Monday, November 22, 2021

No One Knows More Than You Know

Anthony James

The ancient Greeks, those explorers, traders, and travelers, described consciousness as a kind of space with expansive boundaries that were, as Heraclitus asserted, never to be discovered. 

A thousand years later, St. Augustine, who lived among the cave-riddled hills of Carthage, used the metaphors of "mountains and hills" and "plains and caves" to define consciousness.

In the 1600's René Descarte was impressed by the hydraulic figures in the royal gardens and thus devised a hydraulic theory of how consciousness was created.

In the age of geological discovery, it became popular to consider consciousness as being layers upon layers in which an individual's past was recorded. As chemistry arose, so also arose the idea of consciousness as a kind of laboratory. We've had theories of consciousness based upon clocks, telephones, electrical fields and other technologies and discoveries as they've emerged, until now we've reached this age of computers. And so, naturally, we're being told that not only are our brains like computers, but that some day artificial intelligence (AI), if we're not careful, will supplant us.

Indeed, last week, in response to one of my posts, a reader predicted that most education will, in the not-so-distant future, be done almost exclusively by the internet and AI.

Humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor, so I get it. It's part of how we construct the world around us, but it's also clear that we are incapable of thinking of a metaphor that actually gets us closer to understanding what and where this thing called "mind" or "consciousness" is, let alone how it works. The computer metaphor will in the future, if there is to be a future, be supplanted by something we can't today conceive. And the idea that our brains are like computers will seem as preposterous as the notion that it is all a mechanical device operating on the basis of water pressure.

This is, I think, important for today's educators to understand because these metaphors, and specifically this idea that brains are programmed like computers, tend to inform our theories about how learning works. It can't be completely an accident that the dilettantes who have been driving much of our misguided education policies in recent decades have come from computer backgrounds (I'm thinking specifically of Bill Gates here, but there are many others) with their ideas of reverse engineering humans (that is, our precious children) to make them fit, like electrical plugs, into the wall sockets they are fashioning. The fact that they are also business people means that they likewise rely on the metaphors of manufacturing which is as unsurprising as it is horrifying.

The truth is that we are no closer to understanding consciousness than were the ancient Greeks. Perhaps it's because we have no choice but to use our own minds to think about themselves. Maybe Heraclitus was the greatest genius of them all when he asserted that we can never know. 

Yes, I'm aware that neuroscience has made inroads into how the brain works, but honestly, there is scant evidence, aside from electrical activity in certain parts of the brain under certain stimuli, that consciousness is even located in the brain. At best we can say our brains are involved in producing or interacting with what we call "mind." Previous generations located our mind in the spleen. It's quite possible that our individual consciousness doesn't exist within us at all, but rather that our bodies have evolved to channel it. It might sound crazy, but one of the earliest theories of the mind says that what we think of as our "inner voice" is really the voice of the gods speaking to and through us.

Feel free to toss your own ideas in there. They are as good as any of these theories.

My point is that no one who knows more than you about minds, especially if you work with young ones. Having spent the last couple decades amidst young children, observing them, connecting with them, and getting to know them, I've found, as has every teacher worth their salt, that no two are alike. Each human perceives existence from a unique perspective. Each human learns and thinks in their own distinctive way. What works in one case will cause harm in the next and vice versa. This is why the moment we feel like we've figured it out, a child will come along to show us we are wrong. Standardization is for manufacturing, for computers, not for humans who, I assure you, are nothing at all like computers.

This is why learning can never be programmed or engineered and why teaching will always be, above all else, about the relationships we form with one another.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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