Semiotic valence

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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.

first posted MARCH 20, 2014

Signal intensity during interpersonal communication

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An important part of FIML practice is understanding signal intensity. That is, how big or strong or important the signal in question is.

FIML practice was designed to work with small signals and works best when close attention is paid to small signals. These “small signals” can be ones you send to your partner, ones your partner sends to you, or the ways in which either one of you interprets any signal at all.

Small signals are of great importance because they can be signs or aspects of larger or habitual ways of interpreting signals. Small signals can also generate mistaken interpretations that have the potential to snowball.

An example of a habitual way of interpreting signals might be a person who grew up in a less wealthy environment than his or her partner. The less wealthy partner may tend to interpret spending or not spending money differently than the other partner. This could manifest as stinginess, being too generous, or as mild anxiety about money in general. Of course, both partners will be different in the ways they interpret signals dealing with money. Their semiotics about money will be different.

FIML partners would do well to deal with these differences by paying close attention to small signals of that type the moment they come up. This is where partners will come to see how this entire class (money) of signals is affecting them in the moments of the lives they are actually living. It’s good to also have long general discussions about money, but be sure to pay close attention to the appearances of small signals.

From this example, please extrapolate to the signaling areas that matter to you and your partner. These may include anything that causes mistakes in communication or anything that causes either partner to feel anxiety or discomfort.

A good way to gain access to this perspective is to also pay close attention to how often you and your partner miscommunicate about trivial material things. Notice how often—and it happens a lot—you misunderstand each other about even the simplest of concrete, material matters. For example, what kind of lettuce to buy, where you left the keys, is the oven off, etc.

All people everywhere make many communicative mistakes in matters as small as those. If we do that in the material realm, where mistakes are easy to see and correct, consider how much more often and how much more serious are signaling mistakes in the emotional, interpersonal realm.

When you do a FIML discussion with your partner, be sure to frequently include an analysis of how big or small the signals in question are—how intense they are. Remember that FIML practice strongly encourages discussing even the very smallest of signals. FIML does that because small signals are easier to isolate and analyze; clearly seeing a small signal often is sufficient to understanding a big habit; small signals can snowball, so they should not be ignored.

first posted 10/01/2012

the fundamental underlying problem of problems is the chaos of interpersonal ambiguity

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race, racism, identity politics, the majority of psychological diagnoses and personality types, all culture, all religions, all sects, all regionalism, nationalism, styles, gangs, gender identities, fads, etc.; all of it grows out of the boiling cauldron of ineluctable interpersonal ambiguity
cast your eyes across the world and its histories, no matter how big or small, no matter which corner of the globe; all of it grows or has grown out of the boiling cauldron of ineluctable interpersonal ambiguity

individual humans, with rare exception, need the external signs and symbols of “culture” (semiologies) to provide the unifying markers and coordinates that (appear) to save them from the fear and angst and madness of being naked in the boiling cauldron of ineluctable interpersonal ambiguity
that’s just how it is. period. no exceptions


the only other option different from all of the above, the only option that will actually save you from the boiling cauldron is FIML practice. did you expect more signs and symbols at this point? more abstract ideas? political solutions? new identities? not gonna happen because none of that works
FIML is a dynamic method that must be used to bear fruit. if you are smart you probably can figure out how to do it from reading enough posts on this website


it does bother me that there is no other way out, no other real hope. yet I am also heartened to know that FIML is not very hard to do once you understand it. if enough people do it, more will follow because the results are extremely good. and from that the fundamental problem of problems will gradually clear up and go away

a note to Buddhists: FIML is perfectly compatible with all Buddhist teachings. you could think of FIML as an addon that catalyzes traditional methods and makes them work faster. FIML sharpens mindfulness and provides profound insight into the deep meaning of non-attachment, no-self, and karma

Buddhism and ethical signaling

Buddhism is very much a system of ethics. Buddhist practice is founded on the Five Precepts of refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and the irresponsible use of alcohol.

In most Buddhist traditions, these precepts are taught as if they are fundamental to the workings of the universe. But how can morality be fundamental to the workings of the universe? How does it really even matter to human beings?

If we think of a human being as a signaling system, we may be able to show that ethical thoughts and behavior are of fundamental importance to the system itself.

Human signaling systems signal internally, within themselves, and externally, toward other people. Our most important signaling system is the one we share with that person who is most important to us, our mate or best friend. Let’s confine our discussion to this sort of primary signaling system.

If I lie to my partner or cheat her, I may gain something outside of our shared signaling system, but that signaling system will suffer. And when that shared system suffers, my own internal signaling system will also suffer because it will contain errors. It will no longer be in its optimal state. Similarly, if she lies to me or cheats me, our mutual signaling system will become less than optimal as will both of our individual, or internal, signaling systems.

My own signaling system cannot grow or become optimal without my partner treating me with the best ethical behavior she can muster. And the same is true for her with respect to me. And we both know this.

We would be good to each other anyway, but it is helpful to see that our being good to each other has a very practical foundation—it assures us optimal performance of our mutual and internal signaling systems.

FIML practice is designed to provide partners with a clear and reasonably objective means to communicate honestly with each other. FIML practice will gradually optimize communication between partners by making it much clearer and more honest. In doing this, it will also optimize the operations of their mutual and individual signaling systems.

To my knowledge, there is nothing like FIML in any Buddhist tradition. But if I try to read FIML into the tradition, I may be able to find something similar in the way monks traveled together in pairs for much of the year. I don’t know what instructions the Buddha may have given them or how they spoke to each other, but it may be that they did a practice with each other similar to FIML practice.

In any case, if we view human being as a signaling system, we may be able to claim that clear signaling—that is, ethical signaling—is fundamental to the optimization of that system.

_______________

first posted FEBRUARY 3, 2013

Status as a fetish

Fetish can be defined as “a part standing for the whole” or “one thing being made bigger than it is by having become a psychological fixation.”

A good example of what I mean is pornography. Insofar as a mere image can stand for or replace instinctual sexual objectives, it is a fetish.

A sign (pornographic image) is as strong or stronger than the animal instinct. Or a sign can direct or redirect the animal instinct. That is a fetish.

Secondary sex characteristics do the same thing. You could call them nature’s fetishes but that would be stretching the concept. Human utilizations of makeup, clothing, and grooming could be said to stand “halfway” between the basic sexual instinct and the fetishized porno image.

Let’s apply that reasoning to status.

Two social psychologist I respect—Jordan Peterson and Kevin MacDonald—have both claimed many times that status is a fundamental human instinct and that it drives human behavior in many ways.

In posts on this site, I have disagreed with these ideas several times. I just don’t see it that way. Here are two of those posts: Status and hierarchy are as fundamental to human life as murder and Jordan Peterson on the gender pay gap, campus protests and the patriarchy.

In the second link just above, I said:

…I do not believe that social status is any more fundamental to human nature than murder is. Humans also possess reason and spiritual inclinations both of which can guide us away from status competition if we decide to do that and/or our conditions allow.

I still think that but over the past day or two a new understanding of the importance of status and human hierarchy has dawned on me. In essence, I think I have come to see that status really is a huge deal for many people; a much bigger deal than I had ever realized.

My explanation for that is people like me (and there are many of us) during childhood and adolescence see the “status game” as a choice. And we decide not to play it.

My SO made that choice. When we talked about this subject this morning, she said people like us are more open to art (in a broad sense) and less concerned with social hierarchies. I think that’s true. One good friend years ago used to call me a “now person,” meaning I am always living in the here and now and not doing a lot of planning for the future. I think she also meant or implied that I am not doing any thinking about my social status or the human hierarchies that surround me.

A Buddhist nun who is a close friend has often described mundane human behaviors as being motivated by jealousy. I have often disagreed with her, believing that her emphasis on jealousy was influenced too much by her culture (Chinese) or by the innocence of her monastic lifestyle.

Today, I think she was influenced by the status-conscious world she had grown up in and as a young adult renounced for Buddhism. But I also think she was able to see something I have been almost completely blind to. For me status has always been a very small cloud on the edge of the sky, not a major thunderstorm in human motivation. For her it is, or was, a storm in the human mind.

Status is a fetish. And fetishization does explain a lot about it. But if lots of people have that fetish or have that strong understanding of status, that’s how it is. As a social construct the status fetish can be even bigger and more imposing than the basic instinct it rests upon.

I hope this post helps people who see status as important understand people like me and my SO, and vice versa.

From a Buddhist point of view, I think it is important to fully understand the entire status spectrum—from instinct to fetishized sign—and to understand where you are on that spectrum and where the people you deal with are on that spectrum.

My guess is that most people reading this blog do not think of status as being very important. People like us need to appreciate that status is probably largely what motivates good people like Jordan Peterson as well as bad people like Bernie Madoff.

Might also be good if status-conscious people would understand that people like us are not all slackers or losers, nor are we seething with envy over your status. We mostly do not even see the game you are playing.

________________

first posted SEPTEMBER 10, 2019

Semiotics and psychology

A semiotic analysis of a person’s “internal and external signalling” often can be more conducive to understanding than a “psychological” analysis.

From a semiotic point of view, it is not at all necessary that even a very significant adult behavior will have started with a significant trauma or any other sort of strong influence.

The smallest thing can constitute the start of a “semiotic slope” that, once begun, will tend to persist.

For example, your mom may not have understood that as a three-year-old it was normal for you to prefer the company of your father. Her misunderstanding may then have led to her withdrawing from you very slightly, and this snowballed between the two of you. When, years later, you wanted a closer relation with your mom and were not able to get it, it may have seemed to you that the cause was some trauma in her relation with her mother. But the actual start of the whole thing began with nothing more than your mom never having learned the simple fact that toddlers often prefer one parent over the other for a period of time.

What happened was she misunderstood the semiotics of toddler behavior and many things followed from that. There was no trauma, no ideal state not attained due to some seriously bad thing having happened to her.

Another way to put this is most people do not remember very much before the age of five or so. But didn’t a lot of formative things happen back then? Some probably were traumatic, and we do tend to remember those experiences more clearly than others, but much of what started our paths of development also began with very simple, often accidental, interpretations or misinterpretations of what was said or done to us or around us.

In a semiotic analysis, we recognize that a good deal of what we think/feel/believe began with a small thing, a random or accidental interpretation that got us going in some direction that we likely today see as a major component of our “personality.”

Semiotics can be defined as “the science of communicable meaning (including internal communication).”

Once your mom began to interpret, even very slightly, your toddler behavior as “meaning” that you did not love her as much as your father, many things followed for all of you. But there was no trauma, no glaring formative event, no Freudian ghost from her past coming to haunt your life. Rather, she simply made a mistake due to her ignorance of toddler behavior.

Ironically, the fact that many of us still today tend to understand much of human “psychology” as being determined by unconscious Freudianesque forces is a good example of how a “semiotic slope” once begun tends to continue. Freud started us down a “semiotic slope” that still shapes much of our world today.

The persistence of what is simply a wrong interpretation in an individual can be compared to what happens in cultures. Something begins, then it snowballs, then it becomes a tradition or an established idea. The semiotic network that is culture is hard to change once it is established. Something very similar is also true for individuals.

I am not claiming that emotional traumas do not happen and that they do not affect people. I am claiming that what we are is often due to small accidents as much as large traumas. And that people who are “resilient” after having suffered significant traumas may be so because their semiotic development led them to view the “meaning” of their trauma in a more “resilient,” or useful, way.

_________________

first posted AUGUST 31, 2013

The Nine Features of Great Philosophy: The Ethical Skeptic

The Ethical Skeptic has become one of my favorite blogs and Twitter accounts. Today he posted a must-read: The Nine features of Great Philosophy. The image below provides a clear summary:

This kind of thinking works across all domains of rational endeavor, including psychology, psycholinguistics, communication, and semiotics. It also fits perfectly with Buddhist thought and practice.

I am happy to also say that FIML practice as explained on this site is well-characterized by these nine features. I tend to think of FIML as practical psychotherapy that can be used by almost anyone. At the same time, I am well-aware that FIML took many years to fully develop and that fundamentally it is a way to think.

FIML is a theory of communication that yields a method for much better communication. You could also say that FIML is a method of communication that also yields a theory of why we now communicate mostly badly; how to fix that and why fixing that leads to a much greater understanding of life.

Since FIML is a method of thinking or communicating, it has no content of its own. FIML does require honesty and the basic human virtues of self-examination, self-correction, willingness to learn and share, and the desire for wholesomeness or integrity. But other than that, FIML has no ideology, credo, belief system, or cultural envelope. It can be used by anyone anywhere to optimize interpersonal communication and individual psychology.

In fact, even non-humans could do FIML if they use a self-conscious communication system to convey subjective meanings that may be ambiguous.

Signal intensity

An important part of FIML practice is understanding signal intensity. That is, how big or strong or important the signal in question is.

FIML practice was designed to work with small signals and works best when close attention is paid to small signals. These “small signals” can be ones you send to your partner, ones your partner sends to you, or the ways in which either one of you interprets any signal at all.

Small signals are of great importance because they can be signs or aspects of larger or habitual ways of interpreting signals. Small signals can also generate mistaken interpretations that have the potential to snowball.

An example of a habitual way of interpreting signals might be a person who grew up in a less wealthy environment than his or her partner. The less wealthy partner may tend to interpret spending or not spending money differently than the other partner. This could manifest as stinginess, being too generous, or as mild anxiety about money in general. Of course, both partners will be different in the ways they interpret signals dealing with money. Their semiotics about money will be different.

FIML partners would do well to deal with these differences by paying close attention to small signals of that type the moment they come up. This is where partners will come to see how this entire class (money) of signals is affecting them in the moments of the lives they are actually living. It’s good to also have long general discussions about money, but be sure to pay close attention to the appearances of small signals.

From this example, please extrapolate to the signaling areas that matter to you and your partner. These may include anything that causes mistakes in communication or anything that causes either partner to feel anxiety or discomfort.

A good way to gain access to this perspective is to also pay close attention to how often you and your partner miscommunicate about trivial material things. Notice how often—and it happens a lot—you misunderstand each other about even the simplest of concrete, material matters. For example, what kind of lettuce to buy, where you left the keys, is the oven off, etc.

All people everywhere make many communicative mistakes in matters as small as those. If we do that in the material realm, where mistakes are easy to see and correct, consider how much more often and how much more serious are signaling mistakes in the emotional, interpersonal realm.

When you do a FIML discussion with your partner, be sure to frequently include an analysis of how big or small the signals in question are—how intense they are. Remember that FIML practice strongly encourages discussing even the very smallest of signals. FIML does that because small signals are easier to isolate and analyze; clearly seeing a small signal often is sufficient to understanding a big habit. Small signals can snowball, so they should not be ignored.

____________________

first poster OCTOBER 1, 2012

Psychological disorders shift throughout life, defying easy categorization

It has long been known that the more severe a mental disorder is, the greater the variety of symptoms it will manifest.  A news study based on longitudinal data shows that virtually all psychological disorders shift throughout life, rarely maintaining the same diagnosis.

“Better than any particular diagnosis, three parameters described each person’s mental health over their life: (a) age of onset, (b) duration of symptom history, and (c) number of different kinds of comorbid disorder symptoms. People with younger onset of symptoms, more years with symptoms, and more different kinds of symptoms tended to be the same people. These people also had more indicators of poor brain health at age 3, steeper child-to-adult cognitive decline, and older brain-age on structural MRI at midlife,” Caspi explained.

“This finding cautions against over-reliance on etiological theories, research hypotheses, and clinical protocols that are specific to one diagnosis. Studying disorders one at a time does not accurately represent most patients’ lived experience of shifting across disorder families.”

“Studying one disorder may mislead about specificity and hide transdiagnostic discoveries from view. There is a need for measurement instruments that capture shared liability to shifting disorders across the life course in order to make discoveries more efficiently. There is also a need to develop transdiagnostic treatments that can prevent many different conditions,” Caspi said. (New psychology study finds people typically experience shifting mental disorders over their lifespan)

IMO, if we base our understanding of human psychology—including disordered psychology—on signals, the problem of wavering diagnoses becomes clearer.

A complex signal system once disordered cannot be expected to a maintain homeostasis of “disorderedness.”

The agony of speaking

My SO and I are doing some painting. Mostly it’s fun, but as we discuss colors and color combinations, it has become glaringly obvious that it can be extremely difficult to talk about what we want but easy to convey our ideas by showing an example of what we want.

I wanted to do something in brown. Words flew all over the room but got us no closer to mutual understanding, let alone agreement. We looked at color charts on the computer but couldn’t agree on what we meant by saturation, muted, lighter, or darker.

My SO, who is much better with color than I am, thought the meanings of those terms were obvious. “You’re overthinking this! You must know what lighter and darker mean!”

“Not when I consider luminescence or saturation, I don’t. I really don’t.”

Is a red-brown lighter or darker than a blue-brown? More or less saturated? I honestly was lost in the terminology and was driving my poor SO crazy.

After several days of this, at some point I noticed my wallet lying on the table. “This is what I mean,” I said. “I want a color like this.” The wallet was a well-worn, dark, leathery brown.

She immediately knew what I was talking about now. “What you want is a really dark brown… that’s almost a black.”

Excited, we went back to the color chart (which has 3,500 color variations) and looked into a different classification of browns. Low and behold, the darkest one available—Tarpley Brown—is exactly what I wanted.

So,  I had something in my mind’s eye but failed repeatedly to convey it to my SO through the use of language. She tried to figure out what I meant but kept searching for a more woody sort of brown while becoming increasingly confused by my groping attempts at description.

From this, we can see how difficult it is to understand other people or even ourselves. Many important aspects of being human simply do not have clear examples in the world around us and are much more difficult to put into words than a color.

Military thought experiment Part 4: Did China already do it?

In Military thought experiment Part 1, I described how a force of 10,000 military operatives could conquer a nation of 100 million within a few generations and without most people even noticing.

Key factors in the success of that operation were ruthlessness, deceit, long-term planning, plausible deniability, and the use of “subtle weapons” such as poison. physical maiming, propaganda, educational misdirection, medical malpractice, and character assassination.

Plausible deniability for each and every attack (including the overall attack) is of paramount importance for the success of such an operation. Each individual attack must be deniable or excusable as a mistake if discovered, and best of all never be discovered. Of course, no one but the inner circle must know of the ultimate plan: to conquer a nation of 100 million with just 10,000 operatives.

Has China’s Communist Party already done a similar attack against the rest of the world? Is Covid-19 but the first open onslaught?

Strong similarities with the plot described in Part 1 are plausible deniability, ruthlessness, and use of a “subtle” biological weapon, Covid-19.

Other similarities are the prominent uses propaganda, IP theft, strict control of operatives stationed in USA, educational misdirection, and character assassination.

An attack of the magnitude of Covid-19 would not have been done without well-formed plans for a variety potential followup attacks.

As evidence mounts that Covid-19 may cause long-lasting debilitation even in mild cases, the acutely critical nature of our present predicament should be obvious and alarming.

From a military standpoint, notice the value of plausible deniability, ruthlessness, and “subtle” or asymmetric weaponry:

  • The plausible deniability of the covid attack has left us paralyzed. Squabbling over school openings, masks, and who is to blame for missteps are keeping us from facing reality. I hope our president and military leaders are not being fooled as much as the public. I can understand why informing the public of how serious the situation is might do more harm than good.
  • The ruthlessness of the attack comprises the lion’s share of its effectiveness because most people cannot imagine such a thing.
  • The use of a “subtle” weapon like covid has stretched the umbrella of plausible deniability for over a half-year and counting.

Some questions and concerns for military planners:

Clearly economic pressure from us is not going to win the day, though it will contribute. China has itself deliberately ruined Hong Kong, while cementing deals with Russia and Iran with an eye, probably, to moving their financial capital from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Their deals with Russia show the foolishness of our entangling ourselves in the “collusion delusion” for three years rather than forming a valuable alliance with Russia, as wise heads had advised.

How will we protect ourselves against a second or third bioweapon attack? Vaccines take a long time to develop. If China has already vaccinated its people against their followup bioweapons, what will we do? How long will we wait before reacting? How long will we be fooled by yet another creeping plague of plausible deniability?

Notice that few Westerners even noticed that China was engaged in clandestine military operations to destroy them. Even worse, the West educated, financed, and provided technology, even military technology, to the CCP, often for free.

This shows that secrecy and ruthlessness when played in concert with guile and long-term divide-and-conquer strategies are extremely effective means to weaken and overpower even very powerful adversaries.

By promoting Western allies though bribes and favoritism, over several decades China undermined the West while laying the groundwork for a full-scale bioweapon attack. When the time was right for the attack—when they knew they had lost the trade war—they were already in position to launch the largest military assault the world has ever seen.

Note 07/25: Why we can be reasonably certain China manufactured Covid-19 and released it deliberately

Continue reading “Military thought experiment Part 4: Did China already do it?”

Plants filter out green light to protect photosynthesis from “noise”

Plants are able to make photosynthesis more efficient by filtering out spectra of solar light that change most rapidly in their environments.

Protecting themselves from such “noisy” input allows them to obtain “quiet” outputs of energy.

This provides “…a unified theoretical basis for the experimentally observed wavelength dependence of light absorption in green plants, purple bacteria, and green sulfur bacteria.”

That quote is from the study: Quieting a noisy antenna reproduces photosynthetic light harvesting spectra.

Nathaniel Gabor, one of the authors of the paper, said of it: “Our model is the first hypothesis-driven explanation for why plants are green, and we give a roadmap to test the model through more detailed experiments.” (emphasis added)

This general principle—turning noisy inputs into quiet outputs—can probably be applied to many other systems, including human psychology. In this respect, many human behaviors could be viewed attempts to achieve quiet, steady, or consistent outputs by reducing noise.

FIML is a super efficient noise reducer.