Holistic vs. localized knowledge
The key initial assumption in this book is that knowledge is of collective, holistic nature: for any method of its organization, the knowledge contained in the whole system can not be reduced to the sum of ‘local knowledge’; moreover, some aspects of the total knowledge cannot not localized at all, they are ‘holistic’.
How do cognitive systems work with holistic knowledge? We can see the three following approaches:
Holographic distribution of knowledge throughout the system
Knowledge, embodied in the grammar
Developing general concepts
As has been repeatedly mentioned, any piece of holographic picture provides information about the entire object; although the image obtained from this piece will be less sharp than if we used the whole hologram. Informational networks have similar property: as demonstrated by the NETtalk example, in networks the knowledge it is spread throughout the system and is embodied in the network elements’ knowledge about each other.
In contrast, languages and other sign systems have the property of separability: they make it possible to separate the non-localizable knowledge from the localizable. This is exactly what explains their effectiveness. Typically, a word represents more or less localized knowledge while the holistic knowledge in symbolic systems is concentrated in their grammar.
The content of the word, i.e. the meaning it conveys represent a certain isolated particle of our world, a separate piece of reality. It cuts out some of the world ‘territory’ and gives it a name. In many cases the content of one word is not related to the information contained in other words. For example, the word ‘bird’, we understand quite disconnected from how we understand, say, the words ‘smoke’ or ‘walk’.
Other cases show that the ‘territories’ of the different words’ meanings may intersect. As an example, here one can bring the same words ‘bird’ and ‘smoke’ vs. the word ‘white’. With regard to the word ‘white’ it is also possible to say that it singles out a certain ‘territory’ in the real world, however, this ‘territory’ intersects with others because this word conveys a general, diffuse concept. The child develops his understanding of this word in a different way, not by being pointed to the object as with birds or smoke, but by comparing white and non-white objects; in this case the word refers to the reality through a somewhat different behavioral mechanism.
It is well known that the meanings of words (and other linguistic units) are determined by two relationships – by the relation of the given word to some part of the real world, and by the relationships among the words themselves. Nevertheless, it seems that speaking about the ‘territorial’ nature of lexical information makes sense. Knowledge in this case has more or less localized, corpuscular nature.
A very different example is the knowledge contained in the grammatical forms. The fact that a complete Russian sentence must include subject and predicate does not tell us anything specific. This is a general statement about the properties of the universe where there exist things, and events occur in time. In order to extract the grammatical knowledge of the language, we need to study only very small fragments of spoken or written language. For example, the phonetic structure of an ancient language can be restored from a very small fraction of text.
Knowledge of vocabulary and of grammatical type are two extreme examples of almost purely corpuscular and purely holistic information contained in the language. But earlier we referred to the fact that there exist many intermediate forms such as the plot, genre, style, cultural direction, paradigm, etc. All these concepts correspond to holistic type of information that tells about the author's general view of the world and of the text. Similar to grammar, this view can be recovered by analyzing comparatively small pieces of text. That is how, for example, the famous book Mimesis by Erich Auerbach is designed, who himself wrote about it:
The method of modern writers can be compared with the technique of some modern linguists who believe that, through the interpretation of several places of "Hamlet", "Phaedra" and "Faust" one can learn more about the essential Shakespeare, Racine, or Goethe, and their time than from the entire lecture series in which their lives and work are considered systematically and in a chronological sequence; another example is the present study19.
The grammar of natural languages carries information so general that it can seem almost trivial. We see, however, that is not the case with regard to the special languages or non-language sign systems. Their grammar is much more ‘down to earth’.
We would like to emphasize also that the sign systems can localize not only the ‘material’ aspect of their meanings, but also other characteristics. Specifically, they can localize - or, more correctly, create relations of logic. This is done by selecting some of the multiplicity of interactions taking place in the given system and claiming that they should be considered as a cause or a consequence of an event.
Another example of a localized concept which is linked with sign systems is that of the fact.
Dostoyevsky: holography in literature
Let us recall how technically a hologram is produced. A beam of light (usually from a laser) is directed on the object whose image is taken, and the picture of the interaction of this ‘pivot’ beam and the light reflected by the object is fixed 20:
When the hologram is recorded, two light waves are combined in a certain area of space, one of which goes directly from the source (the reference wave) and the other reflected from the recorded object (object wave). A photographic plate (or a different recording material) is placed in the same area which results in a complex pattern of bands appearing on this plate which correspond to the distribution of electromagnetic energy (interference pattern) in this area. Now if this plate is illuminated by light with waves sufficiently similar to the reference wave, it converts this wave into a wave close to the object wave. So we'll be able to see (with varying degrees of accuracy) the same light, which would have been reflected from the recorded object.
The result will be an image that is not flat but three-dimensional. It turns out that similar means can be applied in order not only for obtaining three-dimensional picture in the literal sense of the word, but also for achieving a particular expression in literary works. Compare the described technique of holography with the analysis of Dostoevsky's literary technique in the remarkable book by Michail Bakhtin21:
Dostoevsky is interested in his hero not as in a phenomenon of reality, which has definite and solid socio-typical and individual psychological traits, not as a definite shape, composed out of clear-meaning and objective features and in their entirety answering the question “Who is he?” No, the hero is interesting to Dostoevsky as a particular point of view at the world and at himself, as a meaning- and assessment-generating attitude of the person in relation to himself and to the surrounding reality. What is important to Dostoevsky is not what his character is in the world, but first of all what the world is to the hero, and what is he to himself.
This is a very important and fundamental feature of the perception of the hero. Hero as a point of view, as a glance at the world and at himself requires very specific methods of disclosure and of artistic characteristic. After all, what should be disclosed and characterized, is not a specific being of the hero, it is not his solid portrait, but the final result of his consciousness and self-consciousness, it is in the end the hero’s last word about himself and about his world.
Bakhtin contrasts Dostoevsky’s technique to what he calls the monologue technique:
In a monologue design the hero is closed, and his semantic boundaries are strictly delineated: he acts, experiences, thinks and cognizes within the limits of his image which is defined as a reality; he can not cease being himself, that is go out beyond his character, his typicality, his temperament, without violating the author's monologous intention about him. This image is based in the author’s world which is objective in relation to the hero’s consciousness; the construction of this world - from his point of view and by completing definitions - presupposes a stable position outside, a stable author’s outlook. The hero’s self-perception is included into the firm rim of defining and depicting him the author's consciousness which is inaccessible to the hero from inside, and is given against a solid background of the outside world.
In our example above, the monologue technique corresponds to the flat pictures. Dostoevsky does not take photographs of his characters, he paints them in the reflected light of their interaction with the outside world, with each other. This is exactly what Bakhtin calls the dialogic technique of Dostoevsky. ‘The light’ falling on the figure of a hero is here the personality of another hero:
A human being never coincides with himself. To him it is impossible to apply the formula of identity: A is A. In Dostoevsky's artistic thought, the true life of a person happens as if in the point of this mismatch of the person with himself, in the point of his exit beyond everything which he is as a thing being which you can peep, identify and predict beyond his will, ‘in absentia’. The true life of a personality is only available through dialogical penetration into it, to which it freely and responsively reveals itself.
The truth about a human being which is in the mouths of others and not facing him dialogically, that is a distance truth becomes humiliating and mortifying him lies, if it touches upon his ‘Holy of Holies’, that is ‘the human being in the human being’.
This example of Dostoevsky’s art and Bakhtin's analysis seem to me to be extremely important for the understanding of the cognitive spaces which have no sign nature, but at the same time do not operate similar to simple neural networks. Instead, imagine a network where the elements pass to each other vectors of complex signals which in turn evoke complex response from the recipient unit. Knowledge of such a network is stored as holographic images characterizing the interactions of each pair of units. All these ‘private’ holograms get then merged into one big picture, not ‘flat’, but three- or multi-dimensional. This is how the Russian culture seems to operate.
Self-reference and metalanguages
The man started creating tools and sign systems as soon as he ceased to be an ape - actually, this was the difference between them. It was before the Stone Age, when he picked up a stick designed to bring down banana from the tree. Then the masters appeared who did not shoot down the bananas but were engaged only in the manufacture of sticks; and still later the experts who consulted the masters. In the end, ‘the sticks science’ might get developed represented by people who did not do even that, but were only thinking and discussing the ways how better to shoot down a banana. It was a sign system of the second level or metasystem designed to work with the initial sign systems as objects. And this meant a no less fundamental step in the history of the humankind.
It is important to stress that we are talking here about reflective systems which have their own internal laws of operation and development. We do not refer just to the evolutionary development of instruments - from an accidentally found stick towards a specially selected one, then becoming the stone ax, etc., where every step is result of random ‘mutations’ and subsequent fixing of positive experience. In contrast, a reflexive system means accumulating and incorporating the acquired knowledge in itself, so that people can use this system to develop innovations. Such a metalanguage (a term coined by the Polish-American mathematician Alfred Tarski) or metasystem is again a construction set designed to build languages and sign systems. On the other hand, being a means of creativity, it is also a limitation to it which keeps it within a certain framework.
The invention of various second-level sign systems has been slow and uneven. Among the earliest were rhetoric, philosophy and linguistics, which originated in ancient times. Later in the Middle Ages jurisprudence, theology, modern science, etc. got established, the most recent examples including capital market and financial instruments. What is most important: universal technologies were discovered for systematically generating such derivatives, i.e. new reflective layers for any sign system, and their number started growing infinitely.
In Part II of this book22 we use several examples borrowed mainly from outstanding discussions of specific historic developments in order to defend the thesis that such a technique of generation all the new sign systems was becoming possible as long as, starting since about XII century, the new way of social organization turned the human being himself and his actions into signs and their meanings. This included not only the law as a code of conduct, but also the meta-mechanism of reflection on the law (first of all in the universities). As a result, the law became regarded as an independent organism that lives and develops according to its own internal laws, and it was the law that acquired the role of the main meta-language.
The result has been the emergence of new special legal systems (municipal, commercial law, etc.), of various corporations and of worldview paradigms. We are talking in the Part II of the book, and that the Reformation (Protestantism) and the military revolution of modern times were based on this new form of social organization. In the first case, the bottom line was that the church as a ‘physically existing’ social organization has given way to an impersonal reflexive system - Protestant God, for which the human being served as a simple tool. Later, in the XVIII century, there took place an even more radical idea, and religion was replaced by what has been called Nature which was thought to exist on the basis of its natural laws.
In the military field in the XV - XVII centuries, the new army was created in the shape of uniformly trained soldiers. This was a sign system which made it possible to build on it a reflection metasystem: the science of military strategy. Over time, this led to the creation of a mass society where uniform context prevails enabling a common understanding of the elements of which all people’s life is composed. This is done with the tool of the (reflexive) system of education, science and culture.
We can compare these observations with Lev Vygotsky’s thought that the sign and the word are used by the human being as a means by which he subjects his own psychological operations to his power and directs his activities to resolve the challenges he is confronted with. The same role in society is played by reflective metasystems, which allow it to self-organize.
The theory of metalanguages emerged around the middle of the XX century. In particular, Douglas Hofstadter has shown that in some cases the meta-language is an integral part of its parent ordinary language, while in other cases meta-languages are separate and can be relate with each other in various ways. In social sign systems, this corresponds to the fact that efforts to maintain and monitor the rules of conduct can be carried out by all the people without exception, or this may be allocated to a special group of people.(...)
The examples when meta-activities are confined to special social subsystems are professional communities (clergy, lawyers, scientists, doctors, etc.) which have a monopoly on servicing the corresponding sign systems, and excluding ‘the outsiders’ or ‘laymen’ from taking part in it. Members of such professional communities as a rule have to go a long way of socialization (through university, various internships, etc.) and acquire specific values and adhere to specific rules of conduct. As a result, the behavior of the professionals is withdrawn from normal social relations such as a commercial bargaining or bureaucratic subordination. And, for example, it would not ever come to a mathematician’s mind that the correctness or falsity of a theorem can be established by order from his superior or as a result of a market transaction.
The issue of reflexivity and multi-level systems is not only confined to sign systems. We have seen that the authors analyzed the results of their experiments with the NETtalk network looking at it ‘from above’ and using statistical methods. In this case, the role of reflecting subjects was performed by the experimenter. Another example is the human brain, where (to a first approximation) reflection is based on the interaction between the hemispheres. Unfortunately, the level of our understanding of the mechanisms of reflexivity of sign systems and other informational systems is not adequate enough to expand this topic in the book. However it should be, perhaps, the most important subject of the future work.
Ideas and reality
Individuals and groups in society may exchange quite simple signals. Still, the network as a whole may be capable of performing very complex operations, as we have seen with the network NETtalk. In this case the information is stored in the knowledge about how each network element has to respond to signals coming from his adjacent elements. The information is distributed across the network and can not be separated from it.
Another method of interaction consists of organizing traffic of ideal objects which have a more complicated structure and carry information within them. In this case, there are a number of ‘eternal’ questions: Where do the ideas and ideal objects come from? How do they change? What is their structure? What are the forms of their existence? How do they become a reality?
In fact, people still are not too clear about all this. We see that the ideal objects appear from contact with ‘reality’ by means of reflection. One can also easily see that they, like biological objects, are capable of evolutionary development. (…)
Evolution of ideal objects: a biological metaphor
An answer to the question: where do ideas and ideal objects come from? - says that they, like the life, ‘do not arise out of nowhere’ but can only be a continuation and development of previous ideas. The dynamics of ideas (ideal objects) and their flow can thus be described by models of evolution of species and populations. With respect to science (scientific ideas, theories, etc.) such a description was done by Thomas Kuhn. His model, on the one hand, emphasizes the continuity of ideas, because every innovation is considered a continuation and development within the framework of a school of thought. On the other hand, scientific revolutions periodically occur and fundamentally new schools appear. This description is similar to the picture provided by the biology of populations: Different schools of thought correspond to different species. Representatives of different schools of thought are as unable to understand each other as members of different species can not interbreed. On the other hand, the multiplicity and variation of ideas within each school is similar to mutations (variability) within a given species.
Population model can also be used to interpret the principles of verification and falsification. Verification of an idea (hypotheses) can be compared to the act of ‘eating’ by the hypothesis in question of a corroborating fact. Kuhn has observed that (1) no theory explains all the observable facts, and (2) old theories get out of circulation and are replaced with new ones not because they contradict the facts. The process of replacement of old theories (ideal objects) with new ones looks similar to the dynamics of populations of living creatures. In this latter case, the complete disappearance of the population can only occur if the winning population has advantages in any respect over its competitors (the famous Gauze law). Otherwise (i.e., nearly always) each of the schools retains a certain niche of its own.
Popper's idea of falsifiability as a scientific criterion, too, has an analogy in biology - it corresponds to the mortality of all living things. In the Darwinian language, it makes possible the natural selection and the progress.
The analogy of the world of ideas with the population biology, i.e., the applicability of biological models (metaphors) is quite obvious and is periodically ‘rediscovered’ by various researchers. This metaphor also naturally comes to the minds of those having to deal with researching the mass consciousness (fashion, consumer and political preferences, etc.)23.
How the ideas are structures: a linguistic metaphor
The world of ideal objects (ideas) can be described not only by the evolutionary model. Another metaphor may be the language, and the source of the conceptual tools is linguistics. In particular, the toolkit of structural linguistics can be applied here. An ideal object can be represented as a text (or as a construct, i.e., an action) consisting of statements (sentences) which in turn consist of concepts (words), combined according to the laws of grammar. This text belongs to a particular genre (or, in more general terms - the paradigm), i.e. reflects that, as they say on the subject or act in a given situation.
Re-coding and modus existendi of ideas
In the computer, the information is stored on various media, it is encoded, re-coded and processed. Similar transformations occur in cognitive spaces with ideal objects.
Modus existendi - mode of existence of the idea (ideal object) is another ‘eternal’ issue that used to be developed by the ancient Greeks, not to mention the medieval scholastics. Transformation of an ideal object into a real one - say, of a blueprint into a machine - is a most common and most intuitively understandable example of the change of modality. Much more difficult is the philosophical problem of discovering – ‘recognition’ of ideas which are (at least according to some worldview) incorporated in our surroundings. Today, this topic remains a subject of study, and not only for philosophers.
This theme is central to the modern conceptual art. The most direct example here may be, of course, the famous installation One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth, who exhibited three objects - a chair, a photograph of the same chair, and the article "chair" of the encyclopedia:
Picture 12. One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth.
It seems necessary and very useful to introduce the concept of modus existendi, i.e. of the mode of existence or modalities into our analysis of ideal objects (ideas), and to look at cognitive spaces from the perspective of modalities transformation. Obviously, a most important aspect of human development is the process of emergence and evolution of ideas (ideal objects), which is inextricably linked with changes in their mode of existence. A society and a culture are characterized by the toolkits they have for working with ideal objects, and for changing their modality; this is a most important parameter that determines the trajectory of the development of this society.
Let us return to the primitive people who shoot down bananas with a stick. Suppose that their tribe developed a ‘sticks science’ and that a circle of people appeared who not only do not shoot bananas, but not even carve sticks, but just think and talk about it. Suppose further that this circle have designed an exclusively convenient stick. The question is: how to bring the invention to practice, how to implement the idea? After all, if you pass this idea to professional stick carvers, they are unlikely to want to make changes to the usual methods of their work, or they might understand the invention in their own way, and perhaps try - to the best of their understanding - to add more improvements of their own. The result will be, according to an American joke, ‘a horse designed by committee: a camel’.
It is extremely important to study the issue of cognitive and institutional infrastructure that allows systematically implementing, embodying ideas. Clearly, in more general terms it is the question of the practical means of re-coding ideas, and once again, it has to do with changing the mode of existence of ideal objects. Such infrastructure has been developed relatively late, historically speaking almost today. If writing was invented five thousand years ago, and then science was developed, it took almost another two thousand years to create the mechanisms for implementing the inventions; in fact, it was the content of the New Age and occurred only in Europe by the middle of the last millennium. So I believe it might be useful to introduce a special term for the ability to implement ideas and materialize them without distortion as they have been designed by the authors. We will call it programmability and programmable systems.
In Part III, we will touch upon the specific mechanisms that provide this function in modern European institutional environment. One of them is the principle of separation of powers. This principle can be compared to that of the computer architecture where the software is separated from the hardware. This separation serves to ensure the implementation of the planned activities without distortion. The judiciary enforces the law as has developed and as it was passed by the legislative and without changes ad hoc. Similarly, a court of law when considering obligations arising from private persons’ transactions, is concerned only with finding out what they meant when entering into a contract, and what actions should follow from this.
Another mechanism of social programmability is related to the development in the modern era of what might be called the methods of independent individual decisions. This includes all the ideas related to the concept of ‘nature’ and to the methods its of researching and ‘conquering’ as expressed by the famous Bacon’s motto ‘The knowledge itself is power’. These techniques free the individual from the need to coordinate his actions with others when operating within his ‘private domain’
The historical ‘delay’ of the programmability function is most probably due to the fact that an additional level of social sign systems was needed for it to get developed. The human being himself had to become a sign, its meaning being human action. Thus a circle of positive feedback linking the reality and the world of ideas became closed. ‘The genie of the progress’ has been released from the bottle.