Some decide to devote the same amount of time to writing as to reading. Thoreau, Emerson recalls, had made it a principle to give no more time to writing than he had to walking. To avoid the pitfalls of culture and libraries; for otherwise, what one writes is filled with the writing of others. For all that those others in turn had written on the books of yet others … Writing ought to be this: testimony to a wordless, living experience. No the commentary on another book, not the exegesis of another text. The book as witness … but witness in the sense of the baton in a relay race. Thus does the book, born out of experience, refer to that experience.
— Frederic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking
I write with the blood that goes to the ends of my fingers, and it is a very sensuous act.
— A. S. Byatt, Paris Review
The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. Ernest Hemingway
I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself.
— Fran Lebowitz, Paris Review
Knowledge is a series of bindings of truth, from the initial sensation and perception, to spoken and written language, and its home in memory. Truth — it is such an absolute word, can we even use it? Truth is existence independent of an observer. We depend on error-prone observation to know it, but plainly the world exists without us. We apprehend truth better by understanding the errors of knowledge.
Binding is an act of fastening, securing and uniting. Books have binding. Books are a stack of papers bound on one edge, a spine. I bound books with glue in my father’s print shop. Sometimes books are stitched with thread. Websites are also bound, pages linked to a central domain name. A common thread runs through the content. Books are covered, stating the title and author. Websites are covered with a home page. A binding and cover give the impression of a unified identity, as if knowledge is ever tidy.
Binding is also associated with footwear. Mechanical bindings are use to attach feet to skis. Once bound, the skiier can move across snow at a rapid pace. It is good fun and exercise but skiis also compel the skiier in just one direction. A person is more agile on snowshoes or foot, able to cut across fields. Knowledge, too, limits agility, mental agility. Knowledge binds a mind, compelling it to look in a particular way, occluding other directions.
Knowledge is a series of five bindings of truth, summarized in the figure and table below. Links to related articles are provided.
|Name||Description||Types of Error||Links|
|Sensation||Visual stimuli in the lifeworld are captured as images on the retina. (Other physical stimuli are processed by other sense organs.)||Attention to stimuli depends on the importance of the viewer. Images on the retina are two dimensional, completed by the mind.|
|Perception||An image on the retina is carried through the optic nerve to the brain for interpretation and consolidation into memory.||Experience is interpreted, classified and blended to form single memories.|
|Speech||Speech organs evolved first for basic bodily functions such as feeding and breathing. It evolved into language.||Spoken language is localized. Words can be used to speak of things even when they are not present. Words can be used to speak of things that do not exist. They can used for persuasion||http://johnmiedema.com/?p=843|
|Written||Learning to read, the brain becomes encoded with the specific shapes and sounds of words. Written words are correlates of spoken words.||Written language has similar errors as spoken language. In addition, written language does not require the presence of a speaker. A dead person can speak.||http://johnmiedema.com/?p=850|
|Memory||Human and computer memory has different systems for short-term and long-term memory. Input is encoded differently for concrete and abstract inputs.||Memory is encoded into neural or digital format. Neural memory is non-deterministic while digital memory depends on explicit instructions.|
The five bindings stretch the truth. Supposing each binding gives the same distortion, our final grasp of truth is only a fifth of the original, twenty percent. What good is knowledge? Is it a lie, a movie, a trip into the Matrix? Twenty percent is actually quite functional. Consider the Pareto Principle. The principle states that for many events, eighty percent of the effects come from twenty percent of the causes. For example, eighty percent of a company’s business comes from twenty percent of its customers. Think too of a driver in the rain. The driver’s visibility is greatly reduced, sometimes less than twenty percent. The painted white guidelines on the road are still enough to get a driver home. In many cases, your knowledge is still a good guide.
The fifth and final binding of knowledge is memory. Human and computer memory are different types of binding, but still a binding, a transformation of original experience into a reduced form, a simpler and lesser representation, with error.
Human brains have short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memory works like a “scratch-pad” that allows for attention and processing at the same time. It is limited to about seven “chunks” of data. Long-term memory stores an unlimited amount of information almost indefinitely; forgetting is a problem of access.
In some ways, computer and human memory is similar. A computer has random access memory (RAM) that works like a scratch-pad. Similar to human short-term memory, RAM is a limited resource meant for temporary storage. A computer’s disk functions like long-term memory for indefinite storage. Binary encoding in computers is comparable to neural activation — a neuron either fires or it does not, depending on its activation and threshold.
The comparison is limited. Computer memory is mathematical and deterministic. The letter “A” is mapped to a number in an ASCII table, 65, and then encoded as binary, “01000001.” An image is converted to a pixel array and colours mapped to numbers. Audio is a signal that can be plotted on a graph. Language is a series of letters and video a series of images. Memories are precisely addressed and maintain state unless deliberately edited.
In contrast, human memory is non-deterministic. Memory is distributed throughout the cortex in a network of meaningful associations. Parallel processing is required for all mental functions. Replaying a memory changes it, adding the experience at the time of recall.
The fifth binding of memory has different types of error, depending on the system, human or computer. Humans forget things in seconds unless conscious effort is applied. Memories are constantly being rewritten. Remembering is really an act of creative remixing with new experience. Computer memory is deterministic, but at a price. The quality of the memories depend entirely on the hardware and software used to capture and encode the data. A program will deliver no more than it is explicitly instructed. Non-deterministic human memory can mean more error. A vital memory can be forgotten. But non-determinism is also a factor of sophisticated capability. For example, memories encoded in different parts of the brain allow retrieval through alternate pathways, very handy in the event of partial damage.
So how do you like the rabbit hole? Back in March I cautioned that this work, After Reading, is a trip down a rabbit hole. The recent topics about the five bindings of knowledge must have some heads turning. It is all part of Section 1 in the series, focusing the nature of books and knowledge.
The essays can be a bit abstract, I know. It is essential spade work for content that is to come. You will have noticed a bit of repetition across essays. I try to write short standalone essays because that is what works on the web. If an essay depends on a previous one for context, I succinctly repeat the essential points. I am also experimenting with an “agile” style of writing. The idea of agile comes from software development, where code is released in quick sprints and then improved through iterations. I am doing the same with my essays. It is part of a grander plan, undertones for later sections that talk about reading and writing machines, the precursors to machine life. Rabbit hole indeed.
I try to entertain you with sketches and stories. I hope they are sufficient bait and that, once in, you find the ideas compelling. Section 1 will be completed by year end. Heads up. Next year’s focus will be mainly visual. My art skills are slowly improving and I plan a visual leap for next year. I think you will enjoy it. Thanks for reading!
Knowledge is a series of bindings. Each binding has two aspects, physical and mental. A sensation of a bird is a physical event but an incomplete picture that only gets only gets filled out by the mind. The perception of a bird starts from the physical sensation and then interpreted based on cognitive processes and memories. The spoken word is a physical sound about a perception or a memory of one. Written language can be seen by the eye but is an abstract reference to speech.
Each binding is a metaphor, with both literal and symbolic components. A metaphor uses a literal tangible thing in the world to symbolize an abstract intangible concept. The world is a stage. Most people can easily visualize a stage, a stand for actors performing a drama. Shakespeare used the metaphor of a stage to express Macbeth’s feelings about the insignificance of life.
There is a fifth and final binding, memory. Memory plays a role in each binding, e.g., the sensations to which we attend depend on priorities in memory. Memory can also be understood as a separate binding, transforming the experience of a thing in the world once again.
Cognitive psychologists observe how concreteness and abstraction feature in how the human brain stores memories. As an undergraduate student in the eighties, I studied the psychology of language. Allan Paivio was known for his dual coding theory, which proposed two different systems for processing visual and verbal information. Words associated with concrete imagery, e.g., dog, are encoded and accessible by both systems. Abstract words, e.g., justice, do not have concrete correlates, are only in the verbal system, and are slower to process. Dual coding explains a number of psychological phenomena in learning, problem solving and language.
The fifth binding is the association of concrete and abstract concepts in memory. We think better in concrete terms but there is resulting error. We know that the world is not literally a stage, yet we bind the two. We associate the use and meaning of the words, stage and world. This binding can limit our thinking. The world as a stage may be a sullen thought, but other metaphors, say, life is a highway, may be more cheerful.
20171016. Note. The difference between concrete and abstract is the difference between a diagram and a picture.
Andy and Gavin had hiked miles when they spotted a shadow of a bird. Andy was quick to shoot but he missed. “Grouse,” said Andy. A grouse is a ground dwelling bird, yet nimble in the tops of trees, especially in the winter looking for buds to eat. Grouse prefer to run from danger but this one was in a tree and flew. Gavin took a second longer to breathe and target. He shot and got it. Andy retrieved the bird, “Grouse. Good eating, no matter what they say.” Gavin looked concerned, “Sage grouse. I’ve read about them. Should be on an endangered list. I’ll be more careful.”
A living bird in the bush versus a dead one in the hand, that is the difference between a thing our knowledge of it. Knowledge is a series of bindings. A thing at its source is a physical energy pattern. Knowledge begins with sensation, the first binding. Light from the pattern is transformed as it creates a pattern on the retina. The pattern continues to be shaped by perception, the second binding. Mental schemas and cognitive biases are used to interpret the image and place it in memory. Speech is a third binding. Talking about a memory alters the pattern again, structuring the concept into a story. Written language is a fourth binding. Text encodes speech, structuring the spoken word into letters, words, sentences and paragraphs.
Each binding has two aspects, literal and symbolic. (The idea is comparable to one in semiotics, the study of signs. Saussure said that signs are made up of a matched pair, the signifier and the signified, physical and mental. I was planning to make a direct connection with signs, but I have been cautioned by smart people that “you’re doing epistemology, and Saussure’s theory is decidedly not epistemology. He has no theory of perception, only a theory of semiotic meaning.” I will carry on in my own way till I get better handle on semiotics. Also, I don’t know much about grouse hunting.)
The two aspects, literal and symbolic, are “closest together” in the first binding of sensation. The shadow of bird is a literal physical event sensed by the eye. The shadow is symbolic of a bird — almost definitely the shadow means the presence of a bird, but there is a possibility of error. Symbols represent a thing, and as such always have a degree of error. When it comes to the second binding of perception, “distance” is created from the original energy pattern. Sensation on the retina is now the literal physical event. Sensation was once removed from the thing itself, and perception is twice removed. A perception is more symbolic, and more likely to be in error. The error increases with the third binding of speech. Sensation and perception generally works as a transaction, i.e., they occur in a direct sequence. Speech can occur much later. The perception in memory may have changed, and the presentation of that memory by the speaker can be jaded with agenda.
The game changes with written language, the fourth binding. In the first three bindings, the literal aspect — shadow, sensation on the retina, spoken word — all symbolize the bird in the world, only with different degrees of error. Written language is different. Language is a literal physical thing: letters are written on a page or clicked on a keyboard, words are published in a book or on website. But written language does not refer directly to things in the world. Written letters do not symbolize literal letters standing up in the physical world.
Written words are correlates of spoken words. Learning letters starts with visual recognition of shapes, e.g., “T” and “L.” The brain learns to detect subtle diﬀerences in words, e.g., “eight” vs “sight” while ignoring big ones, e.g., “eight” vs “EIGHT”. We do not scan words letter by letter from left to right like a computer program, but instead encode units of meaning for easy look-up, e.g, the morpheme “button” in “un-button-ing”. Learning to read, the brain becomes encoded with the specific shapes and sounds of words. There is a tight coupling of brain structures for letters and words and their literal counterparts. (For more on this, see Reading in the Brain by Dehaene.)
The fourth binding of written language is a bigger leap, with more chance of error. The first three bindings pointed to the the thing in the world, the bird. Written language maps to speech utterances. Sometimes a spoken word will sound like the thing it describes. It is called onomatopoeia, e.g., cuckoo, hiccup, ping-pong. This coupling of sound and meaning reduces the likelihood of error in communication. The meaning is obvious even to a new speaker. In rare cases, a written word looks like the thing it describes. It is called iconicity, e.g., the word bed looks like a classic bed with vertical posts on each end. A pictorial language has more of these correlations, such as Chinese, and is less prone to error.
When written language is able to express our experience we consider it a special thing, a gift of words by a poet or novelist, perhaps the occasional non-fiction writer. Knowledge is a series of bindings. The word, binding, is used deliberately. It is a reference to traditional book binding, and also the pain of being tied up. Each binding is a copy of a copy, adding error, compounding an illusion. One wonders if people can know truth at all.