The Science of Detachment

Montreal, Sept. 22, 1998

Why is it that the things we most want to remember, we forget, and the things we most want to forget, are permanently etched in our memory? ... Murphy's law?

Whenever I think about horseback riding, my mind goes back to a painful experience in Saskatchewan in the sixties; ... it was painful for me and painful for the horse.

I was out in nowheresville, working on a seismic crew and a couple of pals and I decided to do some riding to break the boredom. We found a ranch that did rentals, but it was not what you would call your standard 'dude ranch' where all the horses line up like burros when they see the riders coming. What was waiting for us on this ranch were 'the horses from hell' and it was not as if we were devilishly good riders.

After several 'difficult' experiences, I asked the ranch owner to 'puhleese' give me a horse that would have just a little bit of respect for the bothersome bulk clinging desperately to its back. He was very obliging and picked me out a palomino with eyes which seemed a little less hysterical than those of my prior steeds. As the ranch faded into the distance behind me, things were continuing to go well, he was responding to the subtlest of my knee and rein movements and my tensions soon gave way to an incoming tide of relaxation and enjoyment . When we came out of a wadi and hit the ubiquitous prairie flats again, I slacked off on the reins, gave him a bit of heel and he took off like a scalded ape. Soon, we were racing across the prairie looking like one of those old westerns where the film technology makes the most casual of behaviors look like Charlie Chaplin doing the jitterbug.

Suddenly and without a trace of a warning, my horse did a 90 degree right turn, leaving me in open space where I executed a 360 loop in the vertical plane before rolling along like the tumbling tumbleweed for some distance, until I finally came to rest and was able to re-inventory my body parts. I was furious. This was the most devious and deceitful deception that any animal had ever perpetrated on me. There were no prairie dog holes, no snakes, no rocks, nothing but flat, continuous prairie. As I went to fetch him, he could see the hysteria in MY eyes and he avoided me. Ultimately, he relented and faced me with a knowingness that his time for penance was nigh. When I got hold of his reins, I did something I had no idea I was going to do, I punched him in the side of the schnoz, with all the force I could muster. He screamed and reared in the air, showing me the undersides of his hoofs, inches above my face, but he did not strike back.

I felt disgusted with myself, and couldn't quite believe what I had done in spite of his pernicious provocation. I mounted up, headed back to the ranch and began to refocus my anger on the rancher. But the wind had been taken out of my sails. My rage had been washed away by waves of regret for having so viciously attacked my four-legged brother, .... and by the memory of his baleful, submissive eyes reflecting back my devil gaze, which for some moments, tinted the air and smoldered the prairie grass between us.

When I relayed the story to the rancher, he was non-plussed as this was not at all in keeping with my mount's normal demeanor. Suddenly he had a thought, and asked me for the precise location of the incident. He nodded as I told him, and recounted that a few years ago, several of his horses, including the palomino, had huddled together at that exact spot during a thunderstorm. Lightening struck and one of my horse's mates had been quite literally burned to a crisp.

Shortly after, we moved camp several hundred miles to the north, and I was spared from having to look again into those eyes.

Memories, where do they come from? Inside of us, outside? ... woven into the tumbleweed? Incidents like this make one reflect on some of the mysteries and paradoxes of life. As we know from psychological investigations, involuntary or 'implicit' remembrance (as opposed to voluntary or 'explicit' table-lookup type remembrance) seems to come cascading into our awareness, triggered by an association here or there, a peculiarly situated patch or two of prairie grass perhaps, .... associations which may reach critical mass not unlike a nuclear chain reaction, bringing on a flood of web-like connections which, in their coming together, constitute the qualitative patterns we call 'implicit' memory.

To me, 'implicit memory' is a truly wondrous thing, the way we can 'tune-in' to such subtle and unique patterns and later recall them in an experiential way, .... like the way we can catch the tiniest faraway glimpse of a friend, even if walking away from us and partially obscured by traffic or trees, and to just KNOW that that is her. This type of remarkable phenomena, so-called 'nonlinear' phenomena, is what science always steers away from delving into. Have you ever thought of why that is?

Have you ever thought about the fact that we not only have two types of memory, implicit or relational-pattern-based and explicit or 'thing-based', but we also have two types of learning; 'spontaneous' learning as is 'pulled' by real-time 'ontogenetic' need, and 'non-spontaneous' or 'discipline'-based learning as is driven by calculated need, and two types of perception, 'intuitive' or 'center-based' perception which involves 'top-down' bootstrapping (bringing many things into connection) based on relational patterns, and 'rational' or 'center-pointing' perception which involves 'bottom-up constructs' based on 'things' and causal structures.

What's a bit strange here is that science, and our scientific western culture, seem to be obsessed with the latter at the expense of the former; i.e. the cultural focus is on discrete euclidian stuff, and seems to assume that we can get everything we need from the study of 'things' and their tangible transactions rather than having to look at the complex web of relationships which links things together into meaningful space-time patterns. How can an earth observer looking down at mercury and venus buzz around the sun, know that mars and jupiter are circling around behind his back and tangibly influencing not only the observed motions of mercury and venus but also the manner of his observing them?

But this is not the MOST curious thing about our scientific culture, in my mind. What is MOST curious is that our science has been exclusively based on generalization rather than uniqueness. For example scientific laws are all about replications and repeatibility, right? Sure, there is a certain sense of security in being able to start from a generalized suite of observations, plug them into a rule structure, and voila!, there's the predicted result which replicates past with present experience. Horses are things that gallop across fields, right?, ... and fields are things for horses to gallop across. Put the two together and what have you got, a comfortable outing as any rational person can tell you.

But wait a minute. Doesn't this generalization stuff fly directly in the face of 'implicit memory' and unique pattern recognition? Isn't life more about learning rather than replicating results? And isn't there usually some 'chemistry' between generalized things when you actually put them together? ... like a particular horse and a particular field which one could never have discerned from studying each of them separately?

So what IS really going on with this 'generalization' process which underlies all of science and the formulation of scientific laws; i.e. what happens to the uniqueness of our experience as we increasingly base our activities on generalization-based laws and rules?

Henri Poincare spoke to this in his 'Science and Hypothesis' at the turn of the century. Basically what he said was, 'mathematical-physical laws or rules are nice, and they will get you replicatable or predictable results, but beware that they have now't to do with how the world really works, and if you want to UNDERSTAND how nature really works, you'll need a different tool than generalization'. i.e. there's no mathematical-physical laws for evolution, it's a wonderful process, but as far as generalizable rule-making goes, it is awesomely and fundamentally pathological.

You can also think about it in terms of the so-called 'inanimate'; i.e. have a pile of sand to which you are adding sand grains one by one to the crest. They trickle down the flanks in way which is determined by impossibly tiny structural details and dynamics (think of boulders tumbling down the mountainside), and this detail extends down to the molecular level or worse. Each grain then becomes a participant in a web of compensating tensions, based on every tiny sandgrain and its particular structural geometry and how these geometries comes together with every other one across the whole complex. And each new sandgrain dropped onto the crest doesn't simply ADD structural detail, it changes THE WHOLE CONFIGURATION. This is called 'self-organized criticality' and is pervasive in nature. Self-organized criticality implies that there is no way to predict where and how the next sandgrain is going to lodge on the pile because of deterministic chaos, and therefore, no way to know how the web of forces will be reconfigured and therefore no way to know when the configuration will break, causing an avalanche, nor if it breaks, how it will break; i.e. what size of avalanche will be triggered.

Self-organized criticality is like the remembrance my horse experienced, certain sensory inputs started to come into an associative web and the web built to the point that there was an avalanche of neuronal firings with the result that I was unsuspectingly launched into space without my parachute.

You can see the picture, right? Scientific laws based on generalization and replications, .... and this is the way of all of traditional science, seek to remove the uniqueness from our experience in order to buy predictability, they seek to make our experiences replicatable, predictable, common. In other words, they seek to bypass learning and the unique aspects of experience.

'Knowledge' based on rational thought, or scientific laws, is re-usable experience, right? But what is the price we pay to make our experience re-usable? The price is 'uniqueness'. If we want to be rational and scientific, this means that we can only look at the generalizable aspects of our sensory experience, the common aspects of what we have seen previously, and that means that we cannot look at the world 'anew', ... as with a child's innocent eyes and see in it, the beauty of its uniqueness, a beauty which is beyond culture, beyond bias, beyond knowledge.

Science is the art of 'detaching' ourselves from the uniqueness of our experience, and to see only those common aspects of things which we already 'know about'. Science has us basing our perception and inquiry on the 'bottom-line' features of our experiencing, and scientific 'knowledge' is the vulgarization of experience, that's why Heraclitus was on Hesiod's and Pythagorus' ass, he felt they were missing the point, ... i.e. the 'knowledge of many things' is fine and dandy, and rather useful, but IT DOES NOT TEACH UNDERSTANDING.

So science is the art of detaching ourselves from the uniqueness of the experiential moment, ... the art of instantly reframing our rich and unique ontogenetic voyage, .... to re-conceptualize it, .... in terms of generalities, so that we can plug those generalities into an established algorithm and crank out some predictions. Let's see now, what do I know about women? Shall I compare them to a summer's day, ....hmmm, far too unique and unpredictable. On the other hand, I 'know' they all have this and that in common, and that if one says or does this and that, it will generally result in this or the other. .... This is the antithesis of the child's experiencing. What is going on here?

While we give it unqualified deity status in the west, 'literacy' is an emancipator, if not 'detacher' of knowledge from our unique experience. Not every culture deify's it; i.e. in the native american tradition (the aboriginal tradition), oral story-sharing was sacred and the motivation to capture these stories in fixed symbolic form was not only non-existent, it was anathema, because, it was felt, fixed symbols do not evolve, whereas understanding is only 'understanding' in the context of our ever-evolving ontogeny.

It is not difficult to see why it is so, ... .i.e. why it is that our unique, pattern-based understanding cannot be detached from our experience and fixed in concrete as 'knowledge' without losing its living essence; i.e. it is because understanding is based on relativistic, relational pattern recognition which connects the observer and observed within the common container of ontogenetic flow, ... while knowledge is a unilateral or 'objective' entity which is seen as existing in its own right, independent of the observer and independent of ontogenetic flow. That is, when I, the earth, am experiencing the activities of Mercury and Venus, what they are doing is innately coupled to what I and Mars and Jupiter are doing. If I describe what they are doing in terms of local structural detail and call it 'knowledge', and come back to it at a later time, though I may be able to 'replicate' their TANGIBLE interactions within their local 'sphere', I will be unable to reconstitute the harmonies of the overall system on the basis of that knowledge, .. the feeling of connectedness. That is, I will be unable to re-create the harmony of the whole, .... the qualitative feeling which informs you whether you are living in the moment, ... in ontogenetic time, or whether you are 'offline' in rational thought.

The difference between 'living in the moment' (intuitive intellection) and 'talking about it' (discursive intellection) is purely 'qualitative' and associates with the resonant relationships amongst observer, observed and the space-time container in which both participate. One cannot re-create this qualitative understanding through generalization-based techniques, such as logical 'explanations'. The critical information needed to re-constitute the original experience is 'discarded' in the generalization process. This is why the native american oral tradition seeks to continually share and re-interpret the wisdom of the past, to keep it a resonant part of the evolving ontogeny so that full experiential understanding is preserved rather than just the isolated mechanical aspects, out of the context of the evolving container and observer.

And you may say, as the naturalists do,. .... who the hell needs the relativistic resonant phase information stuff, we live in a world of tangibles and that's what we need to focus on. Well, as in 'Kilroy was Here', the point is that qualitative patterns induce tangible emergent behaviors, so if we want to have a chance of understanding 'complexity' (i.e. to live and evolve), we are going to have to be able to interpret qualitative pattern information, the mother of emergent behavior. If Jupiter hiccups, so does Mercury and we won't be able to predict that from a detailed study of the tangibles of Mercury.

Scientific rules and rational thought, because they are statistical generalization based, can only capture the repetitive component of phenomena seen as disconnected systems-in-themselves. They cannot reconstitute the 'shared space' feeling of interdependent resonances (co-resonance) between subject, object and the containing vessel. Again, the information which informs us on the observer-observed-containing qualitative patterns of evolutionary flow, aka 'experience' is what we drop out in the traditional scientific and rational thinking approach.

It seems clear that our culture, or segments of it, is shifting towards an emphasis on knowledge over experience, or replicatable rules over evolutionary 'tuning-in'. Political correctness is an exemplar of this trend. The whole basis for Ken Starr's pursuit of wrong-doings by Clinton, is a literal interpretation of the rules as they pertain to the participants seen as a system-in-itself; Starr is looking at Clinton and Lewinsky as a rationality-blindered Earth observer might look at Mercury and Venus, thinking in terms of detachment between the subjects of his investigation, his manner of investigation and the community vessel which contains both. What is 'done' to Mercury and Venus will impact the entire system, including the observer, why not switch off the mental computer and turn on to 'experiential mode'?

By approaching perception and inquiry in this manner, we are starting to look like computers. Computers operate on the basis of rules and explicit memory. They have no 'implicit' memory which allows them to take into account qualitative patterns which range beyond the space-time focus of the 'problem', and from which emergent behaviors may be induced to redefine the problem, the computer and the ontogenetic vessel which contains them. Computers, as they focus down and in on the problem, 'center-pointing' style, cannot see the inter-relating pattern of issues which extends outside of the 'program', across the corridor behind them and down the street, enfolding them, the central subject or 'actor', even, in an ontogenetic process which determines how 'they' are working the problem. Can a computer think and say to itself; 'perhaps the people standing behind me as I work won't like my output, and will modify me or unplug me as a result, heaven forbid.' If the computer could become a participant in the ontogenetic flow, ... i.e. become more than a 'knowledge machine', ... i.e. it would then be an 'experiential machine' aka a 'living organism'. But this is not impossible, .... no one knows of a machine which can recognize patterns which include themselves, they cannot perceive and inquire into the behavior of Venus and Mercury while maintaining an ontogenetic awareness that what they are 'center-pointing' down and in at is part of a dynamic system which extends around behind them to include not only them, but other entities which partially determine how they perceive and inquire into what is in front of them. Such 'shared space' awareness is the gift of life.

Experience and evolution is about the recognition, and implicit remembering of qualitative patterns whose relational webs extends both 'out in front' of us as well as weaving for us our container of which we are an evolving part. Patterns which weave together the observer, the observed and the container which shapes them both are 'ontogenetic' patterns, and our recognition of them is what makes us a part of the ontogenetic flow called 'life'. Rational knowledge and language (i.e. 'discursive intellection'), the child of experience, is what 'detaches' us from the ontogenetic flow, and enables us to explicitly record and share a mechanical facsimile of our experience. This is the role of language and literacy. The problem is not with these marvellous faculties, it is one of confusing the natural primacy of experience over knowledge, and detaching ourselves from our evolving experience, in the process.

Somewhere in the boonies of Saskatchewan, there's a patch of prairie ground which looks like any other patch of prairie ground, but it's different, ..... it's sacred ground, but you can look at every blade of grass, every stone, and every particle of silt that's on that patch of prairie and you will still not discover what that sacred difference is. To do that, you'll have to turn around and catch a glimpse of the Palomino framed against the horizon, whinnying and nuzzling the sky as if in search of answers. Look into his baleful eyes and then you will understand what you can never understand from a lifetime of rational explorations.

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