strategies for the meeting of souls and minds

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on June 10, 2011

I’m going to assume we humans simply want to get each other’s mental and emotional state right. We want to empathize with fidelity. We want to be compassionate, but not when the other is not suffering. We want to feel pride, but not when the other’s ashamed. If I had to guess, I would say this is one of the evolutionarily-instrumental goals that evolution bequeathed onto us as a personally-ultimate urgency.

There are many ways to bring about a convergence of subjective experience. You can approach them. They can approach you. Or you can dance. By this I mean do something other than trying to immediately aim to arrive at what the other person is feeling. Instead having your experiences synchronized by doing something else, which the both of you would then respond to in the same way.

Of course, veterans of cynicism will know that very often “X is not about Y“. So for example you may both like to play chess to share a sense of mastery of a difficult skill. But ‘chess’ is not about chess. It’s about intellectual skills. There is another sense in which ‘dancing’ is not about dancing, but this is only saying that there exists an infinite variety of things we can possibly do in order for us to connect. This post is not about that ‘about’.

Rather, there is a structure to that infinite variety. My thinking on this is still inchoate, but it seems to me there are two general strategies for the meeting of minds and souls.

I’m going to take TV as a metaphor. You can turn up the volume all the way in order to ensure that everyone in the room share a (admittedly unpleasant) sensation of experiencing loud noise. Or you could watch a sitcom, and when comes the funny part (perhaps with the identification aid of a laugh track) you laugh together with your friends. Or you could watch an opinion leader confirming the biases you share with other kindred spirits in the room. Or you could watch a sensitive and subtle drama whose lead character the people in the room, including yourself, deeply identify with.

The two strategies are: 1) Max out your senses. 2) Seek a narrow target.

Examples of maxing out your senses include: having sex, taking drugs, going skydiving, watching a horror film, etc. Pretty obvious.

Narrow targets deserve some explanation. You don’t give someone a test with only one question, at least not if you want to reliably measure their ability. The reason that doesn’t work is because people who suck might also pass the test. Sex is one thing, rape is a whole nother. Or more relevantly, with an example of a narrow-target strategy: You don’t want readers of your children’s’ book to employ too much extraneous literary criticism in their reading of it. False negatives are less of an issue because the context usually makes it clear that a group of people are trying to have a common experience.

Narrowness should also be construed broadly (mixing of metaphors intended). You don’t necessarily have to write on an obscure academic topic to know that your readers are having the same thoughts. A book as wide-ranging as Godel, Escher, Bach, can also ‘hit home’ among people with a reductionist-aesthetic frame of mind.

Now I would like to analyze art with respect to the narrowness strategy. Art seems to be in general about hitting a narrow target. Beauty seems necessarily fragile. There is probably an evolutionary explanation for this (fitness indicators/entropy), but here I want to focus on the other feeling we get when behold a work of transcendental beauty. Not only do we think and feel that it is beautiful, we know that others like us must recognize that same beauty, and that it is a miracle when, separated as we are by a gulf as impassable and mysterious as that between consciousnesses, we can independently arrive at an appreciation of something so sublime.

You might argue that sublimity is merely a form of psychological maximization, but this misses the thing that it is responding to. Sublimity may feel ineffable, but it is a definite cognitive algorithm for the recognition of something narrow and fragile.

You could also collapse maximization into narrowness: “Oh how often do we take drugs? Taking drugs, we try to hit a narrow target in experience-space”. Well that does provide for a useful refinement of the narrowness strategy: narrowness via the inclusion of many interacting components.

As with saying “All wanting is just preferences, there is no such thing as probability and utility”, it’s only useful in some contexts. I hope that in this post I have drawn an interesting and hopefully useful distinction between general strategies for the meeting of souls and minds.


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