Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

Writing Descartes:
I Am, and I Can Think, Therefore ...

Story Evolution

An exchange triggered by an earlier conversation between Berman and Grobstein ...

In an earlier dialogue, Rachel observed

If I am constantly changing the assembly of matter through my experiences, observations, stuff brain makes up, etc, can I even postulate the concept of having a certain personality which implies predispositions at any given time?...What are the circumstances which lead to change?...What is the line between "imagining" and "LYING"?...Are we all stories (ours and those of others) full of reconceptions? lies? Delusions? If so how do all these interact in assembling of and reassembling of jigsaw puzzle which comprises whatever the heck we conceive ourselves to be at any given point of time?

Paul replied,

Can one "lie", either to onself or to others? How would one know?....Its perfectly possible to have a coherent story of oneself that supports acting differently toward different people...."Lying" is usually understand as deliberately (with some hidden objective) saying things (to others or oneself) that are different from what is "TRUE", ie from "facts" or "factual experiences"....Maybe we could think of "lying" as the telling of a story (to oneself or others) that one knows or suspects is being told that way because of some "feeling"/motivation that one doesn't want to be visible/apparent (to onself or others) in the story. In this case, one can be felt "lied to" without another person in fact "lying". And one can tell a story to oneself that proves over time to require change without "lying" to onself. Most importantly, though, "lying" in the full sense of the term occurs only when one can't come up with a coherent story to tell (to oneself or others) that comfortably encompasses all that one has to work with.

Anne responded in the forum,

This question is directed to Rachel B and Paul G, out of whose dialogue arises the claim that "one can be felt 'lied to' without another person in fact 'lying.'" This statement locates "lying" in a deliberate act of the storyteller, and seems to presume that she is only responsible/accountable for those aspects of herself of which she is aware. Certainly throughout this forum and elsewhere (perhaps most insistently in last fall's conversation about whether Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience could be Bedfellows), there has been quite a bit of testimony to the complexity and difficulty of knowing ourselves, particularly the aspect of ourselves that is unconscious (that is--at least per Hofstadter and Dennett, The Mind's Eye--not directly accessible). No storyteller is ever aware of all her motivations--so being "true to yourself" (or others?) may be as oxymoronic as unobserved information.

In fact, it is in part because of what I learned in the last two months of conversation about information--which, as I understand it now, is not an intrinsic property of anything, but is fundamentally relational--that I want to question (and would love to hear a response to the question of) whether the same thing mightn't well be "true" (okay, a more useful way of thinking about) lying: that it only occurs in relationship. One can lie to oneself, because unable to or refusing to attend to all (relevant) aspects of own's experience; one can lie to others. But the lie occurs not "in fact" in the intention of the storyteller, or in the reception of her decoder; it occurs in the nature and quality of the negotiation/transaction/interaction between them, which is far more relevant here than the matter either of what was "intended" or what was "perceived."

The other passage, Rachel and Paul, which I flagged in your dialogue was the observation that "'lying'..occurs only when one can't come up with a coherent story to tell...that comfortably encompasses all that one has to work with. "Again: out of what I learned in the information group comes a strong resistance to this formulation, and its assumption re: the possibility of "all," of completeness. I was raised to tell the truth, the whole truth (and was punished harshly when I didn't). It has been part of the maturation (encapsulated in my move from the rural south to the urban north) to learn that the injunction not to lie is based on a fairly simple construction of the world, one that acknowledges neither the outer or the inner complexities of life. Given the inability to have "complete knowledge," it's also an impossibility "not to lie," if lying means saying something that doesn't accurately report all that is. We all lie, in that sense, all the time. The question, for me (again, as above), is less whether lies are being intended or perceived, but what happens as a result of the exchange between speaker and listener: what the information is used for.

In reply to our dialogue you mentioned that "The question, for me (again, as above), is less whether lies are being intended or perceived, but what happens as a result of the exchange between speaker and listener: what the information is used for." I was wondering why you place more emphasis on the latter? For me at least, what is intended (and perceived as a result) of a story (a lie in this case) is intimately connected to what the information is used for by both the speaker (especially by the speaker/creator of the story) and the listener. In addition how the nature of the exchange itself is used by the story teller in creation of a new story and the recreation of the one just told is also connected to what was intended and perceived. I want to share an exchange I just had which made me think of the above but not sure is entirely appropriate...before starting grad school at Yale (much contrast to BMC!) I never thought of "appropriate"...point here is that I am comfortable sharing the story but not sure about the reception. Another interesting point (alluded to in your monologue) regarding audience, ones conception of audience, as well as the exchange which occurs as a result and, of course, the "use of information." Think I just need more here about what you are getting at. Also feel that our exchanges/forums would be so much richer if thinkers would use their own stories more often in order to illustrate some of the grander but more elusive stories.

Thanks! It was great thinking with you...my story: just realized that I enjoy this a lot more on a Sat night than the recent bar socializing scene where story tellers are only inclined to tell short, fun, stories with happy endings. Generally these have so much less substance. Not saying this is not "useful" its just personal preference to tone it up with a touch of darkness and you got yourself a much more USEFUL tale?

Your mention of the bar scene, Rachel, made me laugh; at the end of one of our diversity discussions last spring, we came up w/ the idea of hosting a "Relation to the Universe Bar," for which Paul created a great invitation. We thought that our "tavern" had never materialized, but maybe, this summer, in these dialogues, it has?

So, trying to answer (honestly!) your question about "what I was getting at," above, by telling one of my own stories--and taking the risk of inappropriateness in doing so...

As I said earlier, I was raised to tell the whole truth, all the time. The primal scene came the summer when I was 16. My father, who was leaving for work, hollered to see if I was up yet. I lied "yes." He came upstairs, found me in bed, and spanked me. I remember thinking at the time how powerless he was: @ 16, I was not going to be corrected by a spanking. But the larger lesson was that I was expected to be entirely forthcoming about every aspect of my life. The (to-me-very-healthy) counterstory was told recently by a mother-friend of mine, who selected for her family's home the sort of environment she grew up in--a "walkable" suburb--because she thought it important for children to have access to a life not shared entirely with their parents. So: what might be intended and perceived as a lie (my refusal to tell my father every thing, holding on to aspects of my experience that I will not share) was an act of privacy, of preservation of self; my friend's selection of an environment which invites her children to do same has the same end. "What I was getting at" was the notion that it doesn't really matter if we "lie" to one another (with lying here meaning a refusal to tell all); what matters is what we do with the exchange between us: Do we use it to pry into parts of other selves where we have no business being? Do we use it to beat one another up? Do we use it to..?

Now that you've got me going....I take it that you're interested in both neuroscience and psychoanalysis; do you know the work of the child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips? His On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored was one of the important books in my life this past year; right now I'm in the midst of On Flirtation. At one point in his review of Philip Roth's Patrimony he relates the episode where the novelist's dying father 'beshats himself' in his hospital bed and is deeply embarrassed. [Phillips] goes on to observe that 'We are humiliated not by our acts but by our ideals.'" Here's where I get all tangled up about lying, Rachel: I was taught an ideal--whole truth, nothing but it--and, given the complexities of my life, my relationships, the universe (!) as I now understand it, I can't live up to it, feel self-beshat.

Partly because of these dialogues, I've been thinking a lot lately about integrity. I've had much conversation for instance, with both Anneliese Butler and Lucy Kerman about the effect on others of my incessant citation, and have begun to wonder...how much "integrity" my essays have, when they are filled, not just with footnotes but with active links that interrupt the flow of reading, that invite (or seem to "force"?) a reader to follow them...wherever they may go? How accountable am I for the tendrils such links bring with them, how accountable for the interruptions to my own arguments? How much of the "whole truth" (of what got me to whatever claim I'm making in the present) needs to be shared with others? And why do I feel compelled to record that history? Am I still putting to use, in my intellectual work, elements of my childhood upbringing that are not very useful any more?

One of the key principles of Quakerism (which I learned after I left home, but to which I was certatinly susceptible because of my childhood training) is that of a "single standard of truth." We do not, for instance, take oaths in the courtroom to "tell the truth and only the truth, so help me God," on the presumption that we tell the truth in all settings (are in particular willing to "speak truth to power"), and need only "affirm" in the courtroom that we will speak the same way there. So...

Paul's suggestion that it's "perfectly possible to have a coherent story of oneself that supports acting differently toward different people" (hey: acting differently with the same person, at different times)--that is, and still not be "lying"--intrigues me. Puts me in mind, also, of Paul's presentations/our two final conversations in the Information Working Group earlier this summer, in which we discussed the inability to achieve both completeness and consistency within the limitations of a closed system. Maybe that's the way out of/through this conundrum? To think of (our) selves not as closed systems that must be consistent, but rather as something more like Serendip's web pages, more "complete" (i.e. all-encompassing) because not attempting to be predictably "consistent"?

One of the texts I went to, as a result of an earlier discussion about Information, was Stapp's The Mindful Universe. The June 18, 2004 version of this essay (which is frequently updated on-line) identifies

one of the central problems of philosophy, namely the distinction between analytic statements and synthetic statements. (The former are true or false by virtue of a specified set of rules held in our minds, whereas the latter are true or false by virtue of their concordance with physical or empirical facts.)....there are two different domains of truth, one pertaining to logic and mathematics and the other to physics and the natural sciences. This led to the claim that there are "Two Concepts of Probability," one logical, the other physical....philosophers were then divided between two main schools as to whether probablity should be understood in terms of abstract idealization or physical sequences of outcomes of measurements....in line with the Cartesian separation between a domain of real objective physical facts and a domain of ideas and concepts...

Am thinking that this distinction between two different standards of truth--one inside/one out, one abstract/one experiential, one ideal/one "real"--actually doesn't get us very far, because both are still valorizing "truth" over (what you both recommend:) "usefulness" as a criteria for evaluation. The following description of a solution for the "binding problem" may well take us one step further:

some rule of "coarse graining"...destroys information and hence allows probabilities to be different from unity....we must not imagine that this knowledge exists in some ethereal kingdom, apart from its physical representation in the body of the agent....many mathematicians and philosophers now believe that the process of doing mathematics rests in the end on mathematical intuitions, which are essentially aesthetic evaluations....such illumination...is represented in the quantum description of nature as a picking out of an organized state in which diverse brain processes act together in an harmonious state of mutual support that leads on to feedbacks that sustain the structure by recreating it with slight variations. A mathematical illumination is a grasping of an aesthetic quality of order in the quantum state of the agent's brain/body. Every experience of any kind is fundamentally like this....grasping of a state of order that tends to recreate itself in a slightly varied form...a felt grasping of a state in which various sub-processes act in concert to produce an ongoing continuation of itself...provides a foundation for a solution to a basic issue of neuroscience, the so-called "binding problem"....diverse features of a visual scene...are processed by separate modules located in different regions of the brain. This...makes the felt experience a grasping of a non-discordant quasi-stable mutually supportive combination of these diverse elements as a unified whole....

Doesn't that--non-discordant quasi-stable mutually supportive combination of diverse elements--sound like a "self"? One that resembles your description, in your essay on The Nature of Desire, of the Allegory of the Cave as representing the sum total of an individual's experience: "The flickering on the walls may be...the stuff the brain makes sense of...inputs to the brain...creations of the brain as well"?

See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts.

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