“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Marvin Minsky’s Emotion Machine and My Own Consciousness

Is higher immediacy not unlike satori? That is, to really get at the nature of the human being, to really “understand” what it means to be human, is it not required that the human that wishes to “understand” change the way they are in the world, that they somehow re-interpret the meaning of their experience? This change in the way they are in the world is unlike a merely new way of intellectually formulizing existence. It is not a new vocabulary one adapts that clears up why everything is the way it is. On the contrary, it is a new way of being related to language and to existence, not merely a new use of language or a new definition of existence. … Lower immediacy is nature in all its non-human manifestations. Humans developed the seeming ability to delay this immediacy. It becomes mediation, which is verbalization. At its lowest, this verbalization is idle chatter (folk psychology); at its highest, it is philosophy. The former is an immediate-mediacy, while the latter is a mediate-mediacy. We might here substitute Freud’s words: Id, Ego, and Super-ego in place of lower immediacy, immediate-mediacy, and mediate-mediacy (in that order). This seems to be the hermeneutical lens through which Minsky wants to understand the human condition. It suits him as a computer scientist attempting to build an “emotion machine” because it is supposed to explain how “higher order” thought processes like “value” and “meaning” and “ethics” can arise out of a totally naturalistic system. Naturalism demands that all of nature be explainable, if not right now then at least soon enough. Freud’s understanding of the mind was an early attempt at naturalization that failed only (I think Minsky would say) because he lacked the proper theoretical understanding of the brain, or he lacked the abstract ability to break down a complicated process such as the mind into its simpler components. Minsky seems to think computers might allow us succeed with Freud’s theory by picking up where he left off and deciphering the necessary complexities. It seems that he wants to turn emotions into another way of thinking because wants to show how they are just one more tool the brain uses to accomplish its tasks. Distinguishing between emotions and thoughts no longer becomes useful for Minsky’s project because he must explain emotions (i.e. he must verbalize them, make them understandable, objectify them) in order to build a machine that employs them. So our “folk” understanding might lead us to believe that emotions are “internal” and subjective processes that cannot be understood, that they are incommensurable with “external” thoughts, or justifications that can be spoken and articulated intelligibly. Minsky has to do away with this distinction or no “emotion machine” could be built. He must reduce the internal state to the external state because only the external state can be explained and then built. … Immediate-mediacy is unaware of its mediation; it has taken on its culture so unabashedly that it is transformed into nature. This is why the ego can communicate so directly with its peers; it exists in the culture immediately without a view from the outside. Intersubjectivity is all the ego amounts to and so it cannot remain an ego if it becomes florid. Mediate-mediacy is, at least to a point, aware of its own mediacy; it doubts more often than immediacy, reflecting on what is heard before coming to any conclusions (unless it is skeptical, in which case a conclusion not to conclude has been made). For those in mediate-mediacy, nothing is irrational, everything can be explained (at least in theory). Anything that has not yet been understood objectively is approached with the assumption that it is hiding something. An investigation is required in order to discover the misunderstanding. Mediate-mediacy is the super-ego, always doubting, always feeling guilty for what it has done as an ego. This notion of our highest faculty or level of thinking being the one that reminds us of our “sin,” so to speak, is no doubt drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In pointing this out, I do not mean to reduce Freud’s formulization to “nothing more” than a mythological ploy. I’d rather like to say that such mythological ways of thinking are hardly “nothing but”; rather, I think the important issue is for scientists like Minsky to acknowledge their cultural context and their need to use mythologically-founded metaphors to describe their theories to anyone in their community. Such theories are always approximations; yet many scientists often act as though theirs is the be all and end all, while clearly every theory, to even be understood by anyone else but its formulator, must be expressed in a common mythopoeic and traditional sort of way. … For those in immediate-mediacy, a cloud is just a cloud. For mediate-mediacy, a cloud is precisely not a cloud; it is a collection of water droplets frozen at high altitude by low temperatures and held together by upper atmospheric pressure gradients. Even when a cloud is reduced (and thereby revealed) in this way, mediate-mediacy shows its continuously inconvincible doubt by further questioning the definition. How, it asks, can we be sure that a cloud is really a collection of frozen water droplets and not actually a collection of hydrogen and oxygen atoms? And how can we be sure that those atoms are really discrete particles of matter and not simply “clouds” of possibility? It seems that mediateness brings us full circle, right back into the supposedly concealed expression of nature we find in immediacy. This explains the structure of scientific revolutions: one mediated explanation is pushed to its extreme until the entire paradigm collapses upon itself and, for a brief moment, mediacy becomes immediate. This re-union with nature is brief, though; new churches are soon built to conquer her meaning and reveal her secrets one again. Mediateness cannot forget its doubt, even after glimpses of immediacy. The glimpses are fleeting, it says; they are gone before they can even be understood (in words). I specify about the verbal nature of mediate understanding because there is also another kind of understanding, one that is not mediate. But to call it then immediate is misleading, for it is unlike the lower immediacy of immediate-mediacy. It is a kind of understanding which, quite mysteriously, contradicts mediate-mediacy and yet out paces it to the truth. For mediate-mediacy, the truth is always held at a distance; to bring it any closer would be to forgo one’s duty to remain doubtful. It can therefore never arrive in the truth, it must always postpone it. Only a higher immediacy can carry one into truth, though again it is a truth that is mediately incomprehensible. The immediate truth is the presence of truth, and so it cancels doubt, and therefore mediacy. Mediacy is only sustained by doubt, by the absence of truth. In mediacy, truth is conceived of as dualistic; its opposite is falsehood. A fact is either true of false, right or wrong, correct or incorrect. For higher immediacy, truth has no opposite because existence is self-evidently true. For mediacy, concealment always remains, but in the leap to higher immediacy the loop of the mediate quest for revelation is subsumed and immediacy becomes true even while remaining mysterious. … Higher immediacy sees nature as though it were a lotus. At the surface and from afar, it appears to float freely with glowing white radiance as a heavenly jewel amidst the earthly pond. Upon closer inspection, a root is discovered leading down to the murky depths that birthed it, and its radiance fades into a never-ending inward cascade of pedals that disappear into obscurity, like the sun burns itself up from inside out. Veils behind veils behind veils behind veils whose only “center” is the matrix of creation and destruction, the release and entrapment of light into matter, the source of noumenal insight reflecting phenomenal glow. To exist is to be pulled by both body and soul. E=MC2 means that energy (light) is equal to (but somehow distinguishable from) matter accelerated to lightspeed2. Matter at this “speed” is no longer traveling through spacetime at all, but becomes eternal. The bomb explodes because matter is brought to its limit and converted into light. Light is like the soul, existing throughout all time and space. Matter is like the body, existing in a specific time and place. Together they become life, though it seems that only the human being has the gift that tells them so. … Lower immediacy (Id, nature) Immediate-mediacy (Ego, culture) Mediate-mediacy (Super-ego, philosophy) Higher immediacy (faith, trust in the unknown, embrace of mystery) … This latter category (higher immediacy) is not on Freud’s list, of course. Freud’s project, like Minsky’s, is first to subsume the higher immediacy into the lower, and then to reduce both of them to some intelligible pattern or process. This is the project of naturalism. … If one wishes to take the theoretical position that the human being is no more than an intricate and complex machine, then I must, as an Individual, reply that there is a ghost in the machine. There is no other way for me to authentically describe my own existence. The mechanist responds that my position is incomprehensible and therefore absurd. I can only reply by reminding the mechanist that it was his initial thesis that caused my antithesis to become warranted—and that my actual position on the matter requires synthesis. However, the synthesis required is “silent.” It cannot be communicated because it cannot be predicated. It cannot be predicated because it cannot be objectified. The synthesis requires a leap beyond mediation into higher immediacy. Mediation is a contradiction. Its resolution comes only through synthesis; but again, synthesis is an experiential truth that concerns existence and that therefore cannot be spoken intelligibly because it defies objectification by way of mediation into the universal. All intelligible speech is understandable precisely because it is abstract enough to make sense to everyone. The synthesis of essence and existence, or mind and matter, or soul and body can only be lived; it cannot be thought. What can be thought is the universal, the abstract approximations of common sense rationality, the general truths that apply to all people in all situations—in short, to everyone and no one. Higher immediacy cannot be understood; it has crawled out of the primordial soup of undifferentiated lower immediacy and climbed up the impressive knowledge structures of mediacy. Upon reaching the peak, it realized the only thing left to do was jump, and so it leapt into the unknown immediacy of existence as a synthesis between body and soul. To say that synthesis unites body and soul is not exactly correct. The paradox is that, as a body, each finite individuality gets a full connection to the infinite soul; but as a soul, the infinite gets incarnated into a very particular body and appears to become finite. It is neither way alone, nor is it both, nor neither altogether. The synthesis cannot be understood; it can only be experienced concretely, first-hand. … What does it mean to experience it first-hand, and further, how is one to arrive at such an experience? The latter question appears more foundational epistemologically, so let us start there. One arrives at the experience by becoming a question to themselves. No one else can ask the question for them; others can only point at it, or suggest it. Others can attempt as carefully as they can to articulate the unmanifest, to explain the circular, to describe the featureless, to unveil the transparent, etc.; but they can never handover the experience itself. The experience itself is a personal movement, an entirely interior process of self-reckoning that can only be coaxed by exterior influences, never directly touched, never forced. So the “how” is to ask the question “who am I?” Now, what would this experience mean? What does it point to, what does it lead to, what is its significance? The higher immediacy, like the lower, has the peculiar characteristic of standing for itself. It needs no description. It cannot be expressed because it is itself expression; it expresses of itself. Nature is a glorious celebration of beauty and creation, yet it has absolutely no purpose for itself. It exists, seemingly, because it likes to exist—even in spite of all its struggles. The zebra exists despite the fact that the alligator may eat it. The human being in immediate-mediacy lives on despite the fact that his/her intellect deciphers no such thing as existence, and he/she looks forward to tomorrow despite the fact he/she will die. Unlike lower immediacy, the higher is aware of its lack of final and unambiguous definition. The higher realizes and accepts the relative importance of the mediate, in so far as the mediate correctly remedies the blindness of the lower immediacy. However, the higher immediacy goes one step further, over the edge of the intelligible and into the unknowable abyss of existence, the formlessness of the Goddess, the Tao. The higher immediacy does what can never be proven or rationally justified; it makes its movement precisely because it knows it cannot know. This is the paradox of faith. This is the synthesis, the non-dual, ultimate, absolute reality that can only be lived—never can it be described. Again: the “how” is that we must question ourselves and the “why” dissolves into the unqualified presence of the truth made self-evident by experience of higher immediacy. But how are we to ask who we are? If I were to provide you with a method, you would mistake the method for the answer to the question (you’d mistake the how for the what). I instead remind you that the question is your question, your koan, and I cannot provide you with a method because a method would appear indistinguishable from an answer to the question. If I were to tell you to meditate on emptiness, you would conceptualize emptiness as the answer to the question and thereby ignore the question entirely. Emptiness is a word; its significance is realized only in experience. I can only give you the word, never the experience. This again requires that we revisit the why: What does this question mean? What is the significance of the fact that you have no idea how to answer the seemingly simple question of who you are? This dialectic between the how and the why forces us to confront a contradiction; it forces the experience of a paradox upon us. We can only respond in one of two ways: Either we reject the situation (by turning away from the question) and devolve into insanity (fragmentation, nihilism, schizophrenia, etc.), or we accept it and leap into mystery. If we reject it in the way the mechanist rejects it, our insanity may be indefinitely delayed so long as we remain hopeful that, at least eventually, the how (the what) will explain away the why (the who). In other words, the mechanist delays insanity by attaching him/herself to the validity of a general how (a general what) and ignoring the vital necessity of a why (a specific who). The question of how, for the mechanist, is always: how does “it” work (or what is “it”)? Once the “it” has been mapped and all the interactions of its surfaces have been accounted for, the why becomes superfluous. The mechanist does not find the concrete question “Who am I?” of any substantial use because for him/her the essence of the substantial is an abstraction; it applies everywhere and to everyone. The who (the why) dissolves into the necessity of the universal (the how and the what). The spiritualist disagrees, because for him/her the essence of the substantial is existence itself (the what implies the who as its basis); the corporeal reality of flesh and bone human life comes before the abstract mediacy of disembodied theory. This life is most important, more important than the dead abstractions of the mechanist’s how and what. The spiritualist is compelled to question their identity and their inability to come to a final conclusion makes the how and the what superfluous, as he/she recognizes that they will both remain forever uncertain. Certainty is available only to the spiritualist because his/her certainty is the faith required to enter higher immediacy where nothing need be spoken because everything speaks for itself. It nonetheless will always remain foolish regression into childish passion from the mechanist’s point of view, as for them one must always be held accountable and be able to provide rational and understandable justifications for their beliefs. The silence of faith is to the mechanist complete and utter foolishness. Indeed, it may even be considered morally reprehensible.

Originally posted April 2007






One response to “Marvin Minsky’s Emotion Machine and My Own Consciousness”

  1. Andras Magagna Avatar
    Andras Magagna

    I think of that as an impression. I think of what as an expression. I think of how as explanation (proof) for expression. I think of why as justification (reason) for expression.

    I think self as experiencer is that which observes that is that (impression). I think self as expresser is that which subserves that is that (impression) that is what (expression). I think self as explainer is that which proves that is that (impression) subserves that is what (expression). I think self as justifier is that which reasons that is that (impression) subserves that is what (expression).

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: