Our Propensities

“identifying a function for dreams or pretend play or fiction doesn’t mean that we’ve identified the function”

-Jonathan Gottschall-

I am enjoying this book more than I expected.  Often overview-type books of aspects of human phenomena leave me with a touch of “yeah, we all know that (i.e. we experience that), but tell us something new, give us opportunities to create knowledge from new data!”  Gottschall’s book is a well-written tour (akin to the work of de Botton on aspects of human life) – representative of current knowledge, suggestive rather than pedantic, and fluidly engaging.

“Consider the following information:

Todd rushed to the store for flowers.

Greg walked her dog.

Sally stayed in bed all day.

Quick, what were you thinking?…

In the same way that your mind sees an abstract pattern and resolves it into a face, your imagination sees a pattern of events and resolves it into a story…studies show that if you give people random, unpatterned information, they have a very limited ability not to weave it into a story…the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t…it’s usual method is to fabricate the most confident and complete explanatory stories from the most ambiguous clues…the Sherlock Holmes in our brains job is to ‘reason backwards’ from what we can observe in the present and show what orderly series of causes led to particular effects…we will always rather fabulate a story than leave experience unexplained.”

And so on.  In fact, the sentences he writes above are on-the-fly conjured random fact-statements unrelated.  Most of us probably had already begun to fit it into something ‘meaningful to us’ before we finished the third one.  Does this help you see how your view and perspective on reality – your ‘automatic’ or instinctual or deferral mode comprehension ALWAYS needs sorted out with CONTEXT and the empirical world?  Our minds are amazing and unbelievable in their functions and operations (literally), factories of fictions based on ancient genetic messages qua homo sapien, empirical experiences from our own individual lifespans, and an untangleable web of socio-cultural input and in-formation.  We’re fascinating…and utterly unreliable.  Thus we have each other, and our senses and myths and science and all sorts of other-world perspectives to adjust and possibilize our own stories.  Perhaps there are moments our thoughts align with facts, but those will be rare in our lives.

Taken in a context of Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking, John Canfield’s Becoming Human and Alan Singer’s The Self-Deceiving Muse, Gottschall’s delightful foray into the impulsivity of fiction-like brain behavior makes for a savory meal. I’m concocting stories about it even now (it’s sure).

Going Back, Going Forward

I hastily grabbed a notebook of primarily blank pages as I whooshed the children off for a swim.  I needed to study and make notes while they splashed about and played and require pen & paper for the process.  It turned out that the pages containing my writing dated some 15 years ago – journaling from a 4-day solo hike I had made in the Colorado mountains.  Included was this me-of-20-something’s poem:

Ars Poetica 1995

The whole notebook was nostalgic for me – my youthful vibrant concerns for solitude and justice, freedom and nature and virtue.  What struck me about this little number was how consistent (or persistent) the concerns and interests worded here have been (obviously) throughout most of my life.  Seeking purpose, expression, control – recognizing somehow that once language is entered, is invoked, everything changes.  Our purposes, searches, availabilities, capacities, expressions, knowledge, – all gets reworked and revised as we engage in the broader activity of language.

If, as John Canfield theorizes, “in language we never leave the sphere of the social” and that “language is a vague concept with unclear boundaries,” in part because it “grows as more language-games are added to the mix, and as existing ones are enriched in various ways,”  that, fundamentally “language is a set of customs in which words play a role, a set of patterned, culturally determined modes of interaction..” so that with “increasing cultural complexity come increasing complexity of our patterns of interaction” then my lifelong hunches that I’ll never get a handle on it, or master its use, or turn it explicitly to my purposes are a matter of course.

M. A. K. Halliday’s Triangle

Which is also what fascinates, compels and rewards its use.  Again, with such a limited arsenal of units – (take a look at your keyboard and consider for a moment to what gargantuan and variable use we put those 100 keys or so) – every engagement with the tool is interactive, reciprocally shaping and shaped by us, and unfailingly externalizing for our organism – the medium thrusts and immerses us into our society and culture and history and possible futures, as well as all the “thinks you can think” and more!

On the right day, then, my bewilderment in the face of language as my vocational practice gets to be an adventure of constant discovery, novelty, and learning – immersing me in some infinite-like context, warping and woofing my organism into a universe of threads…

all quotations from John Canfield’s Becoming Human: The Development of Language, Self and Self-Consciousness

Homo Fictus

“words are not a translation of something else that was there before they were”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein-

Homo Fictus

 “Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories”

-Jonathan Gottschall-

            Knowing how / knowing why.  Procedures and structures.  Diversify and unify.  Complexity-to-simplicity turned complex all over again.  Reuse and construction.  Stories.

We are saturate with story.  Each word of that sentence.  If I provide the skeleton – you’re sure to flesh it out.   The productivity of words, the how & why of humans.

Perhaps I’ll call it “making sense,” but the sense is there before, what follows is a meaning – through procedures and structures, reuse and construction, the wired and the firing, implicity spinning explicitly – and for reasons not yet fully known, I’ve gotta have mine.

“The knowledge of good and evil, all in one.  Both. 

Somebody finally said, I know my own mind.”

-Janet Kauffman-

            Experience is a complex collision I diversify and unite.  Following patterns infused by my own.  If you provide a list of observations and complaints, I may spend entire days reorganizing them – they didn’t quite “fit.”  Perhaps I’ll throw them back.  I’d like to be certain.

“the absence of doubt is of the essence of a language-game”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein-

            A personalized language-game full of cues, thesauri and symbols – my controlled vocabulary meshing your data…

“The alphabet of my DNA shapes certain words, but the story is not told.

I have to tell it myself.

What is it I have to tell myself again and again?

That there is always a new beginning, a different end.

I can change the story.  I am the story.


-Jeanette Winterson-

            …ah, now I’ve figured it out (made it fit  my form) – this is my story now, please listen and confirm (complexity-simplicity) – oh no?  you don’t? (complexity again) and back to the storyboards or diary…

The yearn is toward some balance, stasis, surety.  Re-cognizable re-currency.  Re-presentation.  Re-anything.  Want familiar.  The excitement may very well come with the disruptions, eruptions, defamiliarization, the constant change – it certainly heightens our senses and intension – the thrill is in the thunderous gathering of troops – flickering flashing neurons – dogs set on the intrusion…but soon we stabilize the perimeter again…incorporate the drama…

“the important thing is to consider the significance of things and not to worry about their authenticity…it’s difficult to tell at the end of the day whether it was theory or need that got you through it.”

-Joy Williams-

            …with our stories (and lies)…our illusory perceptions…needing organized to our organism…and tales are conjured, fiction begins, typing on our limited keys…

…even while the body’s at rest…

“in short, nothing so central to the human condition is so incompletely understood”

-Jonathan Gottschall-

this post inspired in part by