Thoughts on Putnam by Barry Spinello
Hey Mr. Neuroscientist
play a song for me...
I'm not sleepy and there
is no place I'm going to...
from Bob Dylan
ABOUT PETER PUTNAM
Have tried to get at a way of describing what I know of Putnam and his vision, his model. There are so many directions and places to start and side paths to take. I hope this doesn't get too long winded – and point nowhere.
These are my interpretations of Putnam – an attempt to understand and distill.
1. Who was Putnam writing for? This question is fundamental. It is at the heart of what Putnam is about and why he is either relevant or irrelevant. Putnam makes an assumption. If his assumption is correct – the model has worth . If not, then there is no need for the Putnam model.
This question is best answered by looking at the preamble to "On the Mathematics of Brain Operation", June 1974. (probably Putnam's best paper once the basic model is understood)
In this preamble Putnam describes an: 'emerging engineering class which has an approach and attitude that is "rapidly" taking over'. This 'engineering class' will need the model as it applies the math and physics approach to all of life.
I (Barry) best understand this concept (the math and physics approach to all of life) by calling forth a scene from the movie Apollo I3. In this film the astronauts are at an impasse and will die in space without their problem solved by the earth-bound team. We then see 20 scientists on earth put aside egos, politics, self interest and set to "work the problem". Imagine if such an approach (the engineering attitude) would apply to all manner of political and human problems.
But even more than this, by way of explanation: The top level scientists: Einstein, Bohr, etc. etc., approach the problems in mathematics and physics in a ruthless, uncompromising way. The math and physics formulas they invent must be 100% correct - no compromise. But the problems they approach are narrowly defined to begin with – only within math or physics. The problems in life are broad and messy. Not having adequate insight for "actual answers" we approach the problems in life in a more lax way. We compromise to get along. Putnam is saying an engineering approach to life will be as uncompromising as an engineering approach to engineering – and this engineering approach, or attitude to life is beginning to taking over. Is it? IS there an emerging engineering class with an emerging attitude developing? These are the people who will redesign the brain and body and inhabit the moon and space over the next centuries. Putnam is writing for them.
Freud described the unconscious. Putnam peels the onionskin back one more layer to provide a physical description of how any decision is arrived at. Further down I'll describe how.
2. Wheeler's relation to Putnam . Wheeler comments in his book: Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam, that (paraphrasing) Putnam thought all knowledge could be knowable through physics. This is directly opposite from Putnam, who often said the laws of physics open up, but transcendently, each layer opening to a new layer. Fuller has said that Putnam's best descriptions are in his letters to Wheeler. Why does Wheeler never "get" or understand Putnam? Is it because there is at bottom no substance in Putnam? Nothing real? Just a chimera. Or is there a generational schism between them? Is Putnam introducing in his model, within science, ideas that, in some ways, side-step old time science?
I think this question is best addressed by looking at pages 10-14 from On the Mathematics of Brain Modeling, 1974: The Effects of Statistics. These pages are a great eye opener in understanding Putnam's model.
In brief: ....if we have a group of molecules up in one corner of a box, they will spread out uniformly over the box. ...However...given enough time....there is a certainty they will return to the corner...... (and this seems to defy the laws of thermodynamics - yet is statistically true) It may very well be that, as with statistical mechanics, the laws of brain operation may have violation yet be overwhelmingly correct in practice – due to redundancy and other factors.... Read the Putnam pages.
Did Wheeler patronize Putnam because of the Putnam fortune? Or was there more to it than that? Wheeler's statement: that if there is merit to Putnam's ideas they will emerge in time. But Wheeler never really "got" Putnam.
And this leads us to another example in Putnam which may be instructive:
3. Divination Putnam is all science yet gives credence to divination in his paper: The I Ching 1971. How? Why?
The paper gives insight to Putnam's thinking. What is important for survival (personal, family, society) is that all pull in the same direction. When faced with a path, A or B, it's best if all agree and try that one direction, rejecting the others. Otherwise confusion, strife, failure ensues.
Referring to an oracle causes unity to happen- not that the oracle has special insight (it doesn't) but it allows a single path to be tried, assuming all believe in the divination of the oracle, (we don't anymore). But we believe in the democratic system, in electing leaders, and this is sort of the same type thing.
And what of religious superstition? It functions in much the same way as in divination - enabling people to coalesce around paths in life for which no real answers are yet present. (Putnam ignores superstition – it will die of its own weight as "answers" are found. This is the way of science – it ignores wrong answers – they fade)
But "real answers" happen only with a "differentiation of causal insight".
Causal insight is the HOW the world works as opposed to the WHY the world works. HOW, causal insight, is embedded in the laws of physics. WHY is traditionally in the domain of what is called religion. Fundamental to Putnam is to bring the how and the why together in one comprehensive world view. Or better yet- how to give a physics meaning to WHY questions.
How does the Putnam model give a physics meaning to WHY questions? And why is it important to do so?
Up until very recently virtually every scientist, artist or philosopher used the Religion and God words all the time. What were they? "believers?" "snake handlers?" How strange? Why?
And on the other side of that divide: all of the totalitarian dictators of modern times were "enlightened" away from the superstition of religious belief- unhinged from a faith in the continuity of reality.
And so we are faced with Einstein, Spinoza and T. S. Elliot's belief system vs Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. This discrepancy alone warrants a closer look ---
Communists are as religiously zealous as Christians, maybe more so in the current context. (Holy)communion and commun(ism) are rooted in the same motivation- universal brotherhood. In attempting to reach that goal Christians ignore science and make the mistake of clinging to superstition as a basis for faith. Communists make two mistakes, one big, one small, as described below-
First some historical perspective:
Communisms SMALL mistake: that capitalism is evil and must be eliminated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Capitalism provides goods and services for an emerging engineering class. Goods and services translate into freedom. Capitalism is 'subordinated', not eliminated. It is supported with money – a small price to pay for the goods and services that make unfettered research possible.
The REALLY BIG mistake-
Standing firmly in the present Communists cherry pick items from the past and say: "this one is good.. this one is bad... If only Columbus had been kinder to the Arawaks what a more just world this would be..." Such an approach to the past from the present is a total absurdity.
History is "one". A molecule changed anywhere would change everything. This is beyond obvious. It is "god-like" to speculate changing the past or knowing the future: or vain; or power hungry; or stupid. We live in the eternal present. Understanding how the brain works shows how linked each of us is to what is and what was - in hard science terms.
Touching the third rail-
"God" talk comes up again and again in human discourse. A most useful consideration is basic to the old testament and gives us the concept of God as the Nature of Being. In this view, God is not a person-like authority from above calling the shots, 'outside' of the reality, but the very fabric of reality itself. Putnam's model describes the nature of reality by describing everything we see, know, feel, understand, in physical neurological terms.
Putnam was not a religious ideologue or proselytizer (nor am I). He never went to church, I never saw him pray (nor do I). But Putnam's model puts a "faith" plank back in play: giving a "religious" substance, a way of having faith in the present for an emerging and uncompromising engineering class. If you exist, and you believe in your existence and you believe in reality and you believe in the continuity of reality – that is enough.
Verbal support, poetic description, "meat" needs to be put on these bones to make them feel real and tangible. It is the job of the artists of the emerging engineering class to build an iconography for the emerging faith ideas. Giotto, Bach, Dante, et al did it for the old. Over the centuries we anticipate the new. We anticipate that faith in random selection and probability across a trillion, trillion connections will lead us from the beginning of time to this very moment.
Now I'd like to take a stab at my take on the Putnam model.
NOTE: the model is best understood reading Putnam's Outline of a Functional Model of the Nervous System, November, 1963, or the next, (with Fuller) in 1964. These descriptive papers and the dozens that follow are extremely difficult to read. Putnam gives new meanings to old words and you need to get a foothold inside to begin to understand. You will not skim a few pages and get enlightenment. It took me many years to break into understanding. But Putnam's brain model works. I hope my brutally simplified lay descriptions give motivation and help with reading the papers.
I notice that Columbia is just the latest to expand it's neuroscience studies with a 200 million dollar building. It is the rage. It seems to me they dig deeper and deeper in ever smaller concentric circles, identifying areas of interest but getting no closer to "how it all works". "How it works" is not just a question of hard science (although it is precisely that) but also who we are and why we are. Neuroscientists assiduously avoid that kind of talk. But as PP shows (in many ways, in many places) – by dwelling on details you miss the larger picture. And, (as he also shows) the details do fit the larger picture.
THE LARGER PICTURE: the Model:
Life is a series of bodily movements. That's it. 100%. This includes talking and talking to yourself (also called thinking).
NOTE: When you "think" to yourself without mouthing the words, you are actually "mouthing the words" but holding back the sounds in "higher transference". A child says the words when she reads, but learns to hold back actually mouthing them. A microphone placed near the vocal chords apparently registers rumbling when well formed thought is going on. Thought is a physical act. SO - all of life is a series of bodily movements.
Why does your body move? The Hebbian principle is firmly in place. Neurons connect until a threshold is reached and the muscle is engaged. But neurons contain NO information, ever. They connect to other neurons that contain no information, EVER.
How then am I able to move my fingers over this keyboard in precisely the right way that enables you to make sense of my finger movements (called reading) and out of the jumble, understand something of the interneural connection in my brain and roughly duplicate it in your brain- and all of this provided by neurons, which do not contain any information other than connecting to other neurons, which also contain no information.
Strange as it may seem, the complete and entire answer is in:
What in practice does this mean? I will give three descriptive examples.
Imagine a drive – a pin stuck in your leg. Immediately a brain scan will show neurons lighting up all over. What is happening? Neurons connected to the skin irritation are "searching" for a combination that will align together to reach a threshold. When a threshold is reached, that will do the job of connecting the neurons to the muscles in the arm and then hand and then fingers, that will twist in the practiced way, close the fingers on the pin and pull out the pin. That will answer the drive. That will stop the drive. And this is what brain activity, neuronal activity in any animal would do. But our animal is a human animal, and our human animal has a history. He is a spy! And the pin stuck in his leg is by an agent trying to force information.
Our spy is a patriot and well trained. His head is full of "words". Words that reflect his history and his training. What does this mean? As the neurons begin to arrange to eliminate the pin (as in the above case) words from the spy's history become part of the response, and insert into the response, and shape the response. The lips, the tongue the vocal chords are engaged and the prisoner shouts - "I ain't talking!"
The above description is a brutal reduction that describes the neurologic process through which ALL of human activity takes place: random search; probability; Hebbian connectedness.
But what of the word! Broken into bits and pieces and spread through the psyche, the word is the grease that wraps into every motor correlate and defines what we call human. Further down I will describe what a word is, where it resides, and how it comes into existence.
But first let's examine perception and memory.
We exist in two worlds: the world out there which is continuous and consists of "things in space". And the world inside - of neurons.
We "live" in the world inside. It contains everything we know, feel, think and say. It is our consciousness. Reality is the interface between the two worlds. The question is - how we get from the world outside to the world inside and back again?
A subject sits in a chair in a dark room. A light flashes on for an instant. The subject is asked what he saw. "A rose" he says. "Anything else?" "Nothing! But a camera next to the subject would record a room full of objects.
What is actually going on? First of all, the subject did not SEE the rose.
The rose is in the room. Perception is in the head. Light bouncing off the rose enters the subject's well understood optical system and separates into fibers, cones, strands, etc. This information, not yet in the brain, channels into the brain and is a drive.
As with the pin stuck in the leg, a scan shows neurons lighting up all over. What is happening? Across the subject's entire brain a random search correlates neurons from the subject's history, with neurons from the eye. Hebbian connections are made and these connections build in intensity until a threshold is reached. The muscles are engaged and become an act: a physical response: you say the word "rose!" The physical response quiets the drive.
But why do you say "rose" and not a different word, say: "potato" or "hummingbird"? Features of "roseness" (color, shape, etc.) are embedded in your history. Neurons connecting randomly but with probably - connect you to that which is most embedded in your history: "rose".
But the physical response need not be a word.
A dog seeing a tiger's face in that brief light might react with a growl or tremble. A human might respond with a shudder or clenched fist. But without a response there is no perception. We have not seen anything unless we respond to it. "Noticing it" is a physical response.
Put another way - many things happen out there in the world. We know of them by eye or ear or touch. Through the senses the world out there is taken inside. Neurons from the receiving stimulus and from your past history connect and lead to a response - an act. Our acts, our bodily movements are not inside. They are pushed into the world out there. They exist in the world out there. They connect us back into the world out there. But it is the neurons inside that shape and control what you do in the world out there.
But neurons contain no information. They do not "try" to connect. The entire neuronal process is electro-chemical and mechanical. "We" have nothing to do with it's operation. It is probability that correlates and connects and leads to response.
This extraordinary fact of our physiology, that probability is at the core of our existence presents a jagged disconnect. It flies in the face of every knowledge structure and every religious structure which depend on certainty. But for an Emerging Engineering Class, seeking uncompromised truth, as described above, probability does not present as an obstacle. Rather, it is an aid, a tool, for connecting the jingle jangle of competitive vocabularies existing in the world out there. What does this mean? Can we unstitch this very loaded paragraph and try to lay out in flat lines just what it could mean?
First let's look at memory-
Referring back to 'the flower in the dark'... Later, when the question is asked: "What did you see?" that question is itself a drive. As with the pin in the leg, it must be answered. Since we do not have the means, or time, to describe the actions of each of a trillion neurons connecting every which way, we abbreviate by saying a random search takes place and leads to a connection which settles the drive.
In answering the question, you describe what you did: your physical response to what your senses bring in. You said "rose." But that response can change based on a new piece of history that may enter your world. For instance, you now look at a book of flowers. Based on a picture you see in that book, your structured "memory" of the event is different. You say (and believe)... "it was a carnation!"
The point is- there is no memory storage box hidden somewhere in the grey matter that holds memory. There is only a construction and a reconstruction and a re-reconstruction of your response to the world out there. And this response is built ever anew when you come inside and return outside. There is no fundamental. No bedrock.
We "pretend" there is certainty. We talk as if there is certainty. We pick a side and stick to it with certainty. This pretense has been necessary to get along in the world and has served us well until now. It has gotten us to the moon. Will it get us further? What special knowledge must we have to go to the next step?
I am a Jain. Bob is a dialectic materialist. Sue over there is a Wicker Girl and Jack finds meaning in the entrails of chickens. On Saturday it's Le Chaim. On Sunday -Hallaluliah! What's going on? How can five different people with five different vocabularies get into the same rocketship and go to the stars?
NOTE: the examples cited above are extreme. But not really. It is true that most people in space travel would have at least rough parity in life-style and education. But all the basic issues in conflict still remain - When does life begin? When does life end? etc. etc. And who gets to decide?
Across his papers Putnam identifies such issues:
"Such themes as the role of money, the illusion of competition, the commitment to technicalization, the death of "society," economism, the place of autobiography, the difficulty of doing what one wills, the difficulty of objectivizing or consistently expressing hate, etc., constitute identifications which allow the self-model to start to take on the systematic character of life style. From Comments on Eddington, 1962.
The various disciplines within the University: mathematics, physics, science, religion, the arts, etc., are separately full of content but speak different languages and thus "pass each other like ships in the night"... By showing that all of our disciplines are abstractions drawn from a common pool of interacting neurons in an ever elaborating nervous system, a path is opened. A way of connecting.
And so it is with people.
Current neuroscience, in its search, takes as primary the world out there and tries to adjust the way the brain works to the world out there. Putnam's model is just the opposite - it takes as primary the brain itself, and sees the world out there as manifestations of the brain. This is a radical approach and requires a radical adjustment to the world.
Up until about 100 years ago no sane person would allow a stranger in a white mask to cut open his chest, lift out his heart and replace it with a different heart taken from a dead stranger, or even a pig. What change in mind-set had to take place to allow this to happen? What change in attitude or approach?
Science happened. The scientific method. The controlled experiment as a way of getting at truth. As features describing human anatomy become understood: the blood, the liver, the heart, etc., it becomes possible to redesign, even replace these systems. Redesign meets with resistance at first. But if the science is correct - if it works, we are all for it.
So it is with the brain once it is fully understood. Not to change the brain crudely with a scalpel (although it may come to that), but effectively with the word.
Putnam on connecting:
"Linking apparently separate bodies of syntax is always terribly difficult. For example, linking the theories of light and electricity (Maxwell); linking the various branches of mathematics in the single conceptual framework of set theory (Hilbert, Russell, Bourbaki, etc.); linking the political rhetoric of Communism and Democracy: or linking the various branches of Christianity, etc. Such linkages involve building an enlarged model that synthesizes the separate, presenting them as special cases of itself, each correct under certain restricted and distinct conditions.
It is vital to realize that the construction of such a synthesis does not in itself answer many questions. What it does do is remove blocks that have been preventing us from asking the right questions. Comments on Eddington, 1962
We know that a robot can solve the mathematical problems in a chess game better than a human can. But the robot is designed (by a human) to answer only the HOW questions that relate to correct moves in the game. The human player, approaching the chess board carries with him the whole baggage of his body and the whole history of the human race.
By disciplined training, the human chess player pretends to ignore the neuronal tugs on his psyche such as "am I hungry? am I horny? am I getting paid enough? Is it right for me to be representing a political system I don't respect? — is it moral for me to play?"
These questions are inherent in the human and absent in a robot, which has been predesigned for one specific purpose only - to make the best chess game moves. History for the robot starts now.
In the human player, with every move, every decision, a random search starts which covers signals from his body, the outside world, his personal history and amazing as it may seem, by extension, the history of the whole of humanity.
These issues arise from "words" embedded in his history. The robot has no words. The human has words. The robot has no history. The human has history. By training he denies his history. Questions of "morality," "what to do" always arise. "Why" questions cut more deeply into our psyche than "how" questions. Read George Orwell.
Example three: the word (not yet written)
Putnam: The word, like the chromosome, is a magical catalist to draw order out of chaos.
The verbal X (contradiction) generates verbal RS's (random searches) that expand the historical niche, till they catch cues or carriers of negation that resolve.
All of the order of the world which is significant to us, as humans, is a causal emination of the word. It is a magic catylist. Remove it and our houses, clothes, dreams are all gone.
Linkage of Syntax
The emerging engineering attitude broadens out the narrow science attitude and begins to include into the decision process "traditional" questions of what is the good life? what is moral? do I want to live? and why? etc.
This is a Neo-Renaisance attitude in discovering old truths, and discovering old truths based on science - namely, understanding "the self" in neuro-scientific terms.
We repeat - at the core of our existence in decision making is random selection and probability. A quiet and patient understanding that the broadest decisions rest not on our shoulders, but on the long view of 'that which is.' ...We do. ...And we do what we can.
Consider an imitation of how the brain works:
Let's say you need to cross a river by choosing the right stepping stones. You start out. After a few stones, you step back one or two stones and correct, into a better next choice. You eventually are able to cross by choosing some stones and rejecting others. The next day you approach the river and set out. You try to follow the same path as the day before, because it worked. You may make some corrections. It is faster today than it was yesterday. On the next many days it is much faster and easier, because your path across is well known to you and refined through trial and error and practice to the best choice of stones. But one day the river has shifted. Familiar stones are no longer available. You must start at the beginning and readjust to cross the river.
Now I would like to describe:
My fifty year relationship with Peter Putnam and the Putnam Papers
I first met Peter Putnam at the phone bank in the basement of the Apollo theatre in New York City in May, 1963. It was finals week at Columbia and I was escaping studying with my friend Al Phillips to see a Fats Domino concert. I left my seat to make an extremely important phone call.
My year and a half affair with a Barnard student, my first and intense, seemed to be coming to an end. This phone call would determine that.
In his autobiography, Max Frankel, married to my friend's older sister, describes his mother-in-law as difficult in the extreme. I was to learn that, first hand, when she took the phone and proceeded to berate me in strongest language yelling never to call that number again - the affair was finished!
Dizzy and nauseous, I turned to see the strange figure of Peter Putnam doing the Putnam two-step and making friends.
At that moment I was in extreme emotional turmoil. In a few words Putnam said he was a post-doc fellow at Columbia. He seemed unusual but really smart and interesting. We agreed to meet for lunch on the campus a few days later.
Note: I believe Putnam's initial interest in me at the phone bank was sexual. Only once in all the years of conversation did he ask if I was interested in homosexual contact. I was not. It was never part of our relationship.
I think Putnam saw in me a student in an emotional crises that pre-artists go through before restructuring and resurfacing. Describing this crises is a major concern of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who Putnam was just starting to read at that time. Over the course of that year in our frequent meetings in his office in the Barnard library, Putnam mentored and encouraged me. I stopped going to classes in architecture school except for art and design. Soon after the second year I dropped out, moved to Italy and independent study, to pursue my real interest.
Note: a very few months after the Apollo phone call, a friend showed me a picture in the New York Times of my ex-girlfriend wearing a wedding dress. She apparently married a urology resident, raised a family, and became a full professor at Wellesley. A wise choice.
Students who would study neurology- before you shuffle off to some tiny corner of the lab to isolate small details of a larger picture, use your intellect to look at the larger picture.
Argument and discussion are ever present in the world outside without considering the world inside. Out there we hear a cacophony of competing points of view, each speaking a different language, each speaking with an absolute certainty - a certainty our brain does not allow us to have.
Mr Neuroscientist. Stop and examine what you are doing right now. Be self-conscious. You are thinking and making words... and now you are thinking about thinking about making words. And this never stops. "Elephant!" are you now picturing a large animal with a tusk?
Am I rude in suggesting that 'smart you', everywhere, shares this trait of words: with the pope, the physicist and the pauper under the bridge? The little bit of smartness, you have way on top, is small compared to the vast filagree of interneural pathway that we all share in common from our common history.
It is in the elaboration of these internal patterns that change takes place.
After knowing and reading Putnam for several years, and understanding nothing from the writing, I one day seriously asked Peter if his papers made any sense at all, or was it all jibberish. I meant it. Instead of kicking me out of the room for this insult based on my slow mindedness, he patiently said "it makes sense." Another time, he told me that after so many years of listening, I never even once recited a single word of the Putnam model, in the language of the Putnam model. It is a feature of my own make up that I understand nothing unless I put it into my own words. But on another occasion Putnam told me I probably understood the meaning of the model better than any of his students.
After he died, about 30 years ago, I continued reading and listening to taped conversations. This paper reflects my understanding of the Putnam Papers, not from a scientist POV, but an artist's need and perspective. It's been an adventure.
I returned from Europe to start filmmaking. I saw a direction but did not at first realize Putnam's influence.
A comparison can be made with Putnam.
We believe Putnam's model- published in 1964 embodies the essence, and more than that, of what is coming to be understood in neuroscience of how the brain works.
We believe that Putnam's recognition will come, but more than that, there is much in Putnam's work that has astounding relevance for today and the future.