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The Kekulé Problem (nautil.us)
74 points by dnetesn 186 days ago | hide | past | web | 26 comments | favorite

Not sure how I feel about this statement - "All animals have an unconscious. If they didnt they would be plants."

If I start with the presupposition that Mr. McCarthy is an intelligent and broadly knowledgeable individual (given his corpus of work I think it's a safe place to start), I can chalk it up to one of two things:

1. It's a device to get the point across, though clumsy and innacurate to people familiar with an evolving area of study

2. He isn't up to date with the various studies that certainly show something akin to a type of consciousness. But I bet he'd be open to the notion...

It may be a tad early to say that the statement is wrong. It might be technically correct that plants don't have unconscious but they have something we'd classify differently.

I just chalk up to a kludgy device, I get the point he was trying to make- at least I think I do.

I don't think you answer the parent's concern, which I think is "why assume that all animals have a subconscious" instead of "why assume plants don't have one".

What about jellyfish or oysters? They don't have a brain and have very limited sensory and movement abilities. If they have an unconscious then why not carnivorous plants?

Yes exactly, I think its really the opposite though. Either the definition of unconscious is very loose and then I think plants would have it too, or its more related to have some sort of central nervous system of some level of complexity and in that case many animals wouldnt have an unconscious.

conscious[ness] is a disputed work, and things like "Have scientists discovered the secret of consciousness" etc all the time.

Until the definition, and underlying semantic assumptions, are clear, don't build too many linguistic castles on top of it.

@Chris2048: "conscious[ness] is a disputed work, and things like "Have scientists discovered the secret of consciousness" etc all the time. Until the definition, and underlying semantic assumptions, are clear, don't build too many linguistic castles on top of it."

Modded into invisibility, looks like you violated one of the sacred tenets of Hacker News :)

Really? I'm currently at 1 point.

Though I do notice a lot of innocuous comments get down-voted, for some reason. I wish there was more to hold down-voters to account for unreasonable mods..

Interesting that the dream was of a snake.

Jordan Peterson makes the point that human sight is so excellent, we think, because it evolved to detect predatory reptiles (snakes) and ripe fruit (hence seeing color).

It puts this story and the story of The Fall in a different light when looked at from this perspective: the snake as dangerous knowledge.

The dream was not of any snake, but ouroborous (a snake eating its own tail), which makes perfect sense because Kekule couldn't find any linear form that satisfied the laws of chemistry, and the image of ourborous helped him realize it was a cycle (at that point, nobody knew that organics could be cyclic).

Reason/self-consciousness turning back on itself.

I think the trouble with stories, language, and symbolic meaning is that over time people confuse the symbols with reality. Somehow the story becomes the reality and people forget that they made it up. Conspiracy theories are a really good example of stories and fantasies that people are convinced is reality. When you keep substituting symbols for reality it is pretty easy to confuse the two at some point.

Another example is fantasy literature. Much of it is concerned with magical systems that revolve around saying the right things. As if the right words and gestures can shape reality. I think this is the definition of magical thinking. Even though saying the right words will not make them reality people really like to think that is the case.

symbols are designed to be conflated for reality. in our own minds we are interacting with the mental representations of external things and only the external reality by proxy of our mind. cogito ergo sum and other such observations are just pointing out this basic truth: we live in our minds are interact with symbols as the primary objects of consciousness.

the higher-order symbolic systems, like narrative fiction, or mythology, are designed to run with this natural conflation and go beyond merely conflating the symbol with reality, but instead now conflating the symbol with SUPER reality. the symbol now stands for something better than the real. more meaningful, more beautiful, more true than reality could ever be. in other words, it becomes culture, which is more important to people whose lives are embedded within a cultural context than reality is to those people.

the really strange thing about this is that it is adaptive, up to a point. when your daily life is much more about navigating through a culture than it is about navigating through a wildnerness it is perfectly understandable why the cultural symbols become primary in their importance.

this can go too far, of course. the culture can be a deranged, destructive, rapacious, monster of a thing and we know what the consequences of that can be. still, it seems quite clear why stories carry the weight and importance that they do.

re: magic systems

Although a lot of good magic writing involves a training phase where the trainee is parroting the words of the master, yet casts no spell. The words are correct, but the trainee is lacking some internal state. The magic comes from that internal place. The words are a side effect.

Words really do have power when spoken correctly and received openly. If you and I are arguing about something and I persuade you to my side, in some sense you had no power to resist. The ways in which you might resist would be logical errors. Things like status quo bias, or motivated misunderstanding.

> Even though saying the right words will not make them reality people really like to think that is the case.

I sometimes compare programming to these 'magical systems' because in both cases 'saying the right thing' has a direct or almost-direct effect on reality.

Other forms of writing obviously have an effect on reality too, but with programming (and magic systems) it's much more obvious and 'literal'.

And notice how many flame wars there are in programming forums. It's almost like the programmers forget that the tools they use are just tools and that they are a means to an end instead of an end in and of themselves. The focus shifts from solving problems and people start comparing the relative merits of one tool against another instead of discussing the best way to go about solving a problem.

In programming I think we substitute the language for the problem space and forget that the problem space is primary and the language is secondary.

Kekulé's account has been challenged, partly on the basis that at least two others reported very similar (and better organized) ideas right about the same time. The speculation goes that Kekulé may have been trying to bypass the priority controversy with something that couldn't be refuted - the dream story.


Sometimes the "suggestion" comes when you're wide awake, at which point it's got nothing to do with the unconscious. You see something, or you hear someone say something, and suddendly you have a brainwave and rush to your desk and write like crazy for a couple of hours- something just clicks. And it comes entirely from outside, from the concrete, objective (haha) reality outside your head.

So the unconscious mind doesn't have to send you any cryptic signals. In fact, nothing needs to send you any signals. Just a bit of luck and the ability to form associations is all you need.

Maybe it's just miscommunication, where one part of their brain can't talk directly to another, so it has to pass vague cryptic notes around. Doesn't have to be desired behavior.

(Most of my insights these days are pretty direct)

The biggest problem I have with the article is the supposition that language was not evolved.

He seems to state this view a few times, but does not (to me) offer a convincing explanation as to why.

ok, suppose language was evolved. what is the evidence of that? how would we verify whether or not it is true that language evolved?

it seems like a reasonable assumption because we think of essentially every attribute of an organism to be evolved, but is this really true? there is evidence of physiological changes that support the production of speech but the puzzle is really about why those changes would ever occur in the first place. they are not adaptive (in fact, maladaptive) unless you can already speak.

so what is the evolutionary ancestor of modern language? it doesn't leave a fossil record. it's really hard to gather evidence that satisfies anything about this. the cave paintings are some evidence of a mind that has a level of symbolic abstraction consistent with being able to speak, but the oldest cave paintings we find are not really on the evolutionary time scale.

basically we just don't have the robustness of evidence that we wish we had when it comes to supporting the hypothesis that language evolved. it's understandable why we make this assumption, but finding the evidence for it is problematic.

Your argument of "it's hard to prove it evolved" is a far cry from TFA's "it definitely didn't evolve". That's what GP was objecting to.

Cormac McCarthy's point can be summarized in this sentence that he wrote in TFA

"...the inheritance of ideas remains something of a sticky issue. It is difficult to see them as anything other than acquired."

which is an interesting way of putting it. we are very comfortable discussing evolutionary history of body parts. what is language though? it doesn't really seem like a body part (though certain structures in the brain, as well as in the mouth and throat, are very important for language) and it does rather seem like an idea. you can teach someone English. you can't teach someone Left Arm.

and yet, language is inherited. babies learn it automatically just by being around it in the environment. that makes it something like a communicable "disease", actually. the language-as-virus metaphor is one that McCarthy referenced frequently in his discussion.

so what if it's not just a metaphor? what if it really is something transmitted through the environment and that certain kinds of animals become "infected" by it?

it's interesting to consider things like this specifically because of the absence of clear evidence that language is like any other physical trait that an animal might have. it's not like those traits. it's something different. something stranger. we don't really have a clear understanding of what exactly it is and so positions like McCarthy's are interested to consider. I don't think you should mistake his own coherence for misplaced confidence though. He isn't saying "it definitely didn't evolve". He isn't making any strong claims like that, as far as I can tell. He's just exploring the interesting differences between language and other things that mammals have/do.

Reminiscent of Walker Percy's essay "The Delta Factor", in which he theorizes that the essence of human-ness derives from the "linguistic triangle" (thing + word + human brain).

I spent a good few minutes googling around as I think I had heard a conflation of the Kekulé dream and the initial idea from Crick that DNA was a double helix.

The way I remember hearing it he had the vision of two snakes winding around one another trying to bite one another's tail. I can't find much about it online so I'm going to put this down to a conflation with Kekulé's dream.

"Kekulé had another dream, in which he saw atoms dance around, then form themselves into strings, moving about in a snake-like fashion."


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