language? Do our mental processes always need articulation? How many of you (us) think in pictures instead of words? ...But, if I am preparing someone else for a race, I need laugauge ....Being such socially dependent animals we need language, but that doesn't mean that though needs language. Language, however, is used to communicate an idea, so yeah, wouldn't that NEED a prior thought?"

Perrin: In a psych class, I learned that children use subordinate clauses with 'because,' 'although,' and the like long before they are able to comprehend the meaning that is associated with this syntax. Would this serve as an indication to mean that grammar comes before thought? ...do we need to reason in words? For example, chimpanzees and other such animals don't (I think) have a structurally formal language like ours, but they are able to solve problems that occur in nature, which demonstrates their ability to do simple reasoning. So have chimps and other animals been able to think without words? In a way, could that make them "higher" organisms because they don't need to rely on extraneous/verbal thought?

Aia: All this talk about language and words has evoked memories of my readings of The Alchemist.... Coelho states that the language of the universe can not be captured in pictures or words. (Earlier postings talk of this phenomenon...not finding the words to describe a situation, feeling that language is actually a limiting process).... I think language as we know it has an intimate relationship with our thoughts, but only because we have made it so. When a baby cries, before s/he is able to articulate its feelings, we know it is because s/he is scared, upset, hungry, etc... Aren't these emotions also in an intimate relationship with the thought process? Regardless of the absence of language?

The Tower of Babel Story (from Genesis 11:1-9)

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

So, how are we going to/CAN we re-build the tower? "climb the tower"?
from "random generation" to altruistic behavior and "thoughtful" thought, from

Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea (p. 20):

Darwinian theory...is embroiled in remarkably hot-tempered controversy, and one of the reasons for this incandescence is that these debates about scientific matters are usually distorted by fears that the "wrong" answer would have intolerable moral implications....

to John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, (qted, by Dennett, p. 403):

No account of the universe in terms merely of redistribution of matter in motion is complete....for it ignores...cumulative ends-to effect the world of values we know. I only insist that the whole story be told, that the character of the mechanism...is such as to produce and sustain good in a multiplicity of forms.


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