Sunday, 11 March 2007

29. What controls our minds?

Many of us believe that we can think what we like, even if we may have to be careful in what we say or write. This is an illusion.

From the moment we are born our minds are being moulded to think in particular ways, to see certain objects, to make certain connections, to establish particular patterns, to value specific things. Other things around us are invisible, unregistered, unvalued. This filter influences the way in which I write and you read these Letters. It also shapes the way in which readers in other parts of the world, whose mental spectacles are different from the English ones, understand what I am writing.

Time flies like an arrow – or does it?

In most human societies, time has not been seen as a straight line. It has usually been thought of as circular, reflecting our normal experience. In plants and animals there is birth, maturation, aging, death, perhaps re-birth. So it is with the days and nights and with the seasons of the year. Time does not advance, it is not split into tiny elements, its rhythm is slow and repetitive, it is not independent of us. The very movement of the stars in the sky declares that motion is circular.

And we know from our experience that time feels elastic, passing too fast or too slowly. The posh name for this is relativity. As Albert Einstein explained, ‘When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.’

Yet you and I treat time in a more mechanical way, and no-one is sure why we now have this peculiar attitude. We not only sub-divide it into tiny bits, but look on it as a scarce commodity, draining away, to be saved or spent. It is also thought to be going somewhere, aiming towards some future event, like a river or an arrow, and it ticks away irrespective of how we feel about it.

We are not like the nomadic Arabs who knew that it was autumn when they came upon a valley with a certain kind of mushroom growing in it. We know when it is autumn and go to that valley specifically to collect mushrooms. Except in the jokes about confused tourists who wake up and say to themselves ‘We are in Tokyo, it must be Thursday’, we tend to think first of time, and then arrange our lives around it.

There are several theories to explain our obsession, our battling, with time. There is a religious element. Judaism, Christianity and Islam seem to have an idea of time as a progression or straight line. This is very different from the circular concepts of Hinduism or the annihilation of past and future in certain forms of Buddhism. This particular thread was given heavy emphasis when Protestantism emerged in the sixteenth century. From then, God was particularly concerned that we did not waste time or our talents. Accounting for what we do, making every moment count, turning time into profitable activity, were strongly encouraged.

Time had been reckoned in all previous civilizations as reflecting the circular rhythms of nature. Sun-dials and gravity clocks using sand or water were the only ones that existed until the tenth century A.D. Then something strange happened which set time free. A device was developed (the escapement), which broke the continuous motion of gravity into little equal bits. It rotated back and forth regularly like the tick-tock of a clock. There is disagreement as to whether it was invented in China or the west, but certainly it was in the latter that it was rapidly developed.

It is also argued that the regular, enclosed, rhythms of the monastic orders, with their bells and tight time schedules, required such a precise clock to be developed. In other words a new sense of time accounting was present before the mechanical clock was invented. Other suggest the opposite. They say that it was the new clocks available from the twelfth century which gave us a more exact sense of time.

Whatever the answers to these questions of cause and origin, it is not difficult to see how much we are obsessed and ruled by time. We learn to internalize it, to fear or fight with it, to think of it as a commodity to consume. Even with the spread of mobile phones, a recent check among my students suggested that the watch is still the most common machine we carry around.

We now imagine microscopic slices of time, micro-seconds and nano-seconds. Our attention spans have shrunk and our civilization ticks to the clock and whirs with ever faster travel and computers.

Do we look to the past or the future?

In most traditional societies, people tended to look to the past. They revered their ancestors, tried to retain the traditions, lived in a remembered world. In contrast, increasingly for us the past is a foreign country where strangers lived. Most people, especially in rapidly changing societies like America or China, tend to think much more about the present and particularly the future than the past. They see little or no connection between themselves and previous generations. The threads are cut, they have nothing in common with the landscape they live in, except as ‘heritage’. Science fiction rather than historical fact interests them.

Again it is difficult to know why this great change has taken place. Its roots are partly religious and philosophical. Most religions had their great moment in the past, in the life of Buddha, Mohammed, the Prophets or Confucius. Christianity however looks forward to ‘The Second Coming’. Like Communism, it is a Utopian Faith, travelling hopefully towards a world where all sin and misery will be cleansed from earth.

Technology also plays a part. Rapid change cuts us off from the past. The great inventions of printing, the compass and gunpowder meant that the seventeenth century philosophers felt that they were no longer the same as the Ancients. They were no longer living in a circular world, for there was real progress. Now we often feel that those who lived before electricity, cars, photography and modern medicine must have been very different. Technological change is so rapid that a world before the internet, mobile phone, genetic engineering and the latest generation of weapons, seems a different one, with little to teach us.

Societies which are based on the premise of the hierarchy of caste tend to emphasize links with the past. Previous events explain and justify present inequalities. Noble families treasure their family trees and pay respect to their ancestors. Even ordinary families maintain their position by attention to past origins.

When a new world was created in the United States, based on equality at birth (at least for whites), the interest in the past was cut off in one stroke. We ourselves make our own way in life. What our family was or did in the past is largely irrelevant, or just a leisure interest, as in the great interest in family genealogy. Live for the future, make and re-make your world is the view of many.

America has been settled by its majority population relatively recently. Yet its citizens hope and sometimes believe it has a great future. I remember the surprise on my first visit as I passed through the customs and instead of being asked ‘how are you?’ (or as I would have been in my Nepalese village, ‘have you eaten rice?’) I was greeted with a cheerful ‘Have a good day’.

Why does money matter?

‘Time is money’ is an old saying, showing the connection between two of our obsessions. What then is money, this strange thing which, like time, consumes much of our attention and dominates our lives to such an extent?

Money is a trick or a fiction; it is a symbol which has no intrinsic value. Gold, silver, jewels, bits of paper or cowrie shells are in themselves useless and valueless. Value is injected into them by humans. This explains why almost anything can be ‘used’ as money.

At school money was sometimes marbles, sometimes white mice, sometimes sweets. In many parts of Asia, tea blocks are still used as money. They are in many ways a good form of money since they can at least be boiled up and drunk in an emergency. In others, salt, pepper or spices are used, or precious incense. Elsewhere it is shells or stones. These items seem to have intrinsic value, not merely something injected into them.

Whatever form it takes, it turns into full-blown money when the object can simultaneously be a store and measure of value and an item of exchange. It is our attitude to it which determines its value. Hence it is not money itself which is said to be the root of all evil, but, according to the Bible, the love of money.

Money stands for a relation of power over others. It is like oil in a machine, for it allows the parts to function without grinding against each other. It is a translation device, a leveller, it makes objects in different spheres exchangeable. It allows us to create one commodity and then to exchange this for another. It has no morality, no inner essence, but it can enter almost all of our life.

We do try to protect specific areas with invisible signs ‘No money here’. Certain beautiful things are beyond the reach of money. I cannot sell King’s College Chapel, or even the hundredth part which I appear to own as a Fellow of the College. I cannot buy or sell true love or friendship. I cannot buy or sell truth or religious salvation, although the Catholic Church did at one time sell indulgences. I cannot buy part of the public park in the centre of Cambridge. I cannot buy a place in a cricket team, an orchestra or a chance to study at King’s College if I have no talent.

Yet in much of our life, money holds us to ransom. It slips through our hands in a slithery way. The more we have, the more we seem to need. Few people admit to having too much and many have less than they need or want. Indeed much of our capitalist world is propelled by an apparently unavoidable shortage of money. This is created by the desire for the substance itself. It seems, as in many fairy stories, to turn into dust when it is touched.

In comparison with most of the world we are ‘affluent’ or rich in Britain. Our world is awash with the things that money can buy. Yet few of us feel satisfied. At the other extreme there are some simple societies where people wander about in forests and savannahs. They appear to have hardly anything at all, yet it is reported that they feel satisfied with their lives.

This paradox arises from the fact that satisfaction comes from the relation between means and ends, income and expenditure. This was immortally put by Mr Micawber in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery’.

Some simple hunting and gathering societies had a finite need for food and water, for shelter and clothing, and for leisure and social relationships. There is more than enough of all of these; ‘income’ exceeds demand. We, on the other hand, often reach for the stars, have an open-ended demand and a deep craving for more and more.

Very soon we forget that what made us happy yesterday would not satisfy us for a moment today. I met a Chinese man in his thirties. He said that as a country boy all he wished for in life was one day to be rich enough to have boiled dumplings every morning like his city cousins. Now his daughter wants a Ph.D. from Peking University. The ‘revolution of rising expectations’ condemns many of us to eternal dissatisfaction. Buddhism calls understanding this the second Noble Truth.

Each choice we make is a minor deprivation. At the restaurant of life we can only gorge ourselves on a certain amount. If we choose the curry, there is sadness that the pizza or stew is untasted. The Romans made themselves vomit so that they could enjoy the taste of more food, but in the end even they were satiated and could not eat everything. We always want more. Happiness is seen as lying in some future bonus or better job.

Yet we are constantly brain-washed to think that money really exists, and that the more we have of it, the happier we will be. The whole capitalist consumption machine, would crash to the ground if we could not be persuaded to spend, spend, spend. The billboards, television advertisements, life styles of media and sporting heroes constantly shout ‘Money, Money, Money’ at us.

It is therefore sensible from time to time to stand back. We can try tasting a bit of money in our mouth. It tastes (unless it is tea or pepper) of nothing. Nor does it last. As the Irish philosophically put it, ‘a shroud has no pockets’. That wise economist Adam Smith, pointed out that if we want to escape from the trap of anxiety and dependency on money, the thing to look at is not how to get more money, but how to spend less.

For though we can never earn enough to satisfy our ever-expanding cravings, through frugality we can learn the pleasure of being free from care. We certainly need sufficient money in the present world and, as the comedian Woody Allen observed, ‘Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.’ We can also perhaps start to enjoy one of life’s greatest delights, which is seeing how a little of the extra which we have saved can give relief and pleasure to others. For, as the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, ‘Money is like manure, not good unless it be spread’.

How sensible are our categories?

Our culture teaches us to create a grid or map of the world, placing things into boxes. Some things are alike, others are different. Those that straddle the borders are often dangerous or dirty. We believe that these things really are what we believe them to be because of their innate qualities, that apples and plums belong to one class of things, cats and dogs to another.

A delightful undermining of our categories is shown by the arrangement attributed by Dr.Franz Kuhn to a Chinese encyclopaedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. This divides animals as follows:

‘(a) those that belong to the Emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) et cetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.’

The logic behind this is not easy to see and we may wonder what would happen if innumerable suckling pigs became frenzied and broke a flower vase at a great distance!

We might think that this Chinese example is somewhat fanciful, but the Japanese numbering system is quite like it. For each class of thing there is a different series of numbers. The ordinal numbers ‘are divided into nearly as many series as there are classes of objects. There is one class for all animals – expect the flying and swimming species, and insects. Another for birds, in which, however, hares and rabbits are included! A third for ships, and junks, and boats; a fourth for liquids drunk with a glass, as water, wine, tea etc.; a fifth for things having length, as trees, pens, sticks, masts, beams, radishes, carrots, fingers, brooms, pipes etc. and so on ad infinitum;’ The author stopped there ‘in despair, foreseeing that they would fill a volume by themselves’.

Yet, arbitrary as these classifications look, your or my classification would probably look just as arbitrary to a visiting spaceman. For instance, why do we classify the bottom of things as more stable and truthful than the top, so that what appears at the bottom of a television screens is more ‘believed’ than that at the top?

Our mental worlds are filled with reflections of the present and past worlds which created them. These reflections in turn re-shape and determine what we can think. They are instilled in us by our family, school, media, friends. Only a considerable effort makes it possible to stand back and examine what have been called ‘the idols of the mind’, the things we fall down and worship without much thought.

How can we talk about our world?

The difficulty of examining our mind’s hidden paths is made even greater by the entrapment of language. As Rudyard Kipling rightly observed, ‘Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind’. Their power is not just mental. As the Japanese proverb puts it, ‘One kind word can warm three winter months’. Almost everything we do and feel is affected by language.

So, although our thought is not determined by language, it does set a grid through which we see, feel about and report our world. The comparative linguist Benjamin Whorf wrote that ‘We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language… Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.’

For instance, by contrasting English and Hopi, Whorf tried to show that, in English, time is divisible into past, present and future, while in Hopi there is just a division between those things that are manifest and those that are still in the process of being manifest – there is no equivalent of past, present and future tenses. This alters our way of perceiving time.

In Japanese there are no tenses, no way of knowing whether something has happened, is, or will be happening. There is no use of pronouns, so one does not know if I, you, we or they are doing something. There is no positive and negative distinction. So if we invite someone to dinner and they say ‘hai’ it means yes or no. This is combined with many other, to us odd, features of grammar and syntax and the fact that sets of characters (there are three systems in Japan) can mean entirely different things.

I well remember sitting for fifteen minutes while a Japanese companion went through a menu with the waitress and tried to ascertain what certain dishes on the menu really were. When the food finally appeared, it bore little resemblance to what we thought we had ordered. It is no wonder that the Japanese have a proverb, ‘language is a barrier to communication’, and prefer haragei or body language to the spoken form.

Each language has its peculiarities. English has very little grammar, but lots of words. Romance languages (the ones which come from Latin, including French, Italian, Spanish) force us to specify the gender of all nouns. Certain American Indian languages force people to indicate whether an object is near or far from the speaker and whether it is visible or invisible. In the Himalayas, it is not difficult to see why there are three forms of the verb ‘to come’, meaning to come up, to come down, or to come on the flat.

It is an endlessly enthralling topic. For example, can we see things for which we have no word? Among the people I work with in Nepal there is only one word, pingya, which means both blue and green. Can they see the difference if they cannot speak it?

A clue to the answer is given by the fact that in Russian there are two words for ‘blue’ which roughly mean light and dark blue. A Russian anthropologist studying us might come to the logical, but incorrect, conclusion that because we cannot differentiate the two blues, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race teams could not tell each other apart. When I asked my Nepalese friends they said that of course they could see the difference between the green grass and the blue sky.

The nature of the primary colours, and the very idea of what ‘colour’ is varies greatly. In China, Japan and Korea there are five primary colours: white, black, green-blue, yellow-red, brown-red. We do not consider white and black to be ‘colours’ at all, but have a wider range of primary colours including yellow.

Thinking is our strongest survival tool, and language and culture the expressions of this. Yet we are constantly trapped into certain habits of the mind. Much of our world goes unnoticed, or noticed too strongly. Yet these blinkers are at least half-explicit and we are taught a little about this at school, especially if we learn other languages. Deeper and less examined are the seductions of our senses, the ways in which knowledge comes in through our ways of apprehending reality through our body.

1 comment:

Rachel C Miller said...

Born to a large family and having a large family of mine own I am aware how genetics play a part in our thinking, It has little to do with our surroundings and more to do with our engineered biological make up, though the debate amongst
scholars try to disprove the factors of DNA or the conditions with which we are raised. I have witnessed greatness from the worst of situations and those who appear to have everything squander and suffer at the hands of their personal demons.
Biblical in a historical way,it had been said that the vast majority of people are followers and look for leadership. Is this to say that intelligence amongst people vary? Factual Indeed in a societal view the average person is the mainstream and I Q does indeed vary.
Reading stories of Hitler he started out as not so bad a leader and with power he ended the period of time as a hellish figure of leadership. Separatism does just that separates the people and we can only learn and grow by the mere mingling of minds, for acceptance of our brother and sisters of the world will prove that the blood that flows through all our veins remains red.

I enjoyed your blog, causes one to think.