A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Context is Everything -- Essential Dry Goods

Now I know what you may be thinking.  "I thought timing was everything."  Yes, it is.  Timing is everything.  But timing is just a specialized case of context, so good on you.  Now, if you don't mind I'll continue.

What is context?  Context is the environment surrounding a fact or event (any "signal").  It is the time.  It is the place.  It is the collection of surrounding information (signals).  Hell, it's even the collection of the surrounding contexts, if you want to get technical.

So why does this matter?  Because if ANYTHING matters, it only matters BECAUSE OF CONTEXT.  There is no meaning without context.  (Okay technically there may be no meaning at all, but if there is any perception of meaning it is because of the perceived context.)

Well this is sure a laugh riot so far.

Ah, but that's a good example.  If this is boring, it is not because it is boring per se, but only because it is boring in relation to anything else you might do that would be more fun (like sorting pennies by date, maybe).  The act of reading this blog can only be evaluated in context -- that is in relation to the the time of day and your location and how hungry you are and what other choices you have about filling your time.

So, why is that "everything"?

Because when we think, the very act of thinking constantly registers the context of what is happening.  Our advanced ability to put things "into context" is probably the most important feature that separates us from other thinking beings.

What's that again?

The experience of collecting data is not thinking, it is simply perception.  It is the PROCESSING of this data that is thinking.  And processing data requires us to create context in order to organize this data (all we see and hear and feel and touch and smell and taste, etc.... "etc.?" Yes, there are more senses, and we'll get to that later).  So we think about what we perceive and we produce context in order to organize data into what we call "reality".  Context, is in a nutshell that "reality".  It is the interrelationship of all the data we receive.  And forming context for the data we are receiving?  Well that's what thinking is.

Putting ourselves as Human Beings into Context

So did I just say a moment ago that animals can't put things into context?  Well if I did, I did not mean to.  In fact by definition if I called them "thinking animals" then I meant to imply that they take perception and put it into context.  What I meant to suggest is if there were a way of actually measuring true intelligence, it would likely have a direct relationship with the brain's ability to create and store a mental construct around perception that is called "context".  The more complicated the context, the higher the intelligence required to produce it.

But it's not necessary to get into a theoretical discussion about how much context animals can or can not create.  We have a perfectly adequate example of unsophisticated context producing brains that we can draw upon -- babies.

In early childhood development, when a baby can not see something (say a ball), it does not exist.  Very soon, though, the child develops enough context around an object to put an imaginary place holder in their mind for where the ball OUGHT to be, even if it is no longer visible.  As long as the ball turns out to be where the imaginary ball placeholder was assigned, there is no longer any mystery to the idea that something need not be visible to be real.  Now of course babies, and even adults, can forget.  Our context models are subject to decay over time, so a baby will not necessarily be surprised to come back the next day and discover the ball is NOT where it had been assumed to be.  In fact there may be no memory of having created the imaginary ball placeholder to begin with.  (Why any of this is relevant will become clear once we have established sufficient, well, context.)

Still later in life, toddlers can experience the same kind of separation anxiety with their mother that they might have experienced with the ball.  Well, obviously not the same kind of anxiety, because for one thing the idea of "mother" by the age of two has developed a great deal of context.  Mother is not a ball.  She is too many things to list.  In just over 700 days, the human brain has created rich and interrelated context around a great many physical objects and family members.  These contextual components (the sum of which is the child's "reality") can include emotional associations as well as associations reserved for specific times of day or when other specific sensory data are observed (the smell of hot cereal or the warm breath of the dog, for example).

Yet even with all of these sophisticated contextual constructs, the toddler can respond to the departure of mother with urgency and desperation.  There is no effective countermanding context (at least not at first) of the fact that mother always leaves in the morning and comes back later in the day.  The important context is the immediate context, and that is that she is leaving.

One could go on at length about all of the sophisticated thinking that must have taken place to order the universe of the toddler.  That the child is learning how to speak, how to say "no" (and defining her  boundaries in the process), how to anticipate regular occurrences (context in relation to time), how to count, etc., is truly a remarkable accomplishment of learning for one who has had so little experience with thinking.  It seems ridiculous to try to portray this tiny genius as stupid.

And yet in an adult context, the intellect of a toddler doesn't even rank high enough to be called stupid. That is how vast the eventual context, the "reality construct" of the adult human mind becomes.

Human Identity

But the most incredible component of context is the construct we assemble that places our selves in relation to the rest of the world.

Cogito ergo sum.  "I think, therefore I am" would in the current context (there's that word again) become:

"I put my perceptions into context.  Part of that context is "me", therefore I exist."

And it is interesting to note that both of these conceptualizations suffer from the same unsatisfactory shortfall.  They both suggest that logically if this thing we call thinking is taking place that someone must be present to do the thinking.  But both are silent about the reality of anything that is being perceived.  If you believe you exist, or have context, or think, then you must exist to have this belief.  But whether anything you perceive actually exists is not proved.

But wait, there's more!

If you accept your existence today, we will throw in a bonus gift.  Because there is still much more to come about how we think ABOUT context actually creates its own context.

And if we allow ourselves the shortcut of assuming other people in the world are real, we get to explore how what we think affects the thinking of those around us.

Ground rules and basic foundational concepts are truly the "dry goods" of  the Concept Mini-mart.  But we have get past them to get to the candy aisle.

No comments:

Post a Comment