Monday, June 02, 2014


And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good—Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?  —Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 
(I'm well aware that ZMM merely quoted/paraphrased the statement.) I noticed a possible oversight of my last entry's analysis. It was targeted toward the meaningfulness of intangible and intricate goals. But many goals reside at the opposite end of the spectrum. A goal can be plain and straightforward. It can be a transparent object or outcome which needs no elaboration. It could be called an embodiment of a human concern, value, or desire. An embodiment's meaning is presumed to be beyond question. Nobody would typically expend much effort to dissect its allure, except for the purpose of making philosophical points...or to make a blog entry that reiterates the philosophical points of many many past blog entries. The justified meaningfulness of a tin roof sundae is not normally controversial.

Nevertheless, embodiment in its unsophisticated form is too poorly-defined to serve as a sturdy counterexample to the last entry. A contributing factor to its vagueness is its absence of a compelling physical rationale. Specifically, any embodiment is composed of matter. And the matter behaves in the same regular patterns as the matter in anything that isn't an embodiment. It doesn't contain specialized particles. Nor does it interact with its surroundings in non-physical ways. Although its independent existence is physical, its supposed property of "embodiment" doesn't originate in those commonplace physical properties. A convincing literal interpretation of embodiment would require testable notions on precisely where and how it happens physically. A tin roof sundae doesn't exhibit a field of gluttony carried by the glut-boson.

So the usual ghostly concept of embodiment probably isn't seriously intended as a reductive attribute of the object. Instead, it has to be contingent on hazy mysteries in the subjects who sense the embodiment: a non-physical product of adding somewhat non-physical subjects to physical objects. But that concrete definition isn't workable either. According to the best available findings, the tenable hypothesis is that all known subjects are also composed of matter behaving in the same regular patterns. Thoughts appear to be internal events in brains, and persistent memories appear to be internal structures in brains.

Moving along, the combined premises are that the embodying object is a first assemblage of matter in one location, and the subject perceiving the embodying object is a second assemblage of different matter in a second location. Then the cause of the experience of embodiment must derive from the second assemblage mirroring the first and proceeding to trigger further reactions. Clearly, the mirroring is exceedingly subtle. But its subtlety doesn't imply obscurity or triviality. It's encoding the convoluted sometimes-intelligent symbolism that's central to the prosperity of the human species as a whole. Encoding is the more nuanced form of "embodiment". It's less mystical albeit no less cryptic. It hints that the frequently useful distinction between outer form and inner content might fade at the innermost levels of comprehension. As Douglas Hofstadter has suggested, "Content is fancy form." Ultimately, decoding isn't just the preliminary stage of unwrapping a chunk of information; the decoding itself, and whatever the decoding triggers, is what the information means. A blog entry is an embodiment of the ideas which the blogger wanted the reader to reconstruct in their own brain at the time they decode it.

Hence, in these terms an embodiment isn't an exception to the ordinary nature of meaningfulness. It's an instance that's particularly vivid and reflexive to the subject. It likely includes a specific mix of strong emotions, as opposed to abstract evaluations of hypothetical paybacks. But as Antonio Damasio might say, emotions could represent evolution's rapid nonverbal information processing.

For some humans at some times, the tin roof sundae from earlier may be an undeniable (irresistible?) embodiment of desire. Yet the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. For a subject who recently finished eating one, is the offer of a second an embodiment? What if the subject is allergic to peanuts? What if the subject is tormented by guilt over their dessert choices? What if the subject has never consumed ice cream, perhaps because their native culture is isolated in a hot climate?

In general, each subject's well-established set of emotional associations constitutes their personalized set of provocative embodiments. To them, their set can feel imposing and difficult to modify. However, not even the most close-minded simpleton could claim that their set couldn't have turned out differently in different personal circumstances. They couldn't claim that their set is uniquely "right": optimal, unchanging, and unbiased. The matter of a subject has been influenced by countless interactions that are genetic, familial, cultural, environmental, etc. The superficiality of an emotive state can mask its tangled root causes. Throughout their lifespan, the subject was consciously and unconsciously primed by a varied array.

Similar clarifications hold for alleged intellectual embodiment too. An alleged intellectual embodiment is an idea that the subject immediately trusts without deep consideration. The first type is "common sense" embodiment, in which a society collectively pushes a belief's validity. It might be integrated tightly into habitual customs, or self-sustaining traditions, or revered authorities, or prevailing public opinions, or group identities. Grand scale inertia is an apt metaphor for beliefs that are said to embody common sense. Someone may start by doubting a common sense belief. After facing unrelenting shame and ridicule for their lack of common sense, they eventually abandon their doubts and accept it. Later they grow accustomed to assuming its accuracy. The next time the cycle repeats, they fill the defensive role of scoffing at doubts about the conventional embodiments of common sense.

The second type of alleged intellectual embodiment is based in logic. Beliefs of this type are portrayed as widely affirmed axioms that lead to inescapable logical consequences. In effect, the axioms are treated like embodiments of conclusions that certainly follow. If X is acknowledged, then Y must absolutely be acknowledged as well. The embodiment supposedly forces X and Y to be an inseparable pair.

Two problems can arise, though. The first is when the logic is simply flawed or incomplete, but the subjects either don't know or don't care to know. They may be relying on their crucial implicit assumptions to fill the logical gap that they don't notice. They may be unaware that they're thinking within a restrictive context, such as egocentrism or ethnocentrism, and overgeneralizing beyond it. They're misled by an illusion of reasonableness and thoughtfulness. After all, according to their own viewpoint, they indeed seem to be following an irrefutable argument. And they're more susceptible if the intellectual embodiment is teamed with an emotional embodiment. In that case they start with the deduction they wish and then eagerly embrace all the minimally credible axioms or data that they can stretch. If they're honest they may label the final result as an iffy inference, not a chain of careful reasoning.

The second pitfall with logic-based embodiment pertains to proofs. A proof shows how a final statement is embodied in many prior statements. Despite its correctness, it can be complex and/or excessively condensed. If so, then potential learners may fail to recognize the sequential embodiment. In essence, they discern the start and the end of the proof, but they don't discern the start embodying the end.

Again, this situation isn't rare. A topic's "obvious" implications aren't always grasped equally well by every subject, especially when the subject is 1) unmotivated in confronting the topic (prompting teachers to lecture "Apply yourself!"), 2) previously committed to ideas that contradict the implications, 3) unaccustomed to the topic or its style of analysis, 4) saturated with mistaken information about the topic. A proof's logical embodiment amounts to the assertion, "Anyone would reach the same series of realizations as I." With candor, the assertion is, "Each subject should reach the same series of realizations as I, if they're sufficiently vigorous and open-minded and knowledgeable and not off track."

Someone who insists on a logical embodiment could respond that its sole verification requirement is the mechanical operation of "pure reason". They could demonstrate by filling in omissions and dividing large steps into numerous interlinked tiny steps. They could communicate every bit of every painstaking progression. In fact, they might need to present the exhaustive form to their demanding peers to obtain affirmation.

Unfortunately, this response flatly disregards the potential learner's obstacles. The trouble is more fundamental. On the previously mentioned premise that subjects are matter, then their mental deliberation is active work. It consumes energy and synthesizes patterns. If a lengthy proof is a walking path to reach the finish, then the work to reenact the proof is the effort to walk the path. Since reenacting the proof is a physical act occurring in a physical context, reasoning isn't an out-of-body trip through a fanciful realm. There aren't beings of "pure reason" to confirm the validity and relevance of proofs...though humans have invented devices that can similarly consume energy to synthesize pattern, thereby mirroring thought on smaller scales.

Humans have differing finite quantities of willingness, time, attention, preconceptions, stubbornness, training, and talent. In the material universe, chaos happens, so to speak, and complete comprehension of a proof might not succeed. That won't stop an objector from offering "critiques" which don't address the innards of the proof. Rather, they could fabricate an excuse to dismiss it categorically. Or they could quit partway due to disinterest or discomfort with the proof's statements. Or they could willfully leap to the pleasing assumption that the proof has simplistic nonthreatening weaknesses—weaknesses that they prefer to attack in place of the proof.

Thus the underlying nature of intellectual embodiment is like emotional embodiment. And the practical countermeasures are alike. Disputing the actual embodiments is not necessarily the best strategy. To do so is to insist that every subject ends up with comparable reactions to comparable objects or outcomes. The better strategy might be manipulating the sources of embodiments: reactionary processes within subjects. A subject should be molded to "naturally" sense that something embodies a feeling or idea.

Of course, that strategy isn't unusual or exclusively sinister. Leading someone to expand their emotions and thinking could be seen as empowering them to see new options. For centuries, well-rounded education has encompassed both information and transformation. Pupils are taught more than the facts. They're taught the mindsets, or mental tool sets, which have acquired and refined those facts. They're taught contexts and unifying principles. Feeding them high-quality answers is mixed with enabling them to find high-quality answers for themselves. Ideally, when they know an answer, they can appreciate how and why the answer is known; perhaps they should have a full understanding of the answer's question before they ever receive the answer.      

The approach is applicable to a range of topics, but ethics is the most notable. As a supplement to just declaring the goals and actions that embody superior ethics, an advocate could strive to enrich others' moral imagination and criteria for judgment. Directly overwriting others' verdicts is less promising than the indirect strategy of inducing them to contemplate wider impacts, unfamiliar cases, and individuals unlike them.

It's reminiscent of the ancient practice of perpetuating ethics via plentiful thought-provoking narratives. Narratives illustrate the contrast between right and wrong, furnish opportunities to rehearse ethical scrutiny, and encourage the in-born impulse to conscientiously simulate another's standpoint. Some narratives, chiefly for children, include blatant cues of the ethics lesson, to the extent that follow-up discussion questions are redundant. To actually ask the questions is analogous to asking where a line of dominoes will end...right after watching the tedious setup of the entire line.

As with the preceding examples, subjects' ethics are reinforced intentionally and unintentionally. When they happen to agree independently about the ethical meaningfulness of a thing, they may erroneously credit the thing as an impersonal embodiment of ethics. The more plausible explanation is the reverse, in which their agreement stems from duplicated processes of feeling and thinking that were independently embodied inside the material of each of them.

It's easier to observe when the subjects are sharply divergent: namely, a contemporary subject and the figure in the opening quote, Phaedrus. These two are extremely unlikely to be in agreement on all their acceptable embodiments of human virtue. Faced with the discrepancies, each of them would more than likely insist that, yes, their counterpart evidently does need to ask for guidance about what is good and what is not good.

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