Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Coin Toss and Epistemology

On the drive to work this morning, I was thinking about the World Cup Final and lamenting that it ended in a most unsatisfying penalty kick shootout—not unsatisfying because the US lost, though I did want them to win, but unsatisfying because the shootout seems so random, more like a coin toss than a competitive decision. And in my mind (I was driving alone), I said, "A shootout is like a toss of the coin, it's like a coin toss." Or that's what I meant to say. What I actually said in the safe confines of my own brain was: "A shootout is like a toss of the coin, it's like a toin coss."

Of course, I made a common speech error in which I swapped the initial phonemes of two words. Most everyone has done something like this at some time, and some of us do it more often than others, but usually we simply chuckle or blush, correct ourselves, and move on with the conversation. However, I was conversing with myself this morning, and when I noticed what I'd done in my mind, I was reminded of the conversation I've been having about epistemology these past few weeks with Dave Cormier, David Wiley, Stephen Downes, and others. The conversation started when Wiley posted some observations about the value of MOOCs, and then George Siemens, Cormier, Downes, and others responded to Wiley's observations. The conversation was for me a wonderful chance to clarify my own thinking about knowledge and learning, and some of the ideas from that conversation help me clarify my phonetic shuffle this morning.

Why did I say toin coss rather than coin toss? Where did the non-words toin coss come from? I have not learned these near-words, so it makes no sense to say that they were stored in my brain in either short-term or long-term memory waiting for the right occasion to present themselves for use. The point is, until I used them this morning, these phonetic structures didn't exist, at least not for me. However, they are clearly related to two authentic phonetic structures—coin and toss—that did exist for me. I had just used those real words in the preceding sentence. But then I wonder if the real-words coin and toss also existed prior to my using them this morning, and I think that this may be an important question.

I could say—and perhaps most people would say—that the real-words existed in my mind because I have learned them, used them before, and know them; thus, they must be stored somewhere in the brain's memory that my mind can access when it needs that word. The image of a filing cabinet or a computer hard drive seems like a good image for this way of thinking about the brain, but this fails to explain the near-words. They clearly weren't stored in my neural filing cabinet. I could explain the near-words by saying, "Well, my brain just misread the words the second go-round, as brains are wont to do, and produced the near-words." But I think there is a more satisfying explanation that relies much more on the notion of complex, dynamic networks.

Neither the real-words nor the near-words existed in my brain in some storage system before I used them this morning. Rather, my mind created all of them on-the-fly as it helped me find the meaning I was searching for. In the very instance that I sought to express an idea about the value of penalty kick shootouts, a network of neurons and clusters of neurons in different regions of my brain began firing, assembling almost instantaneously phonemes, words, word clusters, sentences, and clusters of sentences. The brain uses both inherited and learned sets of rules to structure this network of neurons and the mind uses mostly learned set of rules to structure the physical network into phonemes and words and sentences and they do it so quickly and, usually, so reliably that I don't notice it. I'm too busy thinking my thoughts to notice how those thoughts emerge—at least, until I make a mistake. Then I notice.

So what have I learned from my mistakes this morning? First, knowledge is not some static thing stored in the brain. Even something that we might commonly think of as irreducible and as stable as a word is assembled, on-the-fly, as a network structure. It's likely also that the brain does not store or preserve even that network structure representing any given word. Rather, each word dynamically emerges each time I use it from and within a network of sounds and other sounds and words and sentences using a different neuronal substrate, depending on the total state of my mind and body and social situation, so that how I say the word coin this time is slightly, perhaps greatly, different from the way I said it last time or the way I may say it in the future. The coin I type here just now is different from the coin I thought this morning in the car.

Of course, the two instances of coin are also the same. Or perhaps it's better to say that they are receptive to definition from the center out so that they possess a core that keeps them recognizable from instance to instance of use. This core is the definition that we might find in the dictionary, and it is absolutely necessary for the word coin to be useful to us humans, but the definition is also just about the least we can say about the word coin. A definition artificially isolates an entity from its environment. It reduces a coin to one thing totally separate and distinct from all other things. This is a useful fiction, and we can learn things about coin this way that we might not see any other way, but the real value of coin usually arises when we embed coin in a conversation, an ecosystem, and the meaning begins to resonate across, through, and within other network structures.

I also see that I have separated brain and mind. That wasn't my intention when I started this post; however, in trying to say one thing, I have inadvertently said another thing. That often happens to me, and it is what editing is for: to correct your mis-statements or un-intended statements. However, I'm going to let this one stand, mainly because I don't know how to correct it. I know that lots of people want to make mind and brain synonymous, to reduce mind to a physical function of neuronal structures and processes. I'm not ready to say that just yet. I do believe that mind absolutely depends upon brain, but I'm not at all certain that it doesn't also depend on the body, on society, on speech, writing, and television, or on the spirit as well. That's another post.