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Long But Fascinating: The Kekulé Problem. Where did language come from?

“The unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.”


All animals have an unconscious. If they didn’t they would be plants. We may sometimes credit ours with duties it doesn’t actually perform. Systems at a certain level of necessity may require their own mechanics of governance. Breathing, for instance, is not controlled by the unconscious but by the pons and the medulla oblongata, two systems located in the brainstem. Except of course in the case of cetaceans, who have to breathe when they come up for air. An autonomous system wouldn’t work here. The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died. (How do they sleep? With half of their brain alternately.) But the duties of the unconscious are beyond counting. Everything from scratching an itch to solving math problems.


I’ve pointed out to some of my mathematical friends that the unconscious appears to be better at math than they are. My friend George Zweig calls this the Night Shift. Bear in mind that the unconscious has no pencil or notepad and certainly no eraser. That it does solve problems in mathematics is indisputable. How does it go about it? When I’ve suggested to my friends that it may well do it without using numbers, most of them thought—after a while—that this was a possibility. How, we don’t know. Just as we don’t know how it is that we manage to talk. If I am talking to you then I can hardly be crafting at the same time the sentences that are to follow what I am now saying. I am totally occupied in talking to you. Nor can some part of my mind be assembling these sentences and then saying them to me so that I can repeat them. Aside from the fact that I am busy this would be to evoke an endless regress. The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.


So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didnt say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course they dont think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombo’s Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didn’t precede it by much.


One hundred thousand years is pretty much an eyeblink. But two million years is not. This is, rather loosely, the length of time in which our unconscious has been organizing and directing our lives. And without language you will note. At least for all but that recent blink. How does it tell us where and when to scratch? We dont know. We just know that it’s good at it. But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesn’t much like language and even that it doesn’t trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

FULL ARTICLE HERE AT NAUTIL.US Cormac McCarthy on the Origin of Language

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mhf December 5, 2017, 5:06 PM

    It just bees that way

  • MMinLamesa December 6, 2017, 2:12 AM

    The way I design a window is to lay out some basic lines and hang the drawing and then…sleep on it. Depending on many many factors, over the course of the next weeks or even longer, problems are mysteriously worked out. I’ll walk into my studio, see the drawing hanging there and lay it flat and…magic, as lines are erased and new lines are drawn.

    It’s pretty cool.

  • Dave E December 6, 2017, 6:09 AM

    Very often I have a complex issue to contend with while programming packaging machinery, and there comes the time when I just “know” I need to sleep on it. Which I do, and usually wake up with a theory to test and come up with a solution

    Just another part of “work it through”

  • Roy Lofquist December 6, 2017, 7:13 AM

    It has become obvious that the conventional wisdom about brains and thinking is seriously mistaken. Consider that the “clock speed” of the human brain is about 100 Hz. Contrast this with clock of the computers used for robotics, image recognition, speech recognition and “AI”: 3 GHz – 30 million times as fast. Not only that but the computers have more memory capacity than the neurons in the human nervous system.

    We now have robots that can walk slowly over rough terrain, speech recognition about 90% accurate, image recognition that only occasionally thinks grandma is a giraffe, and AI that really ain’t. Meanwhile that 100 Hz homo sapien (30 million time slower) can simultaneously run, bounce a ball, carry on a conversation, listen to music, think about dinner and recognize faces in the crowd.

    From a systems view the brain appears to be a mere device controller, processing and rationalizing sensory input while delivering activating signals to muscles and organs. All in service to a “soul” that has capabilities that rival the wet dreams of a quantum computing theorist.

    Hows that for a combination of heterodoxy, blasphemy and aggravated mopery?

  • Howard Nelson December 6, 2017, 10:08 AM

    And we live our lives gliding and grinding through the interstices of contradictions with emotions unfurled.
    And our AI*Robot creations, already designing improved versions of their ‘selves’, will some day learn to …

  • Howard Nelson December 8, 2017, 3:45 PM

    Language of the sonic sort is just one means of communication among living things — animals, fish, bugs, plants, etc.
    Signaling by various means communicates intent. It seems living entities, by nature, communicate.
    If I really knew what I was writing about I’d continue writing.