As we approach our goal of understanding the background of our primary investigation target, distributed cognition, few books are as useful as The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent. Lent tells the story of the development and continual usage of what he refers to as the patterning instinct at the heart of human cognitive activity. In our grander philosophical framework, we refer back to the Aristotelian doctrine that we study the good not to learn what it is but to become better, and this anchor for our investigation of human cognitive activity provides us with all the context we need to understand that our thinking about thinking can enable us to think in a better way.
The patterning instinct is an attribute of the thinking of humankind that emerges from studying cognitive history. The tendency of thinking to revolve around patterns is ultimately due to its source: the need for people to cooperate to survive. Cooperating with other people and cooperating with nature are similar experiences insofar as they involve taking in information to use in the assembly of a model to then influence by thinking about what to do and doing it. The Patterning Instinct has titular importance for the work because it replaces the Language Instinct first hypothesized by Noam Chomsky as the basis of language and culture.
In my reading of The Patterning Instinct, we find a ready divergence in means. Dr. Lent studies primarily what might be thought of as the collective level of cognitive activity. In discussing the variances we find between the thinking that evolved from rice cultivation and wheat cultivation, for example, Dr. Lent focuses heavily upon the trends that emerged from untold generations of what must have been highly divergent individuals for a substantial part. Lent’s use of the term worldview to refer to a cultural phenomenon of understanding informs us of his chosen scope of investigation.
Now, human action is neither one-dimensional nor simplistic, and thus Dr. Lent has deigned to invent a new methodology, to be known as cognitive history. Cognitive history empowers the narrative we tell about ourselves to begin to include self-reflective concept mappings; i.e., we are both the product of and one of the primary drivers behind our environment. This view is a stark contrast to other prevailing ideas which insist upon more simplistic causal frameworks, sacrificing depth of explanatory detail in return for wider accessibility.
The interactive framework of cognitive history enables us to develop a deep and thorough understanding of the way that cognitive processes exert their influence upon human behavior at scale. It also unearths mountains of evidence that cultures are superorganisms made of many human bodies acting on their own under various social frameworks, setting the stage for an in-depth discussion of distributed cognition to take place in Worldview Ethics.
Pillars of the Patterning Instinct
1. Life is complex
Organisms don’t just find their fit in the environment, they actively construct it, even down to the genomic level. Humans use unique cognitive powers to create new ways to manipulate their environment. In all frankness, this is why I chose this book. Lent’s reasoning gives us a foundation from which to view distributed cognition as an end of human action. It is precisely by embracing the complexity of the interaction between physical and cognitive systems that we begin to empower ourselves to understand their properties.
2. Experience shapes perception
Even as complex living organisms navigate their environment by shaping it around themselves, the structure and character of the environment exerts an influence on perceiving life forms. Chomsky’s language instinct must be discarded because it cannot account for the way non-linguistic cognition enables patterns and communications that do not involve language yet mirror mental representative & symbolic capabilities.
3. Culture models the world
Culture is the set of ideas, behaviors, and expectations that are repeated by the individuals who make up a given society. The customs, habits, rituals, and language of a culture combine to give people who are part of the society that practices it a preordained baseline for interacting with one another, thus making interactions more efficient. If we all had to ask all of the foundational questions of one another before we could begin to cooperate, modern society would only be capable of very slow changes. Because culture models the world, we are able to study culture to derive a basic idea of who we are and how we fit in with everyone else.
4. Culture doesn’t always do what’s best
Much of The Patterning Instinct falls a bit outside the scope of this review because it consists of comparative analysis between particularly East and West. The primary drivers of the separation in terms of content, that is, ideas about environs shaped in different ways by different cultures, end up situating the West in a toxic “conquest of nature” mindset and the East in a less-toxic “harmony preservation” mindset. While this is fascinating reading, Lent himself understands that Western culture can be better at holistic environmental thinking just as Eastern ideas can occasionally lead to conquest and frequently sacrifice the harmony of the natural world for the betterment of human beings.
In the end, the cultural level of human life is perhaps the most complex part of living. We study it, and our study of it makes it better. Or we deny its importance, and we become worse because our culture suffers.
For those who didn’t get to spend a few years in graduate school investigating the hypothesis that the particularities of the language we speak is a major driver of the way in which we interact with the world, I can perhaps give a high level breakdown that encompasses Lent’s view as well as a few other major thinkers in the field. I enjoyed this thread of The Patterning Instinct because it is one of the few I have found which actually does a good job of explaining the situation without too much compromise.
Benjamin Lee Whorf wrote a book called Language, Thought, And Reality, in which the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is explained. In one example, the Hopi language is said to be more effective for communication of certain concepts from quantum mechanics than modern English (a language used for much of physics research!) precisely because it does not contain subject/object divisions. Where an English speaker would say “the light flashed” or some such, a Hopi speaker could merely say “flash!” and be done with it - resulting in a holistic picture of the event without the unneeded subject/object division.
Throughout the century or so since Whorf’s writings captivated the world, thinkers have been struggling to make sense of the relationship between the structures of language in which we think and make our abstract comparisons and then save the computed results into new vocabulary. To what extent is it only possible to think some thoughts in the right language?
It is here that Lent’s decision to focus on culture at various levels of interaction reveals itself to be the work of a true master of the set of concepts at stake. The final verdict in the ancient Sapir-Whorf debate is neither the strong Whorfian view’s truth, nor that of the weak Whorfian view. Strong Whorfianism predicts that thinkers can only think thoughts enacted by their languages and weak Whorfianism entails that thinking is influenced by language in a less-constraining way but nonetheless has some impact. Lent’s formulation seems to reject both formulations of Whorfianism to look beyond the language as a determinant factor to the culture which uses the language instead, and there we find the most palatable version of linguistic determinism: cultural interdependency.
Lent’s conclusion is that there is “...a dynamic interdependency between language and culture,” (TPE, 203), as he wraps up the discussion of linguistic determinism. In some sense, language itself is not quite baked into our minds deeply enough to be a transparent determinant force in our behavior directly, but all of the studies showing changes to individual minds that correlate with different languages across similar thought domains argue that something beyond a basic user/used object relationship is at work when people use language to communicate. This something is the relationship between the language speaker and the culture the individual is a part of. Language enables rapid transmission of information within a given cultural sphere of understanding, but the understanding itself is an enactment of physical change in the brain of the understander.
I don’t wish to toot my own horn too much here, but I was an overachiever in grad school. In my psycholinguistics course, I impressed my classmates with a presentation that spanned three disciplines to arrive at the conclusion that there are aspects of culture that are determined by language, but also that language itself is the outcome of a complex set of interactions between individuals, their environment, and their culture. The paper I ended up writing makes the argument that a neologism is needed to make sense of this interplay, which I termed ‘lexiculture.’
In a nutshell, if you get deep into the literature here, you too may arrive at the conclusion that culture is the interaction between different people and their environment (which has natural, artificial, and virtual components) and language evolves to meet the needs of this or that particular culture by serving as something like RAM in a computer system. RAM stores information that needs to be accessed the most often and by the greatest number of different applications in a computer system.
Hence, we see culture as the broadest interface between environment and individual mind that can frequently be needed, and language is perhaps the most abstract means of storing different bits and pieces of information needed by individuals interacting with their culture. Lent puts it well when he says “... culture and language reinforce each other, leading to a deep persistence of underlying structures of thought from one generation to the next,” (TPE, 204). In the end, it is not the case that strong linguistic determinism limits the ability of the adaptable human mind to think the thoughts it needs to think to enable its body to flourish in its environment, but rather that the culture in deep interplay with that language is responsible for setting expectations for all the minds that interact with it and, when accepted by individuals, these expectations can exert an outsize influence on behavior because they directly, physically relate to real neurological structures.
In the end, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right to an extent and wrong to an extent. If we study the issue long enough, we realize that culture does exert certain pressures upon individuals and that it does so in ways mediated by language frequently. We also see that individuals can enter the cultural spotlight and exert an influence in return. The key takeaway here is that culture is a metacognitive complex emerging from the physical interactions between neurons in brains and the internal and external states of the world these neurons map.
Negentropy & Gestalt Psychology
In Chapter 19, “‘Something Far More Deeply Interfused’: The Systems Worldview,” Lent takes us through Gestalt psychology and explains the high concept of negative entropy (negentropy) penned by Schrodinger. In addition to these two gems, we get a variety of other examples of emergent properties and systems in which unpredictability ensues despite well-known variable components. Are we nothing more than the activity of neurons, or are we patterns that emerge from the activities of these smaller component parts when understood at scale?
Gestalt psychology postulates that the mind emerges from the activity of neurons as something different from the sum of its parts. Add up the 100 billion neurons in the adult human brain, and you still won’t create conscious thought. The best example is a corpse - a dead brain is in every way the same as a living one, but it doesn’t produce thought. It also doesn’t flow blood, or engage in metabolic processes at the cellular level. It can’t send signals to the rest of the dead body to cause actions to take place because the emergent pattern that once animated it has been stopped.
Schrodinger’s concept of negentropy dovetails particularly nicely with the Gestalt mindset by positing a goal for the Gestalt whole: reversing entropy. From my own research into the way brains work, I am quite familiar with the notion of reward prediction error (RPE) and the way that this concept helps to explain the subjective experiences of pleasure and pain. It seems that Schrodinger’s thinking mimics the dopaminergic tract in the brain which handles motivation to a degree that is remarkable for its explanatory power.
Pleasure involves getting what we want; we make a prediction about the world, calculate some action to increase it, and it works. How could we not enjoy this rare reprieve from the callous, uncaring hardship of day to day life? Pain, by inverse, involves changes to the models we have. In one sense, pain refers to a cascade of chemical reactions that start when we are injured and send signals to our nerves informing our brains of one particular piece of information: it hurts here. Psychological pain, on the other hand, involves not getting what we want and learning something new - it is the experience of needing to rewire the neurons that govern our predictive framework in an arbitrary way.
Given this shockingly clear overlap between the experiences of pleasure and pain that Aristotle once referred to as the “two sovereign masters of mankind,” we must not fail to consider the possibility that each of these thinkers - Gestalt psychologists, Schrodinger, and Aristotle - is touching a part of the same elephant, so to speak.
In my view, there is a profound revelation to be discovered by the clever reader here: an argument that, using systems theory, a mechanistic reductive account of consciousness can be created to explain the unexplainable aspects of the emergence of self from body. Life is an attempt by a collection of metabolically-active matter locked in an emergent pattern of behavior to reduce entropy around itself so that it can self-perpetuate. Knowing this, we should be able to make rapid progress against a variety of ethical objectives moving forward.
- Daniel, T. Dylan. (2015). “The Lexicultural Propagation of Concepts.” Philosophy of Language, by Brian Thomas. Chapter 2.
- Lent, Jeremy. (2017). The Patterning Instinct. Prometheus Books, New York.