Sunday, November 03, 2013

Tutorials on Narratives II: Narratives and "The Force"

Narratives form a DNA of our intellectual and spiritual life.
I tried to clarify that point in my previous post on this topic. But there is so much more to be said and thought on this topic. In this post I want to connect the idea with some of the characteristics of what the StarWars Universe calls "The Force". Let me first sidetrack for a moment into the biochemical "roots" of some of the crucial StarWars mythology around the concept of "The Force"

The Force binds all things together. Or in the words of Master Yoda:

"Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship."

Yoda raises a number of interesting points in his typical alternative syntax. First of all he ascertains that "The Force" is created by Life. You might be tempted to read this in reverse, that he is saying The Force. But in ordinary "Yoda speak" he would have then said: "Life IT creates". But he doesn't. The Force is a presence that has come into being from Life's origin, it is not the creator-deity that has created life in the first place. The second part of that first sentence is deliciously ambiguous. Because is Yoda saying that "Life makes The Force grow"? Or is he saying that "The Force makes Life grow"? I take this ambiguity to be purposefully left like that. Yoda wants to emphasize that there is a mutual interaction between Life and The Force allowing them both to grow in the presence and under the influence of the other. That is why in StarWars mythology the deepest connection between the Force and it's adherers, the Jedi and the Sith, is not found in their piety, not found in their codes of conduct, in their religious rituals or anything along those lines. No, rather what connects the Force-Sensitive to The Force is the most primitive life-form imaginable: Midichlorians. Or in the words of Qui Gon Jin:

"Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you'll hear them speaking to you."
What real-world biology offers that comes closest to the organic function that "Midichlorians" have in the StarWars lore are the so-called Mitochondria. These are organelles within our cells, and the cells of most species of organisms on this Earth, that are largely responsible for the cell's energy production and they play crucial roles in cell-differentiation, signalling between cells, the cell cycles and cell death. Although the evolutionary origin of mitochondria is not entirely clarified, the proposal that finds most support in the biological data is that of their "endosymbiosis", i.e. that they developed from single-cell lifeforms that arose independently before going into "internal symbiosis".i.e. they became internal constituents of their symbiotic partners.

Signalling happens not only between the cells of the host, but also between the host and the guest. The key idea in the Starwars implementation of the fictious "midiclorians" is that these organelles are not only aiding the cells of the host in communicating among eachother, as the mitochondria do in the human body. But in addition StarWars myth assume they communicate with the host as well, a communication which the host can only take part in when she is capable of hearing past the chatter among her own cells. Evidently there is no biological evidence for this, at least not that I know of. But the matter is subtler than you might think. Mitochondria in nerve cells also play crucial roles in the standard normal operating procedures of the brain.

Our sensory input is translated into correlations in activity of brain cells across vast regions in our brain. The processing of these inputs involves patterns of activity, signalling between nerve-cells and adaptation of the network structure of our brain to the information that was processed. The network of brain cells is far less passive then people think, far less passive than human biologist thought two decades ago. A striking difference between modern computers and brains of organisms is the capability of brains to adapt their structure. Brains do so in two distinct ways. The "slow process" is the standard evolution by mutation and selection of the fittest. The fast processes are re-wiring of dendrite connections in the brain, the "programmed" cell-death of nerve cells and the "activation" of undifferentiated stem-cells in the brain and their specialization into new brain cells. These are all processes in which these mitochondria play crucial roles.

Narratives enter our brains through our communication with each other and the translation of these inputs into modified narratives that we can communicate to other humans beings thus relies on the same crucial formation of correlations between brain cells' activities. The brain displays fast and slow processes of adapting to the information it receives, either by temporary and small structural change or by very slow changes "written into" the DNA recipe's for the brain through mutation and the selection of "fitter" structures to accommodate advantageous narratives.

We like to believe people make up their minds and select certain choices but we rarely ask ourselves whether the reverse could also be true to some extent: "Certain choices embed themselves into the minds of people". Our brain definitely offers the range of dynamical phenomena for such an "active role" for choice-alternatives to be there. The "reasons" that we spell out in justification of certain decisions we took "freely" might just as well be the narratives that took hold in our brains. Our "free choice" merely a phenotypal response to the changed "narrative make-up" of the correlation-structures in the activity of our brains. If you win a debate, you don't win it based on the soundness of your arguments, you win it when your narrative is adopted by your opponents brain-cells.

The notions of "The Force" and "Narratives" are connected. When you go back to my quote of Yoda you might see that in the latter part of that statement he showcases The Force as something that must be sensed and that connects and correlates. He does not construct a deity, a superior being, nor does he list a long arrangement of "dogmatic truths". All Yoda does is say that The Force can be sensed in the form of connections you make between objects that seem without connection. Apparently Yoda is referring to The Force as a "pool of narratives" that serves to connect seemingly disconnected objects of "crude matter". And Qui Gon Jin takes it a step further by assigning a "Will" to that pool of narratives that the midichlorians communicate to us. How can that be? Can there be something like a "will" associated with something that is at best a "pool of narratives"?

The "Selfish Gene" was a term coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book with the same title. The undercurrent in that book is a sense of purpose in Evolution when seen from the point of view of genes.In my first post on this topic I argued that one could view the impact of narratives on our behavioral make-up in a similar fashion as the impact of genes on our biochemical make-up. In the processes in our brain through which we come to choices, decisions, actions and where we form the patterns that we communicate to as well as about our fellow humans the biochemical genes and the narrative genes collide and quite possibly collude. Assigning a "will" to a pool of narratives is in one-on-one correspondence with assigning "selfishness" to a pool of DNA molecules.

When you learn to quiet your mind you'll hear them speaking to you is what Qui Gon recommend Anakin. Now we can finally translate this puzzling sentence into more "operational" terms. "Listening to midicholrians" is the attempt to become as conscious as possible of the structural changes with which narratives impact on your thinking, to filter these weak signals out of the plethora of possibly louder and more chatty signals that your brain cells flush through your senses and body. And what these signals can tell you, the "Will of The Force" is the sense of purpose that comes forth from this ever changing pool of narratives that influences the world in which you live. Quietly contemplating the narratives that are flying around in the world, sensing the kind of correlations these narratives create in your thinking, in the patterns in perception that flash by in front of your eyes, and finally attempting to analyse what sense of purpose this pool of narratives projects: that is what a Jedi does.

No comments: