The Human Condition:

Shortcuts to Reality – July 15, 2018

Robot juggling

Sometimes we don’t see life when it’s right in front of our noses. That’s part of the way our minds work. And combatting this loss of perception is one of the goals of Zen mindfulness, to enable us to confront reality as we experience it, not brush past it with mind tricks and traps.

One of the mind traps is the human tendency to develop daily routines. Routines like shaving, brushing teeth, washing dishes, and so on—necessary business that we all just have to get done—help us streamline our lives. The eyes move, the hands move, and the work proceeds without our having to think about and plan for each separate action. It’s an efficient way to move through the day, but in the exercise of these routines, we become more like “meat robots” than perceiving human beings.

Sometimes, when I’m brushing my teeth or doing another daily routine, I actually lose track of time. I use an electric toothbrush, which fortunately has a thirty-second cycle and beeps at me. This reminds me to move from one side of my mouth to the other, then from the lower jaw to the upper: the same pattern, timed to the beep, morning, noon, and night. If the thing didn’t make that noise, then I wouldn’t know how long I might brush the same set of teeth, mechanically, blindly, without thinking about it, or perhaps thinking about something else entirely. I might also forget and leave one part of my mouth not brushed at all.

I can lose track of time while driving, too. The motions are automatic: watch the road and center the car in the lane; locate other cars in the pattern all around me; scan the mirrors left, right, and center; watch the road; locate cars, for mile after mile. The routine of driving on the highway, without the distractions of having to look for a street sign or watch for an upcoming exit, can bring on “highway hypnosis,” where the mind is lost to reality. Sometimes I can become so fixed in the mechanics that I become separated from the very things I’m supposed to be watching for: the car next to me that is actually moving into my lane; the light up ahead that hasn’t seemed to change for a few moments, was green the last time I looked, and—holy cow!—it now is red, not green!

Even routines that are supposed to be Zen-like and to free the mind, like doing karate exercises, can become perceptual traps. I’ve been doing the same Isshinryu katas for almost fifty years now. What I’m doing at this late age is not so much learning the moves and committing them to somatic memory as keeping my joints limber, my balance stable, and my muscles supple and strong. If I ever need to actually fight someone, I’m pretty sure I will execute the punch or kick correctly per the forms. In the meantime, I proceed through the motions, the same motions, the patterns I learned back in college, whole regimented sets of them in the same order, during workout sessions two or three times a week.

Lately, I have noticed that I will start a kata and then begin thinking about something else: a plot point in the book I’m working on, how I’m going to react in an interpersonal situation, or some decision I have to make. My body will still be moving, but I won’t be aware of it. And then ten or twenty seconds later I will “wake up,” having mentally come to a decision on the issue occupying my mind, and realize that I’m ten or fifteen moves further into the exercise—or approaching the end—with no awareness of whether I have performed the intervening moves correctly, made the right number of repeats and variations, or anything that’s been going on in the room for those passing seconds. The routine that is supposed to heighten awareness of reality has actually dulled it through repetition.

Another mind trap is the labels we use in our daily lives in place of active and mindful attention to what we see, hear, think, and feel. The human mind cannot actually survive without using labels in place of their more complicated referents, at least in some cases. But depending on them too heavily can insulate us within our own minds and separate us from life.

The sciences have a rich history of assigning labels to new phenomena and processes—so much so that some people think the study of biology, chemistry, and physics is nothing more than an exercise in label manipulation. Because I try to keep up with the fields that interest me, I subscribe to Science and Nature. But I freely admit that some of the article titles—and even the abstracts, which are supposed to offer a higher-level view and be more reader-friendly—baffle me. “Multivalent counterions diminish the lubricity of polyelectrolyte brushes.” “Second Chern number of quantum-simulated non-Abelian Yang monopole.” “Enantioselective remote meta-C-H arylation and alkylation via a chiral transient mediator.” I am not making these up: they are three article titles from recent issues. Even if I recognize some of the words, I can guess that they are not being used in the way that, say, an English major would understand them. Sometimes I can only guess the field of science they are discussing. But what is life without mysteries?

Actually, the process of learning anything is a matter of, first, understanding the underlying nature of a principle, object, event, or process—the referent—and second, assigning proper terms and labels to those concrete understandings so that we can communicate about them. Otherwise, we end up talking about “the thing that does the thing to the thing”—or words to that effect. First you understand the ideas of dichotomy and duality, and then you assign the label “two” and “twain” to the things they represent.

But the more you bandy these labels about, the more risk you run of losing sight of the wonder you felt when you first understood the thing itself. The shortcut does not lead you toward reality but away from it.1 Sometimes you think you know the thing when you only know the label. The name is not the reality, in the same way that following a daily routine is not really living.

One of the differences between human beings and the artificial intelligences, robots, and automated systems that we are starting to build today—and which will become ever more important in years to come—is this access to reality. Humans can experience a wide range of senses and put them together in novel ways. Having that “Aha!” moment of clarity, the epiphany, the sudden understanding, is a uniquely human thing. Robots and software systems don’t perceive reality except as it affects or interferes with their programming. They are focused on the parameters and processes for which they were designed. That design may encompass a wide field of view and a breathtaking array of sensory inputs and programmed contingencies. But it is still a focus, a built-in routine, and a label for which there may not be an understood referent. The robot does what it was designed to do. The automated system processes the parameters that are given to it, or for which it has cameras, microphones, haptics, and strain gauges designed to receive certain signals.

A robot brain is not designed to hear a rustle in the grass and suspect it may be a tiger about to pounce. A mechanical brain is not designed to read meaning into patterns, like the sodden tea leaves in a cup or the glints of candlelight in a crystal. A robot is not susceptible to the wonder and mystery of the life around it. But we are.

1. And sometimes that is intentional. There are scientists in any field who speak in code words simply for the delight of sounding more sophisticated and knowledgeable about the subject than those who speak clearly. Although, on the other hand, there are subjects that can’t be approached without a knowledge of the nomenclature. You can imagine trying to discuss quantum mechanics and the discovery of the Higgs boson if you don’t have a reference for the nature of subatomic particles, concepts about mass, and the theories of this Higgs fellow.