TV

Today’s public negotiation over the “meaning” of the Confederate flag is a good example of how the ambiguous commons works in public life.

Obama weighing in with his single definition of the flag (it’s “racist”) illustrates how power influences how definitions are made on the ambiguous commons.

TV, with the power of station owners to control the message, works on the ambiguous commons sort of in the same way as Obama in the above example. Of course, TV as a medium is more complex and carries many more messages, but the comparison is still valid because TV promotes some messages while ignoring or downplaying others.

Here are some good photos on the power of TV: Idiot Box. Notice the kids’ eyes, which indicate passive trance states that are accepting information without questioning it.

In some ways one can say that TV is a bad medium because there is far more airtime than there are quality shows to fill it. The other reason one can call it bad—even though the medium itself cannot have any intentions—is it can easily be controlled by powerful people and groups that do have intentions.

The public ambiguous commons is greatly controlled by presidents and other talking heads on TV. If you watch Jon Stewart, chances are you agree with almost everything he says even when the subject is a new one that you have given no thought to.

If the general idea of a public ambiguous commons makes sense, and if it is understood how people (and presidents) negotiate “meaning” on the ambiguous commons, then I hope it will also be clear that we humans as individuals and in small groups are negotiating shared meanings all the time.

Negotiating meaning (by arguing, cajoling, ignoring, using emotional displays or reason, etc.) is one of the main things we humans do when we communicate. It is for this reason that very stable social groups can be so boring. No one wants to rock the boat by saying anything that makes anything seem more ambiguous or confusing.

It is also for this reason that narcissists and abusers insist on their interpretations, their meanings, over anyone else’s. Pretty much wherever you find an individual or group that will brook no dissent and/or that gets angry when there is dissent or even the simple appearance of a different idea, you can be all but certain you are dealing with a narcissistic bully trying to maintain (or gain) control of the ambiguous commons.

The Confederate flag

The various arguments and passions today concerning the Confederate flag are good examples of how emotionally-charged semiotics (the signs and symbols of communication) can be.

Flags are often used as examples of how simple signs can arouse strong feeling. The arguments about the Confederate flag are arguments about how to define a symbol, which of its many possible meanings is the one.

A more important point to be made here is that each of us has a myriad of semiotic symbols in our minds and emotions can be touched off by any of them at any time.

If you don’t know ho to communicate about these kinds of explosive symbols/signs—many of which are idiosyncratic—you will have problems, some of which will get defined as “psychological” when they are not.

It is beneficial for Buddhists (and others) to contemplate the emptiness of semiotics like the Confederate flag and then apply this understanding to how we think, perceive, feel, and communicate about other signs.

Edit: Concerning the flag, notice that the community (whichever one) is forced to come to some sort of “decision” about the flag’s meaning. This is so because the flag has to mean something since it is a prominent public sign/symbol. The “community” can’t avoid ascribing some meaning to it. Notice also that that is what Obama and many others have been doing, ascribing meaning to the flag. This is how elites (and the media that highlights or ignores them) influence culture, by influencing how we react to symbols and what those symbols are and/or mean. Disputes over semiotic meaning are very common in both the public and private spheres.

Edit 2: Just because the community is forced to give the flag meaning doesn’t mean it will give it the right meaning. And it also doesn’t mean that any of the widely available meanings are right.

Discussion of rebirth with Jim Tucker

This interview is quite good and well worth reading no matter what your perspective. (link to interview)

Tucker’s “main research interests are children who claim to remember previous lives, and natal and prenatal memories.” He is based at the University of Virginia.

I myself have past-life memories and understand that experiences like that can be difficult and/or frustrating to talk about with others, a point made in the linked interview.

In my view, it is impossible for a science which requires strict reproducibility to deal fully with memories of this type, which are specific to individuals and which obviously cannot be reproduced any more than any memory specific to an individual and contingent on them can be reproduced. Science can only reproduce phenomena that everyone can see.

I am fully cognizant of the materialist scientific paradigm and work. live, and reason within in it a great deal. At the same time, I cannot honestly tell myself that my own life experiences and memories, none of which are reproducible, have no value.

My guess is that redefining “materialism” to mean “physicalism,” a point not made in the interview, can help people who feel deeply rooted in the scientific world-view entertain other possibilities.

In a nutshell, physicalism means simply “obeying the laws of physics.” Since we can never be sure that we know all of the laws of physics and do not today even understand how the laws we do know hold together, physicalism can work as a sort of mind-opener for materialists, an avenue of unknowns that includes more of the deep realities of sentient existence without always consigning them to fantasy or superstition.

Repost: The five skandhas and modern science

A recent study on emotional response—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—indicates that the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness has it right.

From the study’s abstract:

The findings demonstrate that the amygdala can be influenced by even high-level facial information before that information is consciously perceived, suggesting that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.

Note that all important phrase “…before that information is consciously perceived.”

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness.

Advanced training in meditation and mindfulness is probably necessary for most people to be able to observe the five skandhas individually, as they are actually “firing,” but it can be done. A good deal of Buddhist practice is based on being able to do that.

Though all brain imaging studies must be taken as provisional since the technology is not completely reliable, they still are providing us with some very interesting information worth considering.

The amygdala study cited above seems to confirm that people form significant emotional reactions to faces without being conscious of their reactions at all. In Buddhist terms, their reactions are (or take place at) the second skandha—sensation.

The skandha of sensation is defined as a reaction to a form that is either positive, negative, or neutral. That is, we either like, dislike, or don’t care about the form. In the amygdala study the form is the face that is flashed very briefly on a screen. The face appears so briefly, for just a few milliseconds, that it is not possible to actually “see” or be aware of having “seen” it.

I think it is fair to extrapolate from this study that we humans are forming sensations all the time without being aware of what we are doing. As the authors of the study say, the study “[suggests] that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.”

“…processing of social cues in the absence of awareness” is pretty good description of what the Buddha called delusion, especially if we realize that the delusions we “process” from forms arising outside of us are entwined with and not very different from delusions we process from forms arising within us.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation, thus, provides a way to observe and analyze our minds to prevent our becoming deluded by the tug of sensations that happen in the “absence of awareness.”

A few days ago, I reposted an essay that touches on this subject from a different angle and a different study: we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots.

Here is a pretty good article on the study cited above: Friend Or Foe? Even When Faces Are Not Clearly Visible, Your Brain Unconsciously Makes Judgments.