Sunday 16 September 2012

Appetite, Will and Intellect: A journey of recursion?

When I understand something, there is a feeling of resolution, coming back down to earth, repose, satisfaction. The experience can feel like post-coital satisfaction - a (fleeting) sense of finality. But then things move again with some  new challenge or assertion that doesn't fit and demands more effort. The tension builds once more. A new moment of understanding might be reached at some point in the future, but like all appetites, it isn't something that is really within my control, although I may choose to act in particular ways to manage it.

I find the patterns of intellectual appetite musical: the rising and falling of tension, the rhythmic drive in pursuit of thought, the mellifluousness of arguments. But maybe that's because much of what I concern myself with is music. But intellectual appetite is curious. Is it distinct from other appetites? (I may be suggesting, against Aquinas's distinction between appetite, will and intellect, that they are one and the same: all is, to some extent, related to appetite). If appetite, will and intellect are connected, how? I think that recursive thinking can reveal new levels of depth in this relationship.

Recursion is a 20th century concept and would not have been available to Aquinas. The closest the scholastics got to recursion I suspect, is in their spiritual practice, and (I'm speculating here) in their obsession with copying and immitation. Certainly the quest to 'become like Jesus' has some powerful recursive properties, and this was an important part of their thinking.

But only within the last 50 years (and particularly within the last 30) has recursion become more available to us in everyday experience. And we have needed computers to appreciate it. The hidden patterns of the logistic map and the astonishing symmetry of fractals has opened up a polyvalent universe to us which at the very least provides a new lens through which to view ancient problems.

Is the difference between appetite and will one of recursive depth? And it may not just be appetites, but fears too. When I am hungry, 'instinct' doesn't lead me to 'reflect' on my hunger, but rather to act on it. My behaviour in this sense is 'rational' in the way that the game theorists assume (wrongly) that all behaviour is rational: there is an objective to be achieved and a game to be played to achieve that objective which may be seen to have graspable ordinal outcomes. In games like chess, there can be a lust for victory which can be comparable to this aspect of appetite. But these two cases are different: being physically hungry is debilitating in a way that not winning a game of tiddlywinks is not.

With tiddlywinks, there are deeper levels of recursion. The metagame of tiddlywinks involves thinking about strategies and outcomes which do not pertain to the actual game, but to its context. "Do I want to beat this person?", "What will the consequences of that be?", "Is losing a good thing?", and so on. The permutations of this are potentially endless. The meta-metagame and the meta-meta-metagame might conceivably be invoked as a player decides either what strategy to play, or what attitude to adopt regarding the game in general. Given that particular complexity, the fact that we do just 'play the game' appears more remarkable than the fact that we might reflect on it.

This is where I wonder if the work of the intellect is particularly important (at least, what Aquinas calls the 'agent intellect' - I'm not sure about his concept of the 'passive intellect'). In short, the intellect helps us to navigate the levels of recursion and manage the complexity thrown up by ever-bewildering arrays of choices and levels of thinking. How does it do that? It identifies concepts whose function is the limit the variety of the metagame tree. 'Successful' concepts are applicable at a variety of levels of recursion. In cybernetics, we are quite familiar with this: the concepts of Beer's Viable System Model are a perfect example. Maturana's 'autopoiesis' is another one. Such concepts may relate to 'will' and self-determination; their nature is often in some way moral - or at least, morality is an important consideration of their worth (Maturana's work may be suspect in this regard, since his 'biological reductionism' may in fact be potentially fascist!). One more thing to say about this aspect of the will and recursion is that it might be negative in function rather than positive. Concepts emerge through an awareness of absence left out through the exploration of levels of recursion: it is the space between the Mandelbrot forms. This is what I was getting at when I designed this poster for the ASC conference this year.. absence gives rise to recursive concepts that emerge from recursive processes (this may be related to Deacon's 'teleodynamics')

But the pattern of ebb-and-flow of intellectual life remains a puzzle. I believe tension builds with the accumulation of complexity in the metagame tree. At some point this becomes exasperating. What can release it? Intellect produces the recursive concept which comes to the rescue in simplifying the game tree. Tension is released.

What is fascinating me about this is the way that intellect works in the unfolding of a piece of music. It may be that motivic patterns and tonal motion become the recursive 'concepts' through which music "explains itself".

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