Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Jose Saramago, The Lives of Things (2013, 1995)

At a very early age, children learn the difference between artifacts and living things: the inanimate and the animate.  In fact, one of the things that the human mind does quite well from an early age is to categorize things.  These are often referred to as ontological categories.  Children recognize intentionality in animals, and they recognize that artifacts lack intentionality. The animate are characterized by motion, and their ability to communicate in some capacity.  Artifacts do not move on their own, nor do they have an ability to communicate.  Very early in life humans develop certain expectations about these categories. Yet there are some adults who come to believe that they can talk to artifacts and that the artifacts can listen to them and perhaps respond as if they were living things.  Religious icons are an example of these artifacts.  When we believe that icons can hear us speak and respond in some way, this violates our expectations of the inanimate.  When those violations occur, we have entered the realm of the supernatural, the paranormal.  Why does this happen?

In Religion Explained, anthropologist Pascal Boyer poses a number of supernatural notions --- many of which are linked to a religious idea associated with a particular religion (not just the predominant religions), and some others that he just makes up --- and what he is interested in is determining whether the listener (or reader) can say that a particular religion has been built up around the idea.  They range from "Some people get old and then one day they stop breathing and die and that's that" to  "There is one God! He knows everything we do" to "Dead people's souls wander about and sometimes visit people" to "When people die, their souls sometimes come back in another body" to "We worship this woman because she was the only one ever to conceive a child without having sex" to "We pray to this statue because it listens to our prayers and helps us get what we want" to "This mountain over there eats food and digests it.  We give it food sacrifices every now and then, to make sure it stays in good health" to "The river over there is our guardian.  It will flow upstream if it finds out that people have committed incest."  Obviously, the first does not seem like a notion that a religion would build up around because it is part of our every day experience.  But we should recognize a religious affiliation with the others. 

Religious representations, says Boyer, are particular combinations of mental representations that satisfy two conditions.  "First, the religious concepts violate certain expectations from ontological categories.  Second, they preserve other expectations."  A very frequent type of counterintuitive concept is produced by assuming that various objects or plants have some mental properties, that they can perceive what happens around them, understand what people say, remember what happened, and have intentions.  A familiar example of this would be that of people who pray to statues of gods, saints or heroes.  Not just artifacts but also inanimate living things can be "animated" in this sense.  Boyer reports, "The pygmies of the Ituri forest for instance say that the forest is a live thing, that it has a soul, that it "looks after" them and is particularly generous to sociable, friendly and honest individuals.  These will catch plenty of game because the forest is pleased with their behavior."

What Boyer is getting at is quite consistent with Jeff Hawkins' model of the cortex. (See November 16, 2013 post).  Boyer describes these as inference systems.  We quickly make inferences about something we experience derived from higher level categories --- object vs animal vs plant, for example.  In Hawkins' model, our memory of these higher level categories, "concepts," is retained in the higher cortical areas. Within the synapses of the hierarchical structure of the cortex described in On Intelligence below the higher cortical areas contains our memories of more narrow categories of more specific objects, animals, and plants and their respective attributes. The hierarchical structure of the cortex described by Hawkins resembles the structure of taxonomy.  Taxonomy is a "powerful logical device that is intuitively used by humans in producing intuitive expectations about living things.  People use the specific inference system of intuitive biological knowledge to add to the information given."  But why then does the brain persistently retain memories of non-real --- supernatural --- concepts?

Biological inferences are not always valid, Boyer admits.  He refers to this as the enrichment of intuitive principles. 

In describing his research about supernatural concepts, Boyer writes, "Our reasoning was that the present explanation of supernatural concepts, on the basis of what we know from anthropology, also implied precise psychological predictions.  Cultural concepts are selected concepts.  They are the ones that survive cycles of acquisition and communication in roughly similar forms.  Now one simple condition of such relative preservation is that concepts are recalled.  So [we] designed fairly coherent stories in which we inserted various new violations of ontological expectations as well as episodes that were compatible with ontological expectations.  The difference in recall between the two kinds of information would give us an idea of the advantage of violations in individual memory.  Naturally, we only used stories and concepts that were new to our subjects.  If I told you a story about a character with seven-league boots or a talking wolf disguised as a grandmother, or a woman who gave birth to an incarnation of a god after a visit from an angel, you would certainly remember those themes; not just because they were in the story but also because they were familiar to start with.  Our studies were supposed to track how memory stores or distorts or discards novel material."  Boyer's research showed that "long-term recall (over months) shows that violations [of expectations] were much better preserved [in memory] than any other material."  It is not strangeness per se that is preserved; it has to be a violation of an ontological category.  So among the expected attributes of the ontological categories of living animals is that they die.  Anthropocentric gods who purportedly live forever violate expectations associated with our ontological category of living things; they are therefore more likely to be preserved in memory.  Likewise for statues that talk and listen and respond to human speech or thinking.  This is true across cultures, only the details on top of the ontological/conceptual violations vary. 

So concepts that violate our expectations of reality stick in memory.  This does not sound particularly surprising. A previous post, not surprisingly connected to a Jose Saramago publication, emphasized the relationship between storytelling and memory (February 26, 2013 post): "This is not the first time that a post in this blog has connected Saramago's work with the subject of memory.  In The Notebook (September 28, 2010 post), the Nobelist created a memory bank in blog form.  In the posting on his final novel, Cain (December 20, 2011 post) I remarked, "I also believe storytelling evolved in part to preserve our memories of things past. (See August 15, 2011 post). And storytelling, whether historical or fictional or both, enables the construction of both personal and social/group identity."  And Saramago is a master at clutching collective memory --- history we call it --- and creating stories --- fiction we call it --- as in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reiss (June 28, 2011 post) and Baltasar and Blimunda (January 1, 2013 post)."

This finally brings us round to Saramago's collection of six early short stories, The Lives of ThingsThese are stories that stick in memory.  Three of the short stories are constructed around artifacts --- "things," a centaur, and a chair that topples an oppressive dictator --- that violate our expectations of the ontological category of these objects.  A few sentences from the story "Things" triggered my memory of Pascal Boyer's research:

"There was a time when the manufacturing process had reached such a degree of perfection and faults became so rare that the Government (G) decided there was little point in depriving members of the public (especially those in categories A, B, and C) of their civil right and pleasure to lodge complaints:  a wise decision which could only benefit the manufacturing industry.  So factories were instructed to lower their standards.  This decision, however, could not be blamed for the poor quality of the goods which had been flooding the market for the last two months.  As someone employed at the Department of Special Requisitions (DSR), he was in a good position to know that the Government had revoked these instructions more than a month ago and imposed new standards to ensure maximum quality.  Without achieving any results.  As far as he could remember, the incident with the door was certainly the most disturbing.  It was not a case of some object or other, or some simple utensil, or even a piece of furniture, such as the settee in the entrance-hall, but of an item of imposing dimensions; although the settee was anything but small.  However it formed part of the interior of furnishings, while the door was an integral part of the building, if not the most important part."

The "incident with the door" occurs as the story opens, virtually ordinary in the way Saramago describes it:  "As it closed, the tall heavy door caught the back of the civil servant's right hand and left a deep scratch, red by scarcely bleeding."  The civil servant decides to have this small wound treated at office infirmary and when explaining to the nurse how he came to be scratched, the nurse responds that this is the third such case that day. This incident presages a wider series of incidents that pits objects against living things. What unfolds is a revolution of objects against living people --- presumably in response to the Government's policy that manufactured goods could be made to lower quality standards; as the title of this volume implies, things (objects) come alive.  Ordinary useful everyday objects begin to disappear:  a pillar box, a jug, doors, stairs, utensils, clothes, and ultimately entire buildings and blocks of buildings.  Nobody sees anyone taking or removing these objects; they seem to disappear of their own volition when no is watching, in the dark.  This tale violates our expectations (inferences) associated with the concept of artifacts (objects).  Things do not have volition, intentionality.  But the tale is likely to be preserved in memory a bit longer than had Saramago not presented these "things" as a metaphor for people whom the government/society's power structure treated as objects that could be made to lower quality standards. 

There are those who contend that a god or other supernatural being (omniscient, eternal) must exist and our beliefs in these supernatural beings (as well as religion in general) is genetically hardwired.  (See November 30, 2009 post).  In contrast, I suggest that what is genetically hardwired is our brain's disposition to not discard, or discard only with significant cognitive effort, concepts that violate our expectations of reality.  Hence, beliefs in the ability of artifacts and imaginary unseen things to engage in behavior that we associate with living things simply stick, and they are rendered stickier when human cultural institutions reinforce those beliefs or concepts.  This is beginning to sound like Gene Culture Co-evolution or the dual inheritance theory.  (See September 12, 2012 and June 17, 2010 posts).

What I have not been able to understand or reconstruct yet is why the sensory inputs that the lower levels of the cortex are constantly bombarded with during our encounters with the physical world do not overwhelm the sticky concepts stuck in higher cortical areas that violate intuitive expectations?  Boyer describes humans as information hungry, in need of cooperation from other humans including the provision of information by other humans,  and this cognitive niche is our milieu, our environment.  We have a taste for gossip, information about other humans.  Because humans are in need of cooperation, they have developed mechanisms for social exchange resulting in the formation of groups and coalitional dynamics.  But the human mind is not constrained to consider and represent only what is currently going on in the immediate environment.  The human brain spends a considerable amount of time thinking about "what is not here and now."  Fiction --- a Jose Saramago story --- is the most salient illustration, says Boyer.  "One of the easiest things for human minds to do is to produce inferences on the basis of false premises.  Thus "thoughts are decoupled from their standard inputs and outputs."  (See June 28, 2011 post). "Decoupled cognition," writes Boyer, "is crucial to human cognition because we depend so much on information communicated by others and on cooperation with others.  To evaluate information provided by others you must build some mental simulation of what they describe.  Also, we would not carry out complex hunting expeditions, tool making, food gathering or social exchange without complex planning.  The latter requires an evaluation of several different scenarios, each of which is based on nonfactual premises (What if we go down to the valley to gather fruit?  What if there is none down there?  What if other members of the group decide to go elsewhere?  What if my neighbor steals my tools? and so on).  Thinking about the past too requires decoupling.  As psychologist Endel Tulving points out, episodic memory is a form of mental "time travel" allowing us to re-experience the effects of particular scene on us.  This is used in particular to assess other peoples behavior, to reevaluate their character, to provide a new description of our own behavior and its consequences and for similar purposes. . . The crucial point to remember about decoupled thoughts," says Boyer, "is that they run the inference systems in the same way as if the situation were actual.  This is why we can produce coherent and useful inferences on the basis of imagined premises.  . . Hypothetical scenarios suspend one aspect of actual situations but then run all inference systems in the same way as usual."

Thus fantasy --- which includes not only stories like those in Saramago's The Lives of Things, but also religious stories that violate our inferred expectations of reality --- succeed to the extent that they activate the same inference systems of the brain that are used in navigating reality.  "Religious concepts," concludes Boyer, "constitute salient cognitive artifacts whose successful cultural transmission depends upon the fact that they activate our inference systems in particular ways.  The reason religion can become much more serious and important than the inference systems that are of vital importance to us:  those that govern our most intense emotions, sharpen our interaction with other people, give us moral feelings, and organize social groups. . . .Religious concepts are supernatural concepts that matter, they are practical."  Boyer summarizes:  What is "important" to human beings, because of their evolutionary history, are the conditions of social interaction:  who knows what, who is not aware of what, who did what with whom, when and what for.  Imagining agents with that information is an illustration of mental processes driven by relevance.  Such agents are not really necessary to explain anything, but they are so much easier to represent and so much richer in possible inferences that they enjoy a great advantage in cultural transmission."  So the fantastic that violates ontological expectations is not just sticky in our memory for that reason, but because of the facility by which the fantastic is culturally transmitted, its stickiness is enhanced as a matter of group memory and supports the human need for cooperation and social interaction.  Will Saramago's stories of the fantastic --- for example, the Iberian peninsula breaking away from Europe and floating out to the Atlantic Ocean in The Stone Raft, a community's near complete loss of sightedness in Blindness, death taking a holiday in Death With Interruptions --- enjoy a great advantage in cultural transmission?  Probably not.  These stories are labeled fiction, and we understand the stories as fiction.  They likely exploit the same inference systems in the brain that we rely upon to experience and navigate the real world.  They may be memorable, but cultural exchange --- save the temporal book club meeting --- is not likely to be constructed around these stories.  This is likely a result of what John Searle refers to when he mentions "the sheer growth of certain, objective, universal knowledge." (See January 21, 2011 post).  Cultural transmission of religious concepts began long before there was any volume of certain, objective, universal knowledge.  Religious concepts now compete for our attention to objective, universal knowledge, as evidence by the Dover, Pennsylvania litigation over teaching "creation science" in the schools.  (See March 14, 2013 post).  And while our brain's enduring capacity to retain and rely upon decoupled concepts is persistent, it might not be emergent in our modern cognitive niche if it had not been emergent centuries ago when we lacked substantial certain, objective, universal knowledge.

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