Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Tutorials on Kreia I: Healing

What are the things one can sense in the Force? It is one of the most relevant and yet least asked questions. A storyline which recounts many fo the possible associated questions and their provisional answers is the story of Kreia set in the age of The Old Republic. And at one point Kreia answers as follows:
"What you feel is the echo of the minds of these creatures within the Force, their Anger, their Greed, their Desperation ... It is Life!"
In the series of posts entitled "Tutorials on Kreia" I want to take a closer look at her ideas and thoughts on the Force, it's role in the Universe and our ability to use it and our fate to be controlled by it. For a proper understanding what I will elaborate here it is useful to have had a look at the interpretation of The Force I gave in a series of posts called "Tutorials on Narratives". In this post I want to focus on Kreia's ideas on Healing.

Why is someone, or something, in need of healing? Evidently when there is a fracture or a tear of some kind. It is quite evident in these stories that Kreia is not talking about physical healing. In her world there is no magical healing of the wounded, the lame let alone a physical raising of the Dead. Kreia is not the kind of person to tell magical mystery stories overflowing with romantic notions of healing. She is neither talking about healing in a sense related to mental health of any particular kind. Kreia is no therapist, she is a "Force User" and her notion of healing sounds unfamiliar and somewhat eerie when you hear it for the first time, she says
"It requires that one be able to feel the critical point within the fractured mass, and know how to strike it in such a way that the echoes travel to your intended destination."
What gives it its unsettling feel are the words "strike" and "intended destination" which we associate with inflicting pain and with having a hidden agenda. Both concepts that seem entirely out of place in the context of healing. How could we heal something which is fractured by striking it? And how could we prevent healing something or something to become in-genuine when apparently the intended destination of our action is not the person or object being healed? However remember that we are not talking about the healing of a physical or mental affliction, but of the a different kind of healing. In Kreia's view healing is an act of manipulation. An act through which we take influence not just on a single person, not just on a small group of people, but rather we are affecting an entire story-line. The choice to heal, or not to heal, someone is an act through we which make certain futures more likely and certain futures less likely. All the future actions of the healed person may deviate from all the future actions the same person had taken when healing had not occurred. Kreia supposes we should always contemplate healing alongside with all the counter-factuals.
Kreia focuses in her teachings on the lives of people and she sees them as sub-plots within a large narrative, or pool of narratives. An overarching narrative that is not yet finished, has not yet reached a conclusion and to which many different conclusions are conceivable. Healing is just one of the many forms of manipulations she sees applied to this overarching narrative and so healing does not have a special status, not is its effect to be underestimated. But in particular, whether or not an act is an act of healing depends on the effect it has on the overarching narrative, the narrative it creates. Healing is not healing an individual, physically or mentally, it is healing a narrative. And so if she speaks of  "the intended destination" what she refers to is the narrative your action, your healing, aims to evoke. All actions are but "strikes" whose echoes aim at a larger thread weaved into the tapestry of reality. When applied at the critical point at the right time the echo might travel very far indeed. Or in her own words
"Manipulation is done through propelling events, or selected ones, into motion. It is done through teaching, through Example and through conviction."
The greatest narrative of all is the story of our entire universe, that pool of narratives we call The Force. A narrative that can fracture people, societies and whole regions of a star system. Fractured in a sense that is only sensible within such a vision of the Force as the overarching narrative that surrounds us and binds us. Such fractures can only be mended when the fragmenting narratives are replaced, or countered by healing narratives. And she shares with Yoda the full confidence that if The Force is applied to yield such healing with conviction, then nothing can stop it. For she says
"The greatest victories are not manipulations at all, but simply awakening others to the truth of what you believe. Of hearing it echoed around you, in Life."
Kreia often employs the metaphor of an "Echo" and I will come back to that in a different post. Kreia can seem extremely cold-hearted and utilitarian in her approach of her fellow human beings. But that is mainly because they are not the center of her focus, something we do not easily accept. But that doe snot mean she leaves them completely out of consideration and only has ulterior motives, no quite the opposite. She acknowledges they key importance of human actors in the pool of stories that make-up the backbone of the Force, the grit and meat of our universe. She is very aware of how these interconnected narratives pressurize and push each other to conform to achieve a degree of compatibility and homogeneity. She calls on us to be acutely aware that all such bundles of narratives have their critical points, where a well placed "strike" can encourage convergence of divergence of narratives with great repercussions for other parts of the story.

It is exactly because she is so lucid about these issues that her seemingly calculated and cynical rationality is merely the outer-shell of a passionate drive to achieve freedom and liberation of the will of the Force. Because when you follow Kreia's through to their conclusion you either fear to end up in a galaxy that is filled with manipulative cynics or in a Galaxy where the only hope for humanity resides in "plot-holes", in "holes in the Force". But I will leave such consideration for a future post and end this one with a final quote from Kreia
"But let us be silent, Words and Thoughts are distractions. Feel this moment, for as long as it will last.Feel Life, as it is, with that crude matter stripped away."

Monday, November 04, 2013

Tutorials on Narratives III: The Power of Narratives

The Force is my ally, and a powerful ally it is
In my first post in this series on narratives I wrote about how you can view "narratives" as genes of our intellectual and emotional life and, yes, for our behaviour. In the second I suggested considering the interaction between us humans and such "narratives" as akin to the interaction with The Force portrayed in Starwars. I want to continue that line of thought here now and ask the basic questions that the arise out of that comparisson: If we equate "The Force" with this pool of narratives that we interact with, then how can it be "powerful"? How can we manipulate the real world through out "use of the Force"? And how can things that seem impossible become possible when you do not fail to believe?

That is why you fail: is one of the things Yoda tells Luke when Luke comes to learn from and study with Yoda in "The Empire strikes Back". But Luke despairs and responds "you want the impossible" and turns his back on Yoda. But the story goes on and recounts how Yoda demonstrates it is not impossible. To which Luke responds by saying "I don't believe it!" and Yoda retorts "That ... is why you fail".

This scene is a crucial scene in the entire saga, not only is it the first real exposition of what the Force is but it also clearly establishes the Force as something that can be "used" (and thus also abused) and yet is an independent existence as well. So does my proposal of viewing "The Force" as a metaphor of "the pool of narratives that surrounds us and binds us" break down here?

There is a "use of the Force" in creating connections between objects by creating a narrative that connects them. Our narratives are patterns in our thoughts and ultimately in the signalling and dynamical processes in or brains. Connecting things that we perceive as outside of ourselves, such as the tree, the rock and even "you" as outside "me", to ourselves means matching patterns of perception of these "outside" objects to patterns of information about ourselves. Everyone who has ever witnessed the amazement with which a month old baby can stare at its own hand barely realizing this "thing" as part of herself, should be able to appreciate that the "recognition of connection" comes before the recognition of function. What helps us to recognize connection is a narrative of sorts. In some cases our brain produces these narratives almost instantaneously by anthropomorphing the subject of our perceptions. With mammals this is easy for us, probably because they share some of the very basic codes of narratives with us. Most of us can almost sense a connection with primates and dogs and there are many reasons to believe that, for example, with dogs this is a two-way process. Creating such connections with non-mammal or even non-living objects is harder and requires narratives that run even deeper and are more elaborate. Creating a felt-connection or "recognition of connection" between you, the rock, the tree and me creates a sense of the possibility of a "use" which may lead to a recognition of function.

The narrative of "recognition of connection" is a crucial element of step 2 of "using the Force". The story-arc in the above video fragment shows Yoda creating a story-line in which there is a connection between "the land and the ship". If objects can have bonds with each other, then can't the bond between the "Water and the ship" (current situation) be replaced by a bond between the "land and the ship" (desired situation)? Luke believes it can't be done, because in Luke's mind the connection between the water and the ship resides in the physical characteristics of the current situation. In Yoda's mind the connection between the water and the ship is an expression of the Force, an expression that he can influence because he can add a narrative that connects the land and the ship existing on an equal footing with the narrative of the water-ship connection. Luke does not look at things that way, in Luke's mind this added narrative does not alter anything about the physical constraints of his situation. He is unable to make the connection and feels as if he is demanded to believe in miracles. The subsequent levitation of the ship out of the water unto the land by Yoda is of course an allegorical expression of Yoda's firm belief that because the connections, water-ship and land-ship, are both "from the Force" they can thus also be interchanged through the Force. The physical characteristics do not matter for this part of Yoda's narrative, which is why he recommends Luke not to judge him by his size. They key question in this scene is not "do you believe in miracles (levitation)?" The key question is: "do you believe in the desired outcome being possible"? Yoda believes in that possibility because he is aware of the role of the narratives, of the force, in how he relates to his surroundings and in shaping what he believes about them. The scene ends by Luke, though his eyes are opened and he sees the possibility of the desired outcome in front of his own eyes, still expressing his disbelief. He had to "live through the new narrative" in order to start integrating it  into his selection from the pool of narratives. He has not yet understood that he can create narratives without the need of living though them first ... and that ... is why he fails.

"Use of The Force" thus translates into the creation of connection-type narratives that allow the recognition of function and allow one to see the possibilities hat are actually there. There is no miracle here, no claim to levitation as a "real-world event". Yoda's levitation act only describes that the desired outcome is truly a possible state of nature and can thus be achieved by identifying the appropriate function of the things surrounding us. Many a theoretical physicist might claim that the real "meat" of a physics problem is recognizing the proper physical narrative, once that is done then all else is a matter of recognizing the appropriate tools from mathematics by their functionality and then to use them mechanically to find the solution sought. Many undergraduates initially fail in such problem-solving, when new to the field, because they fail to recognize the connections between the physical concepts and their mathematical expressions and fail to recognize the functionality of physical law. Many initial students of a musical instrument fail to see the connections between the notes of a piece and the motor-functions of their hands. Those connections are however all narratives! The pool of narratives one possess can be used to identify responses to challenges from the environment, to recognize with which parts of the environment one is connected and what functionalities those parts have. A trained survivalist is an expert at identifying such connections. The Force, when viewed as such a pool of narratives, empowers us by allowing us the use of these narratives. So if narratives allow us to use them in problem-solving in a very general sense, then in which way do the narrative use us? How can they wield power over us? What is the power of the Force?

A pool of narratives creates a sense of purpose, and in my previous post I drew the analogy with the "selfishness of the Genes" metaphor used by Richard Dawkins. The evolution of the fittest is beyond all a "contest" between different genes, and their mutations, to determine which of them, through embryology, supplies the particular fenotype, of the species they generate,with survival advantages.This contest between genes is "battled out" in the contest between species and their environment (including individuals of the same and other species). If this environment was constant then what we would see is two-fold: on the one hand an ever increasing specialization of species to optimize their fit with the environment. While at the same time in increasing diversity of solutions that "look" very different but give the same weighted advantage. Typically any single problem can have multiple solutions. This contest of DNA-based genes gives a "sense of purpose" of the struggle of different phenotypes for survival. We can take the pool of narratives into this equation and assert that because of the existence of fast processes of rewiring of brain cells, cell death and specialization of dormant stem cells the neural network of our brain can adapt to narratives that optimize survival probabilities  Our thoughts and actions being the intellectual and emotional "phenotypes" of a deeper layer "genotype" narratives that interact with each other. Here too, if we wish to be radical, we could view the "phenotype" struggles within us and among us as ways in which the different "genotype" narratives enter a contest of sorts. Again this would give us a "sense of purpose" which is not unlike the manner in which some of these narratives indeed describe the human condition. The degree to which the narratives "use us" in their struggle for survival through us is what you an refer to as the "power of the Force" or the "Will of the Force". So having elucidated how the notion of "using the Force" fits within this framework of thought as does the notion of a "Will" or "Power" of the Force, then why must the Force be sensed and felt? When it is all just a bunch of stories, then why can't Yoda just read them to Luke and get it done and over with?

The Force is the pool of "genotype" narratives, not the plethora of chatty and confused "fenotype" narratives. Luke is training to become a "Force-user", a Jedi, this means that he needs to become aware of the power of the "genotype narratives", the fact that they are not just products of his own mind and subject to his will. To know them, he must quiet his mind and sense them! For they are not "mere stories" that Yoda can read out to him. They are delicate patterns in Yoda's mind and in his, Luke's, mind. Patterns that also involve the activities of the mitochondria of the nerve cells. I severely doubt whether such narratives have an expression in words at all, some may possibly only be expressed in the form of images and metaphors. But a Force-user it not just restricted to "listening" but is encouraged to become a narrator herself. Becoming a narrator by changing, mutating and adding to or subtracting from existing narratives in interaction with the surroundings as well as with other humans and other "Force-users".

Before Luke came to Dagobah to study with Yoda he had taken his "first steps into a larger world" guided by Obi Wan. Obi Wan taught him that sometimes his senses can deceive him and now Yoda has taught him that sometimes the narratives he tells himself about the world can deceive him. Lue is on a journey during which he must learn to become a narrator of stories that can empower him and others, narratives that can redeem a fallen hero and change the course of history. But also that he must become a listener, a listener to the deep wordless stories pulsating through the brains of all living organisms. Stories that contain the echos of events long past, occurrences that happened far, far away and that might resonate with the roots of stories whose events are yet to come.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Tutorials on Narratives II: Narratives and "The Force"

Narratives form a DNA of our intellectual and spiritual life.
I tried to clarify that point in my previous post on this topic. But there is so much more to be said and thought on this topic. In this post I want to connect the idea with some of the characteristics of what the StarWars Universe calls "The Force". Let me first sidetrack for a moment into the biochemical "roots" of some of the crucial StarWars mythology around the concept of "The Force"

The Force binds all things together. Or in the words of Master Yoda:

"Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship."

Yoda raises a number of interesting points in his typical alternative syntax. First of all he ascertains that "The Force" is created by Life. You might be tempted to read this in reverse, that he is saying The Force. But in ordinary "Yoda speak" he would have then said: "Life IT creates". But he doesn't. The Force is a presence that has come into being from Life's origin, it is not the creator-deity that has created life in the first place. The second part of that first sentence is deliciously ambiguous. Because is Yoda saying that "Life makes The Force grow"? Or is he saying that "The Force makes Life grow"? I take this ambiguity to be purposefully left like that. Yoda wants to emphasize that there is a mutual interaction between Life and The Force allowing them both to grow in the presence and under the influence of the other. That is why in StarWars mythology the deepest connection between the Force and it's adherers, the Jedi and the Sith, is not found in their piety, not found in their codes of conduct, in their religious rituals or anything along those lines. No, rather what connects the Force-Sensitive to The Force is the most primitive life-form imaginable: Midichlorians. Or in the words of Qui Gon Jin:

"Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you'll hear them speaking to you."
What real-world biology offers that comes closest to the organic function that "Midichlorians" have in the StarWars lore are the so-called Mitochondria. These are organelles within our cells, and the cells of most species of organisms on this Earth, that are largely responsible for the cell's energy production and they play crucial roles in cell-differentiation, signalling between cells, the cell cycles and cell death. Although the evolutionary origin of mitochondria is not entirely clarified, the proposal that finds most support in the biological data is that of their "endosymbiosis", i.e. that they developed from single-cell lifeforms that arose independently before going into "internal symbiosis".i.e. they became internal constituents of their symbiotic partners.

Signalling happens not only between the cells of the host, but also between the host and the guest. The key idea in the Starwars implementation of the fictious "midiclorians" is that these organelles are not only aiding the cells of the host in communicating among eachother, as the mitochondria do in the human body. But in addition StarWars myth assume they communicate with the host as well, a communication which the host can only take part in when she is capable of hearing past the chatter among her own cells. Evidently there is no biological evidence for this, at least not that I know of. But the matter is subtler than you might think. Mitochondria in nerve cells also play crucial roles in the standard normal operating procedures of the brain.

Our sensory input is translated into correlations in activity of brain cells across vast regions in our brain. The processing of these inputs involves patterns of activity, signalling between nerve-cells and adaptation of the network structure of our brain to the information that was processed. The network of brain cells is far less passive then people think, far less passive than human biologist thought two decades ago. A striking difference between modern computers and brains of organisms is the capability of brains to adapt their structure. Brains do so in two distinct ways. The "slow process" is the standard evolution by mutation and selection of the fittest. The fast processes are re-wiring of dendrite connections in the brain, the "programmed" cell-death of nerve cells and the "activation" of undifferentiated stem-cells in the brain and their specialization into new brain cells. These are all processes in which these mitochondria play crucial roles.

Narratives enter our brains through our communication with each other and the translation of these inputs into modified narratives that we can communicate to other humans beings thus relies on the same crucial formation of correlations between brain cells' activities. The brain displays fast and slow processes of adapting to the information it receives, either by temporary and small structural change or by very slow changes "written into" the DNA recipe's for the brain through mutation and the selection of "fitter" structures to accommodate advantageous narratives.

We like to believe people make up their minds and select certain choices but we rarely ask ourselves whether the reverse could also be true to some extent: "Certain choices embed themselves into the minds of people". Our brain definitely offers the range of dynamical phenomena for such an "active role" for choice-alternatives to be there. The "reasons" that we spell out in justification of certain decisions we took "freely" might just as well be the narratives that took hold in our brains. Our "free choice" merely a phenotypal response to the changed "narrative make-up" of the correlation-structures in the activity of our brains. If you win a debate, you don't win it based on the soundness of your arguments, you win it when your narrative is adopted by your opponents brain-cells.

The notions of "The Force" and "Narratives" are connected. When you go back to my quote of Yoda you might see that in the latter part of that statement he showcases The Force as something that must be sensed and that connects and correlates. He does not construct a deity, a superior being, nor does he list a long arrangement of "dogmatic truths". All Yoda does is say that The Force can be sensed in the form of connections you make between objects that seem without connection. Apparently Yoda is referring to The Force as a "pool of narratives" that serves to connect seemingly disconnected objects of "crude matter". And Qui Gon Jin takes it a step further by assigning a "Will" to that pool of narratives that the midichlorians communicate to us. How can that be? Can there be something like a "will" associated with something that is at best a "pool of narratives"?

The "Selfish Gene" was a term coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book with the same title. The undercurrent in that book is a sense of purpose in Evolution when seen from the point of view of genes.In my first post on this topic I argued that one could view the impact of narratives on our behavioral make-up in a similar fashion as the impact of genes on our biochemical make-up. In the processes in our brain through which we come to choices, decisions, actions and where we form the patterns that we communicate to as well as about our fellow humans the biochemical genes and the narrative genes collide and quite possibly collude. Assigning a "will" to a pool of narratives is in one-on-one correspondence with assigning "selfishness" to a pool of DNA molecules.

When you learn to quiet your mind you'll hear them speaking to you is what Qui Gon recommend Anakin. Now we can finally translate this puzzling sentence into more "operational" terms. "Listening to midicholrians" is the attempt to become as conscious as possible of the structural changes with which narratives impact on your thinking, to filter these weak signals out of the plethora of possibly louder and more chatty signals that your brain cells flush through your senses and body. And what these signals can tell you, the "Will of The Force" is the sense of purpose that comes forth from this ever changing pool of narratives that influences the world in which you live. Quietly contemplating the narratives that are flying around in the world, sensing the kind of correlations these narratives create in your thinking, in the patterns in perception that flash by in front of your eyes, and finally attempting to analyse what sense of purpose this pool of narratives projects: that is what a Jedi does.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Tutorials on Narratives I: Narratives as a second set of "Genes"

What are narratives and why are they so important to us? 
So important that some of us cry out "canon" if a set of narratives that appeals to our emotions or spirits seems in need of order and regulation? Do we live of narratives?

It has become fashionable to think of human behavior as either guided by the optimization of utility (as in Economics) or as anchored in the un- or subconscious labyrinth of childhood experiences and primitive desires (as in Freudian psychology) or as residing in the exquisite electro-chemical workings of the complex brain. And no doubt there is more truth in some of these ideas than we would like to admit, and less of it than some would like to pretend. No doubt we partly live our lives and do our deeds within a range of options given to us by what our DNA has manufactured during our earliest stages as a phoetus.

DNA founded the biochemistry of life, inherited from generation to generation with small random changes as we pass it on. A recipe for every new human being is already present in the recipes according to which those who came before him/her were put together.  For billions of years this has been the single model of inheriting and passing on information that was crucial to our survival. It was the way the universe learned to live.

We humans represent a new stage in this process, though maybe it already kick-started before we appeared. But somewhere in the history of life on Earth a combination of DNA-ingredients put together a life-form that developed a non-vanishing awareness of what it meant to be alive. And with it must also have come a process, a structure, that allowed this life-form to pass on this fledgling awareness, somewhere in the "mirkwoods" of mammal ancestry I would guess.

Hence there is the subtle "DNA of narratives" in addition to our molecular biology. It too, especially in its oral tradition, is a matter of inheritance and a substance of "natural" selection. For stories that come down to us through the centuries somehow possess a quality that makes them capable of appealing to humans throughout the life-ages of this Earth. Pity those who believe that their value is determined by whether or not they are historically factual or not. Mourn those who hold that the impact of these narratives depends on the scientific accuracy of their contents. Forsake those who believe the narrative needs to be canonized for it to be worthy, for too little do they know. Biochemical DNA is neither canonized, nor a collection of factualities, but it to is a storyline of a pathway that animates the inanimate. Narrative DNA is no different.

So why are narratives important to us? Because they shape our world in very much the same way as our DNA does. Narratives are not a blue-print for life, as DNA isn't. Narratives are not unchanging as DNA isn't. For life to evolve, yes for life to survive the constant random change of its DNA is essential. So often it merely expresses and "old solution" in a new manner, so often it produces something genuinely novel. New elements being added, other elements being active in conjunction to produce new answer to old questions of survival and of life. So do these narratives around us.

We are alive in order to pass on unto the next generation. For countless millenia this passing on was restricted to the biochemical information within out DNA strands and that was done in the fiercest of competitions under natural selection. But our species need not rely solely on chemistry and biology to pass on to a next generation what we value and what held us alive and sane. What anyone of us needs at the end life is a great story, a good narrative that you can pass on. Something to give to your children if you were fortunate enough to have them, something to pass on to students, to apprentices, to readers of a letter, an article or a blog; or just to a stranger you met while waiting in a ticketing line for airline check-in.

So I will spill some of my narratives here and leave them for you to either pick them up if you think they may serve you well, or to ignore them if you have already seen to much pretentious bullshit on the internet.