The dial of significance

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

– Rumi

Is anyone familiar with the cognitive psychology literature (even terminology would be a good start!) on how we ascribe particular levels of significance to things?

That is to say, in everyday consciousness, objects, events, and agents feel significant/meaningful to varying degrees. These differences in significance tend to be stable across time, and seem to follow an intuitive evolutionary logic.

“Significance” or “meaningfulness”, as I see it, is a bounded conversation between internal states and feedback from the environment—the machinery of significance ascription is neither entirely scripted at birth, nor generated entirely by external stimuli.
 
By extension, significance levels don’t come fixed, but under normal conditions, it’s impossible to reprogram them arbitrarily.
 
That’s not the end of it, though. Experiments in philosophy/conceptual framing offer a peek into the wider possibility space. High school nihilism shows you that it’s possible to turn the significance dial all the way down to 0. Ecstatic, pantheistic spirituality—”everythingism”, you might call it—allows you to crank it up to, well, infinity.
Thought experiments will rarely get you there, though. We have a whole class of serotonergic compounds whose most fundamental, universal effect seems to be messing with significance ascription.

Is the answer in the serotonin system, then?

“To fathom hell or soar angelic / take a pinch of psychedelic,” wrote Humphry Osmond. But rarely does the psychonaut brush up against classical, embodied celestial beings. Hell, most generically, is the significance dial at 0; to soar angelic is to take in reality at significance-level infinity.*

*There are also experiences of pleasant meaninglessness and agonizing hyper-significance out there, so take my heaven/hell framing with a grain of salt.

Allen Ginsberg’s Lovecraftian Prophecy of the Internet (Palo Alto, 1959)

“It is a multiple million eyed monster
it is hidden in all its elephants and selves
it hummeth in the electric typewriter
it is electricity connected to itself, if it hath wires
it is a vast Spiderweb …

And I have made an image of the monster here
and I will make another
it feels like Cryptozoids
it creeps and undulates beneath the sea
it is coming to take over the city
it invades beneath every Consciousness
it is delicate as the Universe
it makes me vomit
because I am afraid I will miss its appearance
it appears anyway
it appears anyway in the mirror
it washes out of the the mirror and drowns the beholder …

it was there
it was not mine
I wanted to use it for myself
to be heroic
but it is not for sale to this consciousness
it goes its own way forever
it will complete all creatures
it will be the radio of the future
it will hear itself in time
it wants a rest
it is tired of hearing and seeing itself
it wants another form another victim
it wants me
it gives me good reason
it gives me reason to exist
it gives me endless answers

Flags and banners waving in transcendence
One image in the end remains myriad-eyed in Eternity
This is the Work! This is the Knowledge! This is the End of man!

— Allen Ginsberg, “Lysergic Acid”

Writing in Palo Alto in 1959, Ginsberg is purportedly talking about acid.

The business of is-ness

Istigkeit—wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? “Is-ness.” The Being of Platonic philosophy—except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were—a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.

— Aldous Huxley, “The Doors of Perception”

Coming to terms with “construction”

These days, if an argument isn’t going the way you like, here’s one easy way to shuffle the deck: zero in on the subject of debate (e.g. gender, race, intelligence) and point out that it’s a social construct. And on this count, you’ll probably be right. All human experiences are socially-mediated; all experiences with social content are constructed.

At this point, there are two basic ways your sparring partner might respond:

1. By folding. “I guess you’re right. Since X is socially constructed, we can’t really talk about it coherently. Unless you want to have a conversation about how X is constructed! (And honestly, that’s not what I came here for.)”

2. By holding. “Now hold on a minute. All the research data suggest that X is stable across societies and across domains. I’m not so sure we can get rid of it so fast!”

The folders do something admirable: instead of reflexively rejecting inconvenient logic, they come to terms with it. But they’ve also fallen into a trap: where there’s a conversation worth having, they’ve been shut down. Granting that all social phenomena are constructed, the folders have bought into the idea that we can’t have a productive discussion about anything human, without cracking into the hieratic chambers of critical theory.

The holders have the opposite problem. The good: they manage not to give into the nihilism of the “socially constructed” trick—they recognize that there’s still a conversation worth having about X as X, one that doesn’t devolve into endless definitional bickering. The bad: they essentialize, assuming that social construction is not at play, or is barely relevant—a brand of overkill that gets in the way of open-eyed inquiry into the truth.

At this point, you can probably guess that I’m setting you up for a third position: something foxier than 1 and 2, which manages to combine their strengths and avoid their pitfalls. Something like this:

“You’re right, X is a social construct. But that doesn’t mean we can throw it out. X still has power. On a certain level, it’s still very real.”

Agreeable, right? You’d think. But if anything, this is the sharpest jab at the common “socially constructed” trick. How so?

Because at the end of the day, this is the message that we deliver when we call something a social construct: It’s not essentially real. It can be broken down. There’s a higher realm where it doesn’t translate—whether or not you believe that race has a correlate in biology, you have to admit: there’s no chemistry or physics of race. And fair enough.

But here’s the rub: What would be essentially real, anyway? What, if anything, continues to hang together, the further you go into abstraction and obscurity? What could possibly be irreducible?

If you believe in God, there’s your answer. A fundamental, inscrutable, perfect unit.

For those of us who don’t, at least as anything other than poetic metaphor, the situation gets pretty weird, if you think about it for a bit. Race, gender, the species, even biological life itself fall apart quite easily. Generations ago, Newton and Bohr gave us models that suggested we might be able to find refuge in physics.

But like all brilliant approximations, Newton’s laws proved to be relative, as did Bohr’s model of the atom as an orderly unit made of electron orbits nested around an indivisible nucleus. In contemporary physics, the concept of a “God particle” is something people approach with skepticism and fear: every time we’ve tried to trust something as indivisible, it’s broken down before our eyes, leaving us groundless once again.

Unless you care deeply about physics or metaphysics, the failure of the nanoscopic world to conform to our expectations of permanence and discreteness isn’t something particularly traumatic. But turn the lens of “construction” on yourself, and the conclusions become much more alarming.

No matter how complex you are, and no matter your take on what consciousness is, you are reducible in the same way that a chair, a palm tree, or a circuit board is. Your mind, which is typically what you identify as your self, can be described in many ways—but one thing it doesn’t do is stand on its own, a foreign graft upon the material world.

It encompasses things other than what you’d think of as “the self”—look out the window, and your mind becomes part-street; look up at the sky, and your mind expands to contain clouds.

From another angle, remember that your mind depends upon the properties of your brain, which is made out of the same atoms as everything around it, molecularly rearranged and reconstituted in every instant. In other words, the mind generates everything in your world, and is generated by everything in your world.

Plus, “mind” is just my small human metaphor for whatever’s going on—so remember not to take any of those claims too literally. And if it’s who you are, good luck identifying yourself with anything in particular.

This core principal of Buddhism, called anatta (no-self), and corroborated by neuroscience and physics, has the potential to be either terrifying or liberating. Not to trivialize how it feels—I’ve experienced both sides of it—but put those feelings aside for a minute and keep rolling with my descriptive point: you yourself, on the deepest level, are a construct too.

At this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that “construction” is something that our brains do, that whatever’s being constructed—national identity, atoms, chairs, or selves—the process is the same, and it’s primarily cognitive, and only incidentally social.

So what shocks me is that people insist on keeping the conversations separate—treating “social construction” as a special, damning secret about identities and group phenomena, while continuing to treat the self as something like Democritus’ atom, irreducible and subject only to external, social forces—or more simply, just refusing to admit that construction happens everywhere, to everything we have any reason to think or talk about.

If we accept construction as a given, we can no longer use it as an excuse to derail conversations—unless you deeply believe we have no right to talk about anything in the terms that come naturally to us.

Here’s an example: a few years ago, I was interviewing for a job at a company that makes interviewing into a day-long, round-robin debate tournament, the interviewers goading would-be hires into intellectual traps and silly thought experiments. My kind of game.

The first topic of the day, presented to about 8 of us, was free will—same old song and dance, does it exist or doesn’t it. Well-informed nihilists squared off against bright essentialists, getting into the definitional weeds, talking past each other with points from neuroscience, ethics, and classical epistemology. (I’m shocked, once again, by how few people make the leap from “free will doesn’t exist” to “the self doesn’t exist”, outside of Buddhist circles at least.)

I didn’t get the point of the debate, as it was staged. The heart of the matter seemed clear enough to me, so I spoke up: “Unless we’re gonna make this into a debate about souls, free will is obviously something that emerges from neurochemistry. But so is the feeling that we have free will, which itself matters, and isn’t going anywhere. Knowing that ‘free will’ doesn’t ‘exist’ doesn’t change anything!”

And that’s the kicker: while recognizing that all objects and concepts are constructed is interesting fodder for thought experiments and maybe even nirvana, it won’t change the fact that “construction” will never stop. There’s no truly, permanently stepping out of it, because it’s part of our cognitive architecture—and thank God for that.

Object permanence and concept coherence, driven by our innate capacity for metaphor, are what keep us functional in a world of constant flux, where if we can’t get it together enough to acquire resources and forge social bonds, we’re toast.

(We might go even deeper and say that “construction” is an essential property of information processing: to perceive or compute anything, you have to approximate it, and to approximate anything, you need to boil it down into generalized attributes.)

So a final point on the terms real and exist—“everything is constructed” doesn’t just mean that nothing is real, or that everything is arbitrary. It’s easy to leave it there, as I did when I first came down off the God trip at 16, and give it all up to the void of nihilism.

“Everything is constructed” has an equal and opposite meaning too, as strange as that sounds: everything is real, in some sense. Since even the most trivial absurdity, like “purple walruses dance on the moon”, has a nanogram of reality if it creates an image in your brain, concepts like “the Caucasoid race”, “girl”, “Central Park”, and “I” are most certainly real on some level, even if they’re not real in the way a five-year-old, a Sumerian, or a contemporary believer in souls might think.

David Chapman of Meaningness talks about this approach to reality and meaning by identifying two idealized, but helpful poles that get at how things can be both real and unreal at once, depending on your level of reference. These are nebulosity, the universal tendency of objects and concepts to lack perfect boundaries and perfect coherence, and pattern, the tendency of reality to be textured by difference, and for objects of perception to emerge out of it.

Chapman, an AI researcher by training, takes his inspiration for this conceptual framing from the ground principle of Buddhist thought, which makes sense if you think about it, and even more sense if you experience it*:

Form itself is Void, and Void itself is Form.
Form is not other than Void, and Void is not other than Form.
The same is true of Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness.

— The Heart Sutra

The same is true of markets, political movements, identities, wine, and airplanes. To say nothing of you, with your particular circumstances of birth, physical features, and Social Security number. On this point, some closing words of reassurance from Douglas Hofstadter, an honest, relentless chaser of the elusive self:

To see ourselves this way is probably not as comforting as believing in other-worldly wisps endowed with eternal existence, but it has its compensations. What one gives up on is a childlike sense that things are exactly as they appear, and that our solid-seeming, marble-like “I” is the realest thing in the world; what one acquires is an appreciation of how tenuous we are at our cores, and how wildly different we are from what we seem to be … And to my mind, the loss is worth the gain.

– “I Am a Strange Loop”

* We’ll get to “experiencing it”, as opposed to “knowing it” in another post.