Exposed! Daniel Everett Shines a Light on the Mind’s Dark Matter

by Bill Benzon

Dan Everett. Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

I want to approach Everett’s dark matter indirectly. In 1973 David Hays, who soon became my teacher, published an article entitled, “Language and Interpersonal Relationships” [1]. It begins with a simple one-sentence paragraph: “How does language engender love?”

That’s certainly not a question that’s central to linguistics or even peripheral to it. But it was central to Hays’s understanding of language and, if I read him rightly, it’s a question Everett would understand. For both of them see language in the context of social interaction. How natural, you might say, for language is a means of communication, no? Yes, it is. But much of the most important and influential thinking about language over the past six decades, thinking catalyzed by the work of Noam Chomsky, sees language primarily as a tool of thought and only secondarily as a tool of communication. How peculiar, you say, how very peculiar. Dark Matter Cover

Exactly.

Hays went on to discuss communication, reporting that Harold Garfinkel once had his undergraduate students “write down what the participants in a conversation actually said, then in parallel what they understood the participants to be talking about.” Garfinkel concluded that much was unsaid. Much of what’s unsaid belongs to the mind’s dark matter. Some of it could be said if the conversation required it, but much of it could not.

Consider a wellknown thought experiment, something of a parable if you will, by Herbert Simon [2]. He asks us to imagine an ant walking on the beach. Its path is complex, irregular, and difficult to describe. Does that mean the ant had complex intentions and capabilities? No, the ant’s intentions and capabilities were simple, but it pursued them in a complex world, a beach littered with debris and marked with the cliffs and valleys traced the weather, the water, and by larger creatures. In that world the pursuit of a simple purpose by simple means led the ant to trace a complex path.

* * * * *

And so it is with conversation, or any other social interaction. However complex the visible activity–the ant's path, the words said back and forth, it depends on the even greater complexity of the invisible and unspoken dark matter that supports it–the beach on which the ant walks. Some of that unconscious material is background information that could be articulated if necessary. Thus in a conversation about the 2016 Presidential election there might be unexplained references to “the popular vote” and “the electoral vote” [3]. If you don’t know any more about American political institutions than I know about British political institutions you’re likely to be mystified about this talk of two votes when there was only one election. That particular mystery can be cleared up with a little questioning and discussion.

But that’s only part of it. We know that attitudes and affect can be communicated by intonation and gesture too. That’s not so easily verbalized. This dark matter is ineffable (Everett’s word, and it’s a good one). And yet gesture, as Everett argues in one of his best chapters (Chapter 7), is essential to spoken interaction and is culturally patterned as well.

OK, I get it, I think, you say, but this dark matter stuff is so vague and metaphorical. You’re right. And it remains that way to the end of the book. And that, I suppose, is my major criticism, though it’s a minor one. “Dark matter” does a lot of conceptual work for Everett, but he discusses it indirectly.

In terms of Simon’s ant-on-the-beach, if we want to explain the ant’s path we need to know, on the one hand, the ant’s capabilities (perceptual, motor) and needs, and, on the other hand, the features of the beach on which the ant walks. The beach itself is Everett’s dark matter; that's what he's trying to understand. But he discusses it primarily through its effects as observable in the ant’s paths. The beach itself remains invisible (dark).

* * * * *

Consider Everett's discussion of the difficulties the Pirahã had in perceiving photographs Everett had taken of them. Abstractly considered this is not too difficult to understand. After all, photographs are, well ‘unnatural’ and they present contradictory cues. They are obviously flat objects, but the scene being depicted has depth cues indicating a world in depth. It just doesn’t make visual sense, unless, that is, you have been raised in a world where such strange objects are common. Everett was raised in such a world, but the Pirahã were not.

And now things get interesting:

In the rainy season, jungle paths flood. Snakes exit their holes. Caimans come further inland. Sting rays, electric eels, and all manner of creatures can then be found on what in the dry season are wide, dry paths. It is hard to walk down these paths in daylight during the rainy season, covered as they are by knee-deep, even chest-high water (though I have had to walk for hours in such conditions). At night, these paths become intimidating to some of us. As I walk with the Pirahãs, I am usually wearing shoes, whereas they go barefoot. Two memories stand out here. The first was me almost stepping on a small (three feet long) caiman. The second was me almost stepping on a bushmaster (there are many other memories as dangerous). In both cases, my life or at least a limb was saved by Pirahãs who, shocked that I did not or could not see these obvious dangers, pulled me back at the last moment, exhorting me to pay more attention to where I stepped. Such examples were frequent in my decades with Amazonian and Mesoamerican peoples. And each time, they were astonished at my apparent blindness. (141-142)

The Pirahãs live in the Amazon and can see its creatures clearly. But Everett, though he spent years in the Amazon among the Pirahãs, had not been raised there. His visual system had matured long before he entered the Amazon. He could not see its creatures so well as those who’d been raised among them.

That is to say, Everett had recognized that his blindness to the jungle was essentially the same kind of phenomenon as Pirahã blindness to photographs. Photographs are obviously cultural artifacts and it’s not so difficult to see how people raised in a culture lacking those artifacts would have troubles dealing with them. But the Amazon jungle is not a cultural artifact. Though Everett doesn’t say this, it’s almost as the Amazon itself is part of the dark matter of the Pirahã mind, as photographs belong to the dark matter of the North American mind.

* * * * *

The concept of culture is as strange as it is important. There is, of course, the concept of culture enshrined in the notion of “the finer things”, art, opera, paté, and so on, but that’s not what Everett is after. He’s after culture as anthropologists understand it, and that’s tricky – Everett lists 10 representative definitions in an endnote (333-334). This conception of culture is sometimes opposed to nature¬–an opposition central to such different thinkers as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bruno Latour–and often entwined with nature and nurture, instinct and learning, all of which Everett contends with.

He offers his own definition:

Culture is an abstract network shaping and connecting social roles, hierarchically structured knowledge domains, and ranked values. Culture is dynamic, shifting, reinterpreted moment by moment. Culture is found only in the bodies (the brain is part of the body) and behaviors of its members. Culture permeates the individual, the community, behaviors, and thinking. (p. 66)

Everett delivers on all of this, with discussions of language, both written and spoken, gesture, visual perception, attachment (among individuals, and of individuals to culture in general), learning and maturation. His discussion is inevitably interdisciplinary, calling on linguistics, anthropology, perceptual psychology, evolutionary biology, rhetoric, and philosophy.

In fact I will venture to say that Dark Matter of the Mind is at heart a work of philosophy, not so much in the sense of philosophy as contemporary academic discipline as in philosophy as a synthetic intellectual enterprise. For the ancient Greeks philosophy was simple abstract knowledge encompassing the natural and human world. In a standard view, as this enterprise developed, various topics split off from the main and became specialized disciplines, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and so on, with the various human sciences only differentiating and emerging in the last century and a half or so.

The differentiation is necessary because knowledge is found in patterns over details. The more patterns we find, the more details too. The only way to get a handle on the details is to pick a limited field and concentrate on that. And so, as the cynical saying goes, we end up knowing more and more about less and less.

Everett’s enterprise gathers its details from various disciplines and that gives it a philosophical cast. He aligns himself with Aristotle over Plato and traces their influences through a variety of thinkers of the last four centuries. The dark matter conception feels Continental to me, though Everett does not, as I recall, cite contemporary Continental philosophers of the last century. Instead he hangs with Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations rather than the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

This is all fine and necessary, which is not to say that I agree with all of it, but simply to acknowledge that I don’t see how he could have gone about his work in any other way. While the intellectual world is rife with specialized argumentation arrayed around culture and associated concepts (nature, nurture, instinct, learning) these concepts themselves do not have well-defined technical meanings. In fact, I often feel they are destined to go the way of phlogiston, except that, alas, we’ve not yet discovered the oxygen that will allow us to replace them [4]. These concepts are foundational, but the foundation is crumbling. Everett is attempting to clear away the rubble and start anew on cleared ground. That’s what dark matter is, the cleared ground that becomes visible once the rubble has been pushed to the side. Just what we’ll build on it, and how, that’s another question.

* * * * *

Let us conclude with a look at translation, to which Everett devotes a chapter, his eighth. I gather from various sources that Everett’s defining experience was his work among the Pirahã people [5]. He went there as a missionary linguist intent on converting them to Christianity and translating the Bible into Pirahã. Instead he became an atheist and a cultural theorist while continuing to develop his skills as a linguist.

But that specific task, translation, takes me back where I began this review, with David Hays’s article on language and love. Like Everett, Hays was a linguist, though of the previous generation. Hays’s defining experience was quite different but it too was one of translation.

Hays was among the first generation of researchers in machine translation, the use of computers to translate texts in one language into another [6]. That enterprise collapsed in the early 1960s when the federal government of the United States withdrew its funding because it wasn’t getting useful practical results. But Hays continued to study language and, in particular, semantics, which he understood to be embedded in thought, perception and yes, culture. That is, his very different experience led him to a view quite similar to that Everett expounds in this book.

That is not, I suppose, so very unusual. If all roads lead to Rome, then there’s no particular mystery inherent in thinkers with very different backgrounds arriving at similar conclusions. But this particular convergence is worth a moment’s reflection.

If language was in fact the Platonic, rational, tool of thought so beloved by the school of Chomsky, then machine translation should have been a smashing success years ago, much to the delight of fans of Star Trek’s computer, and Everett would have translated the Bible into Pirahã in a matter of years–whether or not they would also have converted him out of Christianity is another matter. For the rationalist view of language would have us believe in a strict and transparent separation between syntax and semantics, with semantics being couched in a “mentalese” taking the form of logical propositions.

On that view, translation is simple. You take a word in your source text, match it to the appropriate word in your target language, and do the translation. You stick a coin in the slot, and out comes your piece of candy (to use a metaphor favored by Paul Garvin, another pioneer in machine translation). When you get a sentence’s worth of words lined up, you clean up the syntactic details and go on to the next sentence.

Unfortunately it’s not so simple, as Everett makes quite clear the translation chapter. More often than not you aren’t going to find word-for-word correlates in your two languages and what is worse, concepts are simply going to be missing. Thus Everett discovers

… the Pirahãs find the concepts of savior, sin, and salvation incomprehensible; that in spite of American missionaries’ belief that people like the Pirahãs are afraid of a dark, threatening evil spiritual world and that many of them will be overjoyed at the missionary’s arrival with the news that Jesus has freed them from this fear, the Pirahãs fear nothing and were uninterested in the missionary message; that American missionaries believe all languages will be able to convey all the concepts necessary to express the full New Testament message. (259)

How do you translate a text written for one culture into the language of an utterly different culture? How does someone raised on photographs learn to see bushmasters in the jungle, and vice versa?

The cultural difference Hays faced was not so drastic. Both English and Russian (the target language for most of the early American work in machine translation) are Indo-European languages and both reflect modern scientific and technical cultures. Hays’s problem wasn’t so drastic as Everett’s, but it was of the same kind and it led Hays to the same conclusion, no language without culture.

As for embodiment, our rationalist culture tends to see computation as an abstract and disembodied activity, but Hays took a different view. Yes, there is an abstract theory of computation in which the physical world has no role, but Hays never tired of emphasizing that all real computation is embodied in physical processes. The physical stuff of the machine is not incidental; it is essential.

As a final remark, I strongly suspect that computation will play a major role in constructing the new accounts of language and culture that Everett’s work calls for. In this I probably differ from Everett, who is skeptical about computation. As Everett has argued, language and culture are dynamic, and on many time scales. Computation unfolds in time; it is dynamic. It is certainly not the only source of dynamic concepts, but it is a source we cannot ignore, no more than we can ignore the mind’s dark matter.

Let's refit Simon's story of the ant on the beach for one last look. As before, the beach is Everett's dark matter of the mind. The ant itself, now, is but the small core of computation that organizes the walk. It's the conductor and the beach is the orchestra.

Or does that give it too much power and knowledge?

References

[1] David G. Hays, “Language and Interpersonal Relationships”, Dædalus, Vol. 102, no. 3, 1973, pp. 203-216, URL: https://www.academia.edu/9074170/Language_and_Interpersonal_Relationships For what it’s worth, Hays’s original title for the article what rather more whimsical than the editors of Dædalus could countenance, “How Now, I and Thou.”

[2] Herbert Simon, Chapter 3, “The Psychology of Thinking: Embedding Artifice in Nature,” The Sciences of the Artificial, Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981. A Google search on “Simon’s ant” produces a lot of hits, URL: https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=%22simon's+ant%22&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

[3] This Wikipedia article explains it, Electoral College (United States), URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_College_(United_States)

[4] See Wikipedia’s entry, Phlogiston theory, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phlogiston_theory

[5] I believe he first came to general knowledge through John Colapinto, “The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?”, The New Yorker, April 16, 2007, URL: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_colapinto

[6] Wikipedia, David G. Hays, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_G._Hays

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