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Readings: 15 Jul 2016

“Learning How to Read”, by Niklas Luhmann:

This leads to another question: what are we to do with what we have written down? Certainly, at first we will produce mostly garbage. But we have been educated to expect something useful from our activities and soon lose confidence if nothing useful seems to result. We should therefore reflect on whether and how we arrange our notes so that they are available for later access. At least this should be a consoling illusion. This requires a computer or a card file with numbered index cards and an index. The constant accommodation of notes is then a further step in our working process. It costs time, but it is also an activity that goes beyond the mere monotony of reading and incidentally trains our memory.

As of this morning, I have written some seven hundred and twenty-seven thousand words in my journal. It is indeed mostly garbage. But for the last five years, I’ve aimed to write seven-hundred and fifty words every morning1 and that writing has been transformative. Insofar as I have good ideas, they emerge from banging on the keys for awhile, seeking quantity over quality, and sifting for needles in the haystack.

Luhmann is talking about notes from the things you’ve read, but I think the same concept applies to one’s own writing. Consistently externalize your reactions, your speculations, your thinking. Save it, store it, make it feel like a body of work – any given selection may be worthless, but it doesn’t have to be garbage. It can be compost.

In “Neurons Gone Wild”, Kevin Simmler builds on an idea from Daniel Dennett: that neurons are feral cells, able to exercise agency in order to maximize the resources they are provided by the body. An inactive neuron is an ignored neuron, so what if neural plasticity is driven by the search for new work?

Daniel Dennett:

Why should these neurons be so eager to pitch in and do this other work just because they don’t have a job? Well, they’re out of work. They’re unemployed, and if you’re unemployed, you’re not getting your neuromodulators. If you’re not getting your neuromodulators, your neuromodulator receptors are going to start disappearing, and pretty soon you’re going to be really out of work, and then you’re going to die.

Simmler goes from there to imagine larger emergent structures of coordinated agency:

At the level above simple modules, but below the self, are poised what I will call sub-personal agents. These are systems like drives or instincts – hunger, lust, curiosity, greed, addictions – that have agency recognizable even to lay-people. We don’t need neuroscience to reason about these agents because we can ‘feel’ them, through introspection, pulling at our psyches – faintly or insistently, gently or violently. And indeed, people have been reasoning about these systems, as agents, for thousands of years.

Sub-personal agents aren’t capable of using language directly (like the self is), so their agency is limited and less outward-facing. But they nevertheless have real power, in that they’re capable of influencing the cognition, emotions, and behavior of the human creatures they inhabit. They’re also capable of co-opting the reasoning process to justify their desires.

It’s interesting to thing about how the mental model of sub-personal agents can explain the importance of practice – which brings me back to Niklas Luhmann:

The constant accommodation of notes is then a further step in our working process. It costs time, but it is also an activity that goes beyond the mere monotony of reading and incidentally trains our memory.

By accumulating masses of reading notes, we train a sub-personal agent to seek structure in things we read, to extract that structure, to draw connections. It becomes a drive, that makes us hungry for those connections. Likewise, what if a meditation practice cultivates a sub-personal agent desiring for your attention to return to the object of meditation? Simmler goes on to echo Julian Jaynes, who believed that consciousness only emerged as a neccessary response to increasing social complexity.

Now this is what I find especially profound. If we accept that the brain is teeming with agency, and thus uniquely hospitable to it, then we can model the self as something that emerges naturally in the course of the brain’s interactions with the world.

In other words, the self may be less of a feature of our brains (planned or designed by our genes), and more of a growth. Every normal human brain placed in the right environment – with sufficient autonomy and potential for social interaction – will grow a self-agent.

Of course, Simmler is just playing with mental models. None of this is empirically validated. But if “speculative neuroscience” is a genre, sign me up. I promise to just enjoy it and not take the conclusions too seriously.

  1. I’ve followed through on 1,104 out of 1,661 days since I started. ↩︎