Nourishing Raisins in a Cellular Mass of Inedible Dough:
Hereditary Instincts are Long-term Memory – Excerpts from Samuel Butler

We must remember that there is no action, however original or peculiar, which is not in respect of far the greater number of its details founded upon memory. If a desperate man blows his brains out - an action which he can do once in a lifetime only, and which none of his ancestors can have done before leaving offspring - still nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of the movements necessary to achieve his end consist of habitual movements - movements, that is to say, which were once difficult, but which have been practised and practised by the help of memory until they are now performed automatically. We can no more have an action than a creative effort of the imagination cut off from memory. Ideas and actions seem almost to resemble matter and force in respect of the impossibility of originating or destroying them; nearly all that are, are memories of other ideas and actions, transmitted but not created, disappearing but not perishing.

Nevertheless new ideas, new faiths, and new actions do in the course of time come about, the living expressions of which we may see in the new forms of life which from time to time have arisen and are still arising, and in the increase of our own knowledge and mechanical inventions. But it is only a very little new that is added at a time, and that little is generally due to the desire to attain an end which cannot be attained by any of the means for which there exists a perceived precedent in the memory. When this is the case, either the memory is further ransacked for any forgotten shreds of details, a combination of which may serve the desired purpose; or action is taken in the dark, which sometimes succeeds and becomes a fertile source of further combinations; or we are brought to a dead stop. All action is random in respect of any of the minute actions which compose it that are not done in consequence of memory, real or supposed. –Butler, Unconscious Memory

Knowing & Willing

It would ...appear as though perfect knowledge and perfect ignorance were extremes which meet and become indistinguishable from one another; so also perfect volition and perfect absence of volition, perfect memory and utter forgetfulness; for we are unconscious of knowing, willing, or remembering, either from not yet having known or willed, or from knowing and willing so well and so intensely as to be no longer conscious of either.  Conscious knowledge and volition are of attention; attention is of suspense; suspense is of doubt; doubt is of uncertainty; uncertainty is of ignorance; so that the mere fact of conscious knowing or willing implies the presence of more or less novelty and doubt.

It would also appear as a general principle... that unconscious knowledge and unconscious volition are never acquired otherwise than as the result of experience, familiarity, or habit; so that whenever we observe a person able to do any complicated action unconsciously, we may assume both that he must have done it very often before he could acquire so great proficiency, and also that there must have been a time when he did not know how to do it at all.

We may assume that there was a time when he was yet so nearly on the point of neither knowing nor willing perfectly, that he was quite alive to whatever knowledge or volition he could exert; going further back, we shall find him still more keenly alive to a less perfect knowledge; earlier still, we find him well aware that he does not know nor will correctly, but trying hard to do both the one and the other; and so on, back and back, till both difficulty and consciousness become little more than a sound of going in the brain, a flitting to and fro of something barely recognisable as the desire to will or know at all – much less as the desire to know or will definitely this or that.  Finally, they retreat beyond our ken into the repose – the inorganic kingdom – of as yet unawakened interest.

In either case – the repose of perfect ignorance or of perfect knowledge – disturbance is troublesome.  When first starting on an Atlantic steamer, our rest is hindered by the screw; after a short time, it is hindered if the screw stops.  A uniform impression is practically no impression.  One cannot either learn or unlearn without pains or pain (a "disturbance").

...We may be good logicians, but we are still poor reasoners. Knowledge is in an inchoate state as long as it is capable of logical treatment; it must be transmuted into that sense or instinct which rises altogether above the sphere in which words can have being at all, otherwise it is not yet vital. For sense is to knowledge what conscience is to reasoning about right and wrong; the reasoning must be so rapid as to defy conscious reference to first principles, and even at times to be apparently subversive of them altogether, or the action will halt. It must, in fact, become automatic before we are safe with it. While we are fumbling for the grounds of our conviction, our conviction is prone to fall, as Peter for lack of faith sinking into the waves of Galilee; so that the very power to prove at all is an à priori argument against the truth – or at any rate the practical importance to the vast majority of mankind – of all that is supported by demonstration. For the power to prove implies a sense of the need of proof, and things which the majority of mankind find practically important are in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred above proof. The need of proof becomes as obsolete in the case of assumed knowledge, as the practice of fortifying towns in the middle of an old and long settled country. Who builds defences for that which is impregnable or little likely to be assailed? The answer is ready, that unless the defences had been built in former times it would be impossible to do without them now; but this does not touch the argument, which is not that demonstration is unwise, but that as long as a demonstration is still felt necessary, and therefore kept ready to hand, the subject of such demonstration is not yet securely known. Qui s’excuse, s’accuse; and unless a matter can hold its own without the brag and self-assertion of continual demonstration, it is still more or less of a parvenu, which we shall not lose much by neglecting till it has less occasion to blow its own trumpet. The only alternative is that it is an error in process of detection, for if evidence concerning any opinion has long been denied superfluous, and ever after this comes to be again felt necessary, we know that the opinion is doomed."

...Walking is so early an acquisition that we cannot remember having acquired it. In running fast over average ground we find it very difficult to become conscious of each individual step, and should possibly find it more difficult still, if the inequalities and roughness of uncultured land had not perhaps caused the development of a power to create a second consciousness of our steps without hindrance to our running or walking. Pursuit and flight, whether in the chase or in war, must for many generations have played a much more prominent part in the lives of our ancestors than they do in our own. If the ground over which they had to travel had been generally as free from obstruction as our modern cultivated lands, it is possible that we might not find it as easy to notice our several steps as we do at present. Even as it is, if while we are running we would consider the action of our muscles, we come to a dead stop, and should probably fall if we tried to observe too suddenly; for we must stop to do this, and running, when we have once committed ourselves to it beyond a certain point, is not controllable to a step or two without loss of equilibrium.

We learn to talk, much about the same time that we learn to walk, but talking requires less muscular effort than walking, and makes generally less demand upon our powers. A man may talk a long while before he has done the equivalent of a five-mile walk; it is natural, therefore, that we should have had more practice in talking than in walking, and hence that we should find it harder to pay attention to our words than to our steps. Certainly it is very hard to become conscious of every syllable or indeed of every word we say; the attempt to do so will often bring us to a check at once; nevertheless we can generally stop talking if we wish to do so, unless the crying of infants be considered as a kind of quasi-speech: this comes earlier, and is often quite uncontrollable, or more truly perhaps is done with such complete control over the muscles by the will, and with such absolute certainty of his own purpose on the part of the wilier, that there is no longer any more doubt, uncertainty, or suspense, and hence no power of perceiving any of the processes whereby the result is attained - as a wheel which may look fast fixed because it is so fast revolving.

But I may say in passing that though articulate speech and the power to maintain the upright position come much about the same time, yet the power of making gestures of more or less significance is prior to that of walking uprightly, and therefore to that of speech. Not only is gesticulation the earlier faculty in the individual, but it was so also in the history of our race. Our semi-simious ancestors could gesticulate long before they could talk articulately. It is significant of this that gesture is still found easier than speech even by adults, as may be observed on our river steamers, where the captain moves his hand but does not speak, a boy interpreting his gesture into language. To develop this here would complicate the argument; let us be content to note it and pass on.

We may observe therefore in this ascending scale, imperfect as it is, that the older the habit the longer the practice, the longer the practice, the more knowledge - or, the less uncertainty; the less uncertainty the less power of conscious self-analysis and control.

Personal Identitty

...Common parlance, however, settles the difficulty readily enough (as indeed it settles most others if they show signs of awkwardness) by the simple process of ignoring it: we decline, and very properly, to go into the question of where personality begins and ends, but assume it to be known by every one, and throw the onus of not knowing it upon the over-curious, who had better think as their neighbours do, right or wrong, or there is no knowing into what villainy they may not presently fall.

Assuming, then, that every one knows what is meant by the word “person” (and such superstitious bases as this are the foundations upon which all action, whether of man, beast, or plant, is constructed and rendered possible; for even the corn in the fields grows upon a superstitious basis as to its own existence, and only turns the earth and moisture into wheat through the conceit of its own ability to do so, without which faith it were powerless; and the lichen only grows upon the granite rock by first saying to itself, “I think I can do it;” so that it would not be able to grow unless it thought it could grow, and would not think it could grow unless it found itself able to grow, and thus spends its life arguing in a most vicious circle, basing its action upon a hypothesis, which hypothesis is in turn based upon its action) – assuming that we know what is meant by the word “person,” we say that we are one and the same from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death, so that whatever is done by or happens to any one between birth and death, is said to happen to or be done by one individual. This in practice is found to be sufficient for the law courts and the purposes of daily life, which, being full of hurry and the pressure of business, can only tolerate compromise, or conventional rendering of intricate phenomena. When facts of extreme complexity have to be daily and hourly dealt with by people whose time is money, they must be simplified, and treated much as a painter treats them, drawing them in squarely, seizing the more important features, and neglecting all that does not assert itself as too essential to be passed over – hence the slang and cant words of every profession, and indeed all language; for language at best is but a kind of “patter,” the only way, it is true, in many cases, of expressing our ideas to one another, but still a very bad way, and not for one moment comparable to the unspoken speech which we may sometimes have recourse to. The metaphors and façons de parler to which even in the plainest speech we are perpetually recurring (as, for example, in this last two lines, “plain,” “perpetually,” and “recurring,” are all words based on metaphor, and hence more or less liable to mislead) often deceive us, as though there were nothing more than what we see and say, and as though words, instead of being, as they are, the creatures of our convenience, had some claim to be the actual ideas themselves concerning which we are conversing.

“Words, words, words... are the stumbling-blocks in the way of truth. Until you think of things as they are, and not of the words that misrepresent them, you cannot think rightly. Words produce the appearance of hard and fast lines where there are none... To think of a thing they must be got rid of: they are the clothes that thoughts wear – only the clothes. I say this over and over again, for there is nothing of more importance. Other men’s words will stop you at the beginning of an investigation. A man may play with words all his life, arranging them and rearranging them like dominoes."

It has, I believe, been often remarked, that a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.  Every creature must be allowed to “run” its own development in its own way; the egg’s way may seem a very roundabout manner of doing things; but it is its way, and it is one of which man, upon the whole, has no great reason to complain.  Why the fowl should be considered more alive than the egg, and why it should be said that the hen lays the egg, and not that the egg lays the hen, these are questions which lie beyond the power of philosophic explanation, but are perhaps most answerable by considering the conceit of man, and his habit, persisted in during many ages, of ignoring all that does not remind him of himself, or hurt him, or profit him; also by considering the use of language, which, if it is to serve at all, can only do so by ignoring a vast number of facts which gradually drop out of mind from being out of sight.  But, perhaps, after all, the real reason is, that the egg does not cackle when it has laid the hen, and that it works towards the hen with gradual and noiseless steps, which we can watch if we be so minded; whereas, we can less easily watch the steps which lead from the hen to the egg, but hear a noise, and see an egg where there was no egg.  Therefore, we say, the development of the fowl from the egg bears no sort of resemblance to that of the egg from the fowl, whereas, in truth, a hen, or any other living creature, is only the primordial cell’s way of going back upon itself.

...A grain of corn, for example, has never been accustomed to find itself in a hen’s stomach – neither it nor its forefathers. For a grain so placed leaves no offspring, and hence cannot transmit its experience. The first minute or so after being eaten, it may think it has just been sown, and begin to prepare for sprouting, but in a few seconds, it discovers the environment to be unfamiliar; it therefore gets frightened, loses its head, is carried into the gizzard, and comminuted among the gizzard stones. The hen succeeded in putting it into a position with which it was unfamiliar; from this it was an easy stage to assimilating it entirely. Once assimilated, the grain ceases to remember any more as a grain, but becomes initiated into all that happens to, and has happened to, fowls for countless ages. Then it will attack all other grains whenever it sees them; there is no such persecutor of grain, as another grain when it has once fairly identified itself with a hen.

We have seen that we cannot do anything thoroughly till we can do it unconsciously, and that we cannot do anything unconsciously till we can do it thoroughly; this at first seems illogical; but logic and consistency are luxuries for the gods, and the lower animals, only. Thus a boy cannot really know how to swim till he can swim, but he cannot swim till he knows how to swim. Conscious effort is but the process of rubbing off the rough corners from these two contradictory statements, till they eventually fit into one another so closely that it is impossible to disjoin them.

...It is true we can seldom follow the process, but we know there must have been a time in every case when even the desire for information or action had not been kindled; the forgetfulness of effort on the part of those with exceptional genius for a special subject is due to the smallness of the effort necessary, so that it makes no impression upon the individual himself, rather than to the absence of any effort at all.

Nevertheless, the smallness of the effort touches upon the deepest mystery of organic life - the power to originate, to err, to sport, the power which differentiates the living organism from the machine, however complicated. The action and working of this power is found to be like the action of any other mental and, therefore, physical power (for all physical action of living beings is but the expression of a mental action), but I can throw no light upon its origin any more than upon the origin of life. This, too, must be noted and passed over.

...We cannot reason with our cells, for they know so much more than we do that they cannot understand us; but though we cannot reason with them, we can find out what they have been most accustomed to, and what, therefore, they are most likely to expect; we can see that they get this, as far as it is in our power to give it them, and may then generally leave the rest to them, only bearing in mind that they will rebel equally against too sudden a change of treatment, and no change at all.

...What is true of knowing is also true of willing.  The more intensely we will, the less is our will deliberate and capable of being recognised as will at all.  So that it is common to hear men declare under certain circumstances that they had no will, but were forced into their own action under stress of passion or temptation.  But in the more ordinary actions of life, we observe, as in walking or breathing, that we do not will anything utterly and without remnant of hesitation, till we have lost sight of the fact that we are exercising our will.

* * *

[(From early on), Butler ... had not only distinguished the living from the non-living, but distinguished among the latter machines or tools from things at large. Machines or tools are the external organs of living beings, as organs are their internal machines: they are fashioned, assembled, or selected by the beings for a purposes so they have a future purpose, as well as a past history. “Things at large” have a past history, but no purpose (so long as some being does not convert them into tools and give them a purpose): Machines have a Why? as well as a How?: “things at large” have a How? only. (Marcus Hartog, 1910 in Unconscious Memory)]

“The only thing of which I am sure is, that the distinction between the organic and inorganic is arbitrary; that it is more coherent with our other ideas, and therefore more acceptable, to start with every molecule as a living thing, and then deduce death as the breaking up of an association or corporation, than to start with inanimate molecules and smuggle life into them; and that, therefore, what we call the inorganic world must be regarded as up to a certain point living, and instinct, within certain limits, with consciousness, volition, and power of concerted action.  It is only of late, however, that I have come to this opinion.” – Unconscious Memory

* * *

May not what is commonly called a scientific subject have artistic value which it is a pity to neglect? But if a subject is to be treated artistically – that is to say, with a desire to consider not only the facts, but the way in which the reader will feel concerning those facts, and the way in which he will wish to see them rendered, thus making his mind a factor of the intention, over and above the subject itself – then the writer must not be denied a painter’s license. If one is painting a hillside at a sufficient distance, and cannot see whether it is covered with chestnut-trees or walnuts, one is not bound to go across the valley to see. If one is painting a city, it is not necessary that one should know the names of the streets. If a house or tree stands inconveniently for one’s purpose, it must go without more ado; if two important features, neither of which can be left out, want a little bringing together or separating before the spirit of the place can be well given, they must be brought together, or separated. Which is a more truthful view, of Shrewsbury, for example, from a spot where St. Alkmund’s spire is in parallax with St. Mary’s – a view which should give only the one spire which can be seen, or one which should give them both, although the one is hidden? There would be, I take it, more representation in the misrepresentation than in the representation – “the half would be greater than the whole,” unless, that is to say, one expressly told the spectator that St. Alkmund’s spire was hidden behind St. Mary’s – a sort of explanation which seldom adds to the poetical value of any work of art. Do what one may, and no matter how scientific one may be, one cannot attain absolute truth. The question is rather, "how do people like to have their error?" than, "will they go without any error at all?" All truth and no error cannot be given by the scientist more than by the artist; each has to sacrifice truth in one way or another; and even if perfect truth could be given, it is doubtful whether it would not resolve itself into unconsciousness pure and simple, consciousness being, as it were, the clash of small conflicting perceptions, without which there is neither intelligence nor recollection possible. It is not, then, what a man has said, nor what he has put down with actual paint upon his canvass, which speaks to us with living language – it is what he has thought to us (as is so well put in the letter quoted on page 83), by which our opinion should be guided; – what has he made us feel that he had it in him, and wished to do? If he has said or painted enough to make us feel that he meant and felt as we should wish him to have done, he has done the utmost that man can hope to do.

...I admit that when I began to write upon my subject I did not seriously believe in it.  I saw, as it were, a pebble upon the ground, with a sheen that pleased me; taking it up, I turned it over and over for my amusement, and found it always grow brighter and brighter the more I examined it.  At length I became fascinated, and gave loose rein to self-illusion.  The aspect of the world seemed changed; the trifle which I had picked up idly had proved to be a talisman of inestimable value, and had opened a door through which I caught glimpses of a strange and interesting transformation.  Then came one who told me that the stone was not mine, but that it had been dropped by Lamarck, to whom it belonged rightfully, but who had lost it; whereon I said I cared not who was the owner, if only I might use it and enjoy it.  Now, therefore, having polished it with what art and care one who is no jeweller could bestow upon it, I return it, as best I may, to its possessor.

What am I to think or say?  That I tried to deceive others till I have fallen a victim to my own falsehood?  Surely this is the most reasonable conclusion to arrive at.  Or that I have really found Lamarck’s talisman, which had been for some time lost sight of? – Samuel Butler,1878: Life and Habit.

 


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