What we can and cannot access

  • There is external speaking/listening that we can access
  • There is external speaking/listening that we cannot access
  • There is internal speaking/listening that we can access
  • There is internal speaking/listening that we cannot access

It is generally accepted that humans can comprehend things more than they can speak about them. That is, we can work with or get more information from listening than we can actively speak about. We have much greater access to what we receive (hear, read) than what we can output (speak, write).

For example, even though I am not a professional historian, I will be able to listen to a lecture about the Civil War and understand all or most of what I am hearing, but after the lecture I will only be able to output or speak about some parts of it. Another example is second language learners who are virtually always able to comprehend more than they can say. Another example is we can watch someone do something as they explain it, say cook a complex recipe, and understand what they are doing and saying but not be able to do it or explain it ourselves.

These are examples of external speech that we can access through hearing but cannot access as well through speaking. I can understand what you are saying but am not able to explain it to someone else.

An example of external speech that we cannot access through hearing is a very difficult lecture or book on a subject we know nothing about, say higher math or chemistry. Another example might be explaining to an old person how to use a computer if they have never used one before. Even as they try to grasp it, you can see they don’t really understand it well at all.

A more interesting example of external speech that we cannot access well might be the speech of someone who is willing to speak more openly about subjective states than we are. We can hear what they are saying but may not fully comprehend it because we don’t have a model for it. What they are saying may sound weird or inappropriate or even threatening when the truth is they are simply more used to hearing about subjective states and thus more able to speak about them.

These last points are crucial. We can only listen to and deeply comprehend things we have already heard about before. We don’t need to have all the details but we do need to have some sort of general concept of what the person is saying. In this same vein, we can only speak deeply about things we have already heard about, whether through external speech or internal speech. We can listen to others, or read their work (external speech), and from that learn how to communicate their ideas to others. Or we can listen to ourselves, to our internal speech, and from that learn how to communicate our ideas to others.

If a person has no experience—neither external nor internal—with listening to speech about subjective states, they will not be able to speak about their own subjective states and may hardly realize they even have subjective states. If they hear a little external speech about subjective states and do a little internal speaking about them, they will only be able to grasp subjective states to roughly that degree.

In an earlier post (Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding), I discussed how most people in the world do not have access to micro levels of understanding of themselves or others. This lack of access to both listening and speaking about micro semiotics forces almost everyone everywhere to confine their speaking and listening to meso and macro levels.

We get our meso and macro levels from TV, media, religion, education, general psychology, etc. But no matter how erudite you are in those media and styles of understanding, you will almost certainly still be highly deficient in micro semiotics. That is, you will not have wide access to or understanding of your own subjectivity because you cannot access micro levels and speak about them. To say nothing of understanding the subjectivity of others.

Sex, desire, and the meditation on “uncleanness”

This article—The Problem With Sex According to Buddhism—provides a good overview of how traditional Buddhism has viewed sexual behavior. Generally, the modern way of looking at it is sexual behavior should not harm anyone and should not lead to unwanted entanglements.

Overcoming excessive or obsessive desire for anything, not just sex, is an important part of Buddhist practice. Most of the time most of us know what is excessive in most situations. Guidance from a “wise friend” can help when there is doubt.

Contemplating the “uncleanness” of any excessive desire has been praised through the centuries by countless Buddhist practitioners. Contemplating the “uncleanness” of something means to contemplate its negative aspects. If you cannot get over your obsession for motorcycles, for example, contemplate their expense, danger, the trouble of maintaining them, etc. This kind of contemplation will tend to decrease desire by balancing it with real-world considerations.

The “uncleanness” contemplation is intended to be used to overcome excessive desire or greed. It is not advised for anyone experiencing depression or despair as it may worsen these conditions. More on this topic can be found here.

Buddhism does not have anything approaching the counsel “greed is good.” It could be reasonably argued that traditional Buddhist teachings on greed hindered material and political development in Buddhist societies, while the celibacy of Buddhist monastics kept some of the smartest people from procreating and thus lowered the genetic quality of those populations.

I am not sure what the best answers to those arguments are, though I don’t find them very compelling. Surely traditional monasteries also kept many people who were not fit, psychologically or otherwise, from having children and thus improved the gene pool. There is nothing in Buddhism that should keep anyone from being a scientist or businessperson or studying anything they want, as long as their motives are wholesome.

One thing we can see is that even early Buddhist thinking was better at getting to the core of how the human mind works than most twentieth century psychology in the West. Since Buddhism is a tradition that is open to change, we can and should consider all of these ideas and use the best ones.

Manuscript received

Edit 3/15/15: I have started posting this manuscript at Scarsvale.net. It needs it own place. ABN

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This morning I found a package at my front door. Inside was a manuscript and a note, part of which read, “I know who you are. And I know you will understand.”

I have spent much of the morning looking through the manuscript and reading the note addressed to me by the author.

I have no idea who left the manuscript. The note did say, “I have been following your work for years and know that you will be able to understand my story and not look down on me for telling it as I have.”

The author wants me to post his work on this site and I am inclined to do so though I need to read more of it before I decide.

I am writing this post to let the author know that I have received his manuscript and most definitely do not look down on him for it. I also want him to know that I respect his need for privacy and will not try to figure out who he is or use a camera to take his picture if he comes to my door again.

Also, I am honored, moved, that the author would trust me with his work. In my years of operating this site, this is one of the most intriguing correspondences I have received.

Repost: Semiotic valence

In a previous post, I introduced the concept of semiotic wells. A semiotic well is like a space-time “gravitational well” within a semiotic network. By this, I mean that part of the semiotic network has some heavy things in it—primary semiotics that pull other nodes within the network toward them.

For example, someone with the view that they have some sort of personality will tend to associate many of their perceptions and thoughts with the features of that personality. Their belief in their personality type will tend to make them see and understand the world in those terms.

I doubt that “having” a personality is all that much different from having a hobby. And I bet most people can move from one personality type to another about as easily as they can move from one hobby to another.

Of course there are constraints and limitations in the development of hobbies just as there are in the development of personalities.

We can gain profitable understanding of the mind by conceiving of it as a network of semiotic units. It is a network because the semiotic elements of the mind are all interconnected. It does not take much imagination to connect any semiotic element in your mind to any other. Apple-red-communism. Or apple-pie-American.

By association we can connect anything in this way.

Every semiotic element in the mind has a valence. In different contexts, the valences for any element will differ, and oftentimes they are neutral, but they are there. A semiotic well organizes valences as well as meaning, intention, belief, value.

For some people, speech is used to socialize, to make friends, to gain and keep access to other people. The valence of major parts of their semiotic network is aimed at socializing with others. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others compliment or reciprocate their social valences.

In contrast, for some other people, speech is used to share ideas, to analyze, to teach and to learn. The valences of their semiotic networks are primarily aimed at sharing ideas. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others reciprocate these valences.

Many semiotic wells and semiotic valences are formed accidentally, randomly, arbitrarily. Once we take on any bit of meaning, even if only slightly, there is always a chance that it will snowball into a significant semiotic well.

The Beatles alluded to this when they sang Had it been another day/ I might have looked the other way/ And I’d have never been aware/ But as it is I dream of her tonight.

This doesn’t just happen with love but with many of our other interests. We form semiotic wells—sometimes very quickly—for what are often very trivial reasons or no reason at all.

Much of what we are comes about through accident or chance. This happens because semiotics and the ways valences become attached to them are frequently very simple. Once a semiotic well begins forming it often grows, and as it does it pulls in or rearranges elements from other parts of our semiotic network.

Once a well is formed or given to us, it can greatly determine how we perceive the world and what we value in it.

This is why propaganda succeeds so well, and is sort of easy to do if you have a lot of money and access to important public forums. All a propagandist has to do is start your mind in one direction and then add more information and more valence. Most people see the world in terms of simple dichotomies, so all the propagandist needs to do is decide what they want and contrast it favorably against what they don’t want.

Want war? Make the public perceive the enemy you want as an enemy, then add info while increasing valence. Columnists will write many thousands of words about the desired war, but the basic sociology of it for the general public is always very simple.

Of course sometimes the trick fails. With Syria the basic formula—terrorists/poison gas/war—failed, probably because the public had been fooled too many times before with similar formulas (Sadam/WMD/war).

If you can see past words and feelings to the core of the semiotic well, you will see that many things in this world are quite simple. It is no accident that people communicate largely in very simple terms.

Edit 3/4/15: This essay was first posted 3/20/14 and references to Syria date from that time. Notice how it seems we will be getting war with Syria now for other reasons. Last year it was gas. This year it is ISIS atrocities. 3/5/15: This just in today: ​‘Military pressure’ may be needed to oust Syrian President – John Kerry

A serious conservative issue

The 24-page bill begins: “The following provisions are repealed,” then lists dozens of Texas statutes related to marijuana. If the Legislature were to approve the bill, Texas would have no laws regarding pot. (Texas lawmaker files bill to legalize marijuana)

This is the best way to go. None of the state’s business. Never was and never should have been. This is real conservatism of a type I can happily support.

Here is the other side of our ongoing ridiculous “debate” about marijuana: DEA warns of stoned rabbits if Utah passes medical marijuana.

Fairbanks said that at some illegal marijuana grow sites he saw “rabbits that had cultivated a taste for the marijuana. …” He continued: “One of them refused to leave us, and we took all the marijuana around him, but his natural instincts to run were somehow gone.”

This person works for the DEA and doesn’t know that cannabis has to be heated to activate its psychoactive chemistry.

Wrong facts, wrong policies, anti-American interference by government in people’s private lives, more harm done by the laws than the plant by far. Anyway, it is good to see these long overdue changes starting to happen in more places.

Repost: Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding

This post is concerned with the micro, meso, and macro levels of existential semiotics and communicative thought, and how those levels affect human understanding.

  • Micro levels are very small units of thought or communication. These can be words, phrases, gestures, etc. and the “psychological morphemes” that accompany them. A psychological morpheme is the smallest unit of an emotional or psychological response.
  • Meso levels lie between macro and micro levels. Longer discourse, a sense that people have personalities or egos, and the basic ideas of any culture appear at this level.
  • Macro levels are the larger abstract levels that sort of stand above the other two levels. Macro levels might include religious or scientific beliefs, political ideologies, long-term personal goals or strategies.

Most people most of the time socialize on the meso level, often with support from shared macro level beliefs or aims. For most people, the broad outlines of most emotions are defined and conditioned at the meso level. This is the level where the nuts and bolts of convention are found. This is the level that tosses the beach balls of conversation back and forth across the dinner table and that defines those balls. The meso level defines our subculture and how well or badly we conform to it. The meso level is necessary for much of social life and sort of fun, though it is by definition not very detailed or profound. It is something most people can agree on and work with fairly easily for an hour or two at a time.

Many people define themselves mainly on the meso level and judge others by their understanding of this level. Many subcultures become stifling or cloying because meso definitions are crude and tend to leave out the rich subjectivity of individuals. Macro definitions are not all that different from meso ones except that they tend to define group feelings more than meso definitions. Groups band together based on macro level assumptions about ideologies, science, religion, art, style, location, ethnicity, etc.

Since most people are unable to fully access micro levels of communication the rich subjectivity of the individual mind is rarely, if ever, communicated at all and almost never communicated well.

In other fields, micro levels are all important. For example, the invention of the microscope completely changed the way humans see and understand their world. All that was added by the microscope was greater resolution and detail in the visual sphere. From that arose germ theory, material sciences, modern biology, modern medicine, and much more.

Micro levels of communication are basic to how we understand ourselves and others. Poor micro communication skills consign us to communication that occurs only at meso or macro levels. This is a problem because meso and macro levels do not have sufficient detail and also because meso and macro levels become the only tools we have to decide what is going on. When we are forced to account for micro details with the crude tools of meso thought, we will make many mistakes. Eventually we become like the long-term cigarette-smoker whose (micro) alveoli have collapsed, destroying full use of the lungs.

Without the details of the microscope, people for millennia happily drank germ infested water. Without a way to resolve micro levels of communication, people today, as in the past, happily ingest multitudes of micro error—errors that make them ill.

Micro communication errors make us sick because we make many serious mistakes on this level and also because our minds are fully capable of comprehending the sort of detail we can find at the micro level. We speak and listen on many interpersonal levels like crude beasts when we are capable of very delicate and refined understanding.

FIML or a technique similar to it provides a method for grasping micro details. Doing FIML for a long time is like spending a long time using a microscope or telescope. You will start to see everything differently. Detailed micro analyses of interpersonal communication changes our understanding of micro communication and also both the meso and macro levels of existential semiotics and communicative thought. Microscopes allowed us to see germs in water and also to understand that some of those germs can kill us.

Semiotics in game tech

Edit 2/26/15: The article linked below is an excellent example of how a single semiotic is functioning differently in different cultures. Well, there is more than one, but the examples are very clear and concrete. The contention that lies behind FIML practice is that all people all of the time hold many idiosyncratic semiotics and that when they communicate, these idiosyncratic semiotics can have a huge effect on how they listen and what they say. Idiosyncrasies may have cultural origins or they may arise from subjective states or simply be arbitrary. The idiosyncratic individual (all people everywhere at all times) is like a mini-culture. FIML practice is done between two idiosyncratic individuals who are close to each other, care about each other, and spend a significant amount of time together. It is designed to help partners understand how their idiosyncrasies can and do cause misunderstandings, some of which may snowball into serious conflicts when at heart there never was much of anything there save different views of the same semiotic.

If you have been studying or reading about FIML but still don’t quite see what is meant by semiotics or how they function in real-world settings, please be sure to read the article liked below and also here. The semiotics of controller design.

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A friend sent me an interesting article on The semiotics of controller design of the Sony PlayStation.

His comment on the article:

I thought you would find this interesting. The amount of consideration that goes into something so simple makes it practically impossible to experience anything directly without FIML and meditative insight.

The article discusses the meaning of a couple of signs on PlayStation controllers. It shows how cultural inculcation led Japanese and Americans to understand those signs very differently. So differently, in fact, Sony had to change the buttons (or “localize” them) for the American audience.

Most of us will find the linked article understandable and most of us will be able to appreciate how acculturation can and does lead us to perceive signs and symbols differently.

If you can see this it is but a short step to see that individuals do the same. Each of us perceives or understands signs and symbols in ways that are unique to us. As my friend says, it is “practically impossible to experience anything directly without FIML and meditative insight.”

How could it be otherwise? How can anyone expect to understand and be understood intimately without frequent and extensive discussion of what semiotics mean to them and their partner(s)?

Many people claim they don’t have time for discussions like that, and for some I think that is true. For the rest, I don’t agree.

In any case, before long we will have super-smart robots and brain-to-machine interfaces that will utterly change the way we perceive each other as well as “reality” itself.

When that day comes, we bio-humans will have the time and we will have the inclination to buckle down and do the work needed to really understand each other.

In the future, I expect something like FIML will be a major standard for human-to-human communication. When the machines are miles ahead of us, we will at last relent and really try to understand rather than just manage or control each other.

Mr Genness from Worcester Academy

A reader asked us to put out a feeler for Mr. Genness who taught English at Worcester Academy (in Massachusetts) during the 1968-69 school year.

He was the best teacher I ever had and I think about him often. He taught me things that are still paying-off today. I want to thank him but cannot find out where he is or how to contact him.

The requester does not know his first name and was unable to get any info from the school. Mr. Genness was into theater and had connections with the theater crowd in NYC. The spelling of his name—Genness—is a guess, but likely correct.

If you know or suspect you know Mr. Genness, please send an email to “fimlingo at gmail.com” or just reply to this post.

We read Faulkner, the Iliad, Pirandello, and much more. He was a genius and a superb teacher. Probably saved my life. Definitely improved it immensely.

I know the feeling.

Saving lives versus releasing captured animals into the wild

The Buddhist practice of releasing captured animals into the wild to gain merit (for the one doing the releasing) is generally a bad practice. Captured animals are often fatigued or not suited to their new wild environment.

In Buddhist countries animals are sometimes deliberately captured just so practitioners can release them (after paying for them). Clearly, that is a preposterous activity.

Most American Buddhist are aware that thoughtless release does more harm than good, but the basic idea is appealing. Why not save a life if you can?

If you want to save lives without doing any harm, a cat collar might be a better choice than releasing goldfish into the East River (this has happened), where they promptly died.

Here is an article about a collar that seems to work well: Study finds cat collar can save songbirds.

You can get one for your own cat or get a few to give to others. BTW, I have no economic interests in these collars and do not know the people involved in making them. It just looks like an easy way to save precious songbirds.

Morality and mistakes

Moral growth requires mistakes.

Ikkyu, the Zen poet monk, wrote: “Satori is mistake after mistake.”

“You” are not your worldly biography, which is unknowable, but rather the moral being that has learned through worldly experiences.

“You” are not your moral mistakes, which can be worn like shackles, but rather what you would do now if you were faced with those decisions again.

You cannot have gotten to that point without the mistakes you have made.

FIML can’t do everything

FIML handles micro-analyses of real-time communication extremely well. In doing this it also reveals to partners how long-standing misinterpretations are affecting their perceptions of self and other(s).

FIML cannot catch everything though. Some misinterpretations begin in a small haze and may never be questioned again.

A concrete example of this type of misinterpretation happened a few days ago. My partner and I were talking about her past. At one point she mentioned that she had taken a prescribed drug for a few weeks to stop the condition we had been discussing.

I casually and almost without noticing it assumed that the drug she had taken was a “psych med” of some sort. After a few days, I noticed that I had formed a vague impression of her during the time she took the drug as being more seriously bothered by her (very minor) condition than she actually was.

So I asked her about it and she replied that it had not been a psych med and that she had never had emotional problems concerning her mild condition. I explained to her how I had come to my conclusion, which was vague but still something I actually had believed.

We discussed the matter for a few minutes and decided that it is a good example of a type of mistake that FIML cannot uncover the moment it arises. FIML works best at uncovering mistakes that are emotionally charged. Her psych med reference was not emotionally charged for me (or her) so my wrong assumption went under my FIML radar.

Mistakes of this type are not always going to be so concrete. If they concern emotions and/or a sense of what something was like for someone, this sort of mistake can be nebulous and dangerously elusive.

For example, if my partner’s story had been told differently and meds had not been part of it, I might easily have mistakenly concluded that she had been unhappy, anxious, or depressed during that period of time. Then that mistake might have gone on to affect how I understand her today. It may have made me think that she is more fragile than she is or that her past is more of a burden to her than it is. None of that would have been true though.

FIML practice can help discover mistakes like this because FIML makes us understand with great clarity how dubious our impressions of others can be, even if we are very close to them. FIML also makes it easier to correct and discuss mistakes of this type as the mechanics of a FIML-type discussion provide many useful tools.

FIML can’t always catch everything though, so partners would do well to search their minds from time to time to see if they can find any false assumptions they may be holding about one other.

Jeff Gates on the “in between space” and how control of information is control of everything

Link to interview

Gates is an engaging speaker. In the linked interview he describes how the signs, symbols, narratives, and beliefs of American society (and much of the world) have been manipulated by what he calls a “criminal syndicate” that operates primarily in the “space” between facts and what the public sees and hears. This syndicate does this by controlling five basic areas—media, education, pop culture, politics, and think tanks. Well-worth listening to.