July 9, 2017

Referencing vs Representing Past Events

Let's revisit the issue of reference versus representation, which I blogged about multiple times last year. (A links list appears beneath this post.) Around that time, it occurred to me one day that aspects of this critical distinction can be helpfully illustrated by thinking about the difference between nouns and verbs, and what they actually do.

Here are some tweets from last year in which I tried to think through this idea
September 19, 2016 
Nouns name, adjectives describe, conjunctions join, prepositions relate... Verbs represent. Verbs represent temporality 
Adverbs "modify", prepositions relate, interjections interject, pronouns rename... Verbs temporalize. 
September 20, 2016 
1. On reference versus representation: trying to put my finger on the exact distinction, succinctly; it may have something to do with verbs. 
2. Reference picks out specific objects. Propositional thinking ("A is Φ") basically references things. A = noun/gerund, Φ = noun/adjective. 
3. (etc); But is = is. Propositions are static. They require the verb to be. Truth doesn't change. A *IS* Φ. Essentially, this is reference. 
4. Classical thinking maps words against things, like Adam naming in Eden (S. Prickett 2002). What do we reference? Entities & properties. 
5. Note that I include gerunds as referencing entities; "running is exercise". Note also I'm ignoring grammar and syntax at this point. 
6. So reference is fundamentally propositional. To pick out A or Φ, you must be able to point at something that IS concretely in the world. 
7. But now here comes the problem. What is an ACTION? Can you point to motion? Can you delimit a change? Can you define a dynamic event? 
8. Strictly speaking, 1-to-1 mapping requires a static world. We need *things* to come in for a sitting, but sculpture can't capture motion. 
9. What is a LEAP? When does it begin? Crouching? Thrusting? Leaving the ground? When does it end? Full extension? Landing? Renewed poise? 
10. For ACTION to be referenced requires a bit more cognitive effort. Our working memory must compress a series of fluid motions into ONE. 
11. The Rhine is the Rhine & the Po is the Po but Caesar crossing the Rubicon IS an elaborate logistical ordeal. It cannot be referenced... 
12. ...UNLESS you have already imagined it in your mind before now. You can "reference" your own mental image but never the actual thing. 
13. We have this idea that the past, which is gone, was once concrete. But there never was such a thing. The world was as fluid then as now. 
14. Events require imagination. Propositional thinking & referential thinking are not sufficient for understanding represented past events. 
15. An action verb cannot *reference*. It must *represent*. This complicates the old polarity of mapping words against things. We IMAGINE! 
16. This helps explain why positivists & fundamentalists have difficulty thinking historically. The Ironic Gap is most powerful with VERBS. 
17. Historical imagination requires a mind for "representational truth" (Ankersmit 2012). Rather than "A is Φ", we speak of dynamic change. 
18. And as for the institutional desire to minimize any appearance of change, whether present or past... Let's not go there today. (18/18) 
I should have mentioned Paul Ricoeur at some point about imagination. If I stole from anyone else I'm not aware. 
September 21, 2016 
Events are always the domain of reconstruction. You cannot directly *reference* an action. You must evoke my memory or spark my imagination.  
*Unless there is video.

That's what I tweeted. Rather than try and re-explain these ideas, I'll just offer one more illustration.

With a time machine, we could physically point to objects in the past, and we could successfully refer to attributes of those things, observing their evident qualities. However, with the same time machine, we could never "refer" to a fluid collection of connected activities. For instance, we could not float above the battle of Waterloo, at some moment during, say, the afternoon of June 18, 1815, and point down towards the chaos below us, and declare, "That is the Battle of Waterloo!" 

Yes, in a practical manner of speaking, the declaration would convey meaning enough in that moment, but if our time machine jumped back home immediately after that declaration, it would then become grossly inaccurate to tell anyone, "We just saw the battle of Waterloo!" To speak accurately, we could only saw we saw a portion of the battle. Furthermore, that event was far more extensive and far more involved and far more complex and far more time consuming than the extensive chaos we'd glimpsed for a brief moment, from on high.

Technically, we'd be making a reference, but the actual referent would be merely an idea in our minds. We would not and could not actually be referring to the entirety of that historic event. We'd only be imagining that we'd successfully referenced the battle. Likewise, someone listening to our declaration could not possibly share the same mental image as the personal images we'd have just (unknowingly) referenced. Rather, someone listening could only apply to our reference whatever pre-established idea they'd already developed about "The Battle of Waterloo".

For that matter, all this is just as true without time machines. A professor may think she's referring to "The Battle of Waterloo" but do her students really share her understanding of what is being referred to? I'll let that question guide you back through the tweet storm, above.

Events of the past cannot be referenced. Four-dimensional history cannot be referenced. 

An exclusive addiction to propositional thinking is the enemy of historical imagination.

This is one reason why theologians tend to make terrible historians.


May 27, 2017

Academic Status Update

I am very pleased to announce that I've been formally accepted into graduate studies at the University of St. Mary's, Twickenham, where I'll be pursuing an M.Phil in New Testament and writing my thesis on Matthew 2:22. Best of all, I get to work under the supervision of Chris Keith, with James Crossley and Steve Walton providing much wisdom and counsel as well. The program is long distance with some travel and officially starts in October.

Here's the first paragraph of my approved research proposal:
My thesis will argue that Matthew 2:15-22 was originally recognized as a historically contextualized narrative, evoking audience memory of the recent Judean past - specifically, the brief window of time during which Archelaus functioned as presumptive King of both Judea and Galilee. Recognizing this context enables an “historical” reading of the text which employs dramatic irony, as follows. The writer of Matthew sets Jesus’ return from Egypt during an infamous political transition, using proximity of travel and continuity of story time to evoke Archelaus’ catastrophic and “frightening” debut as presumptive king (Antiq.17.194-218). A year from ‘now’ Augustus will have split Herod’s kingdom, demoting Archelaus to a regional ethnarch and upgrading Antipas’ Galilee from subordinate to independent tetrarchy (deliberately controverting Herod’s will; Antiq.17.189,317-20; Cf. Mary Smallwood, Harold Hoehner, Arnaldo Momigliano; contra Emil Schürer). Knowing this ‘future’ imbues Matt.2:22 with dramatic irony because an Archelaus “reigning in Judea” and “replacing his father” has not yet sailed for Italy to stand before Caesar, but God and the audience possess foreknowledge about Joseph's near future. Soon, Archelaus will lose control over the “district” of Galilee, but Joseph must trust and obey God’s instructions right now, without knowing at how God will provide safety. From a critical perspective, this thesis attempts to reconstruct the original reception of a first century Jewish audience, who would have imaginatively integrated the story world of Matthew’s narrative into the remembered world of Judea’s recent past. Whether or not this contextualization of Matthew’s discourse in any way reflects real events from the actual past is a separate question, but this “historical” reading potentially offers multiple insights which might help direct historiographical inquiries and other future research.
For their many years of encouragement, I especially want to thank all of the biblioblogging and facebooking scholars who've tutored me freely online since 2008. When my thesis is finished, its awesomeness will be due to your generosity. Thanks so much! This one's for you...

May 7, 2017

"Connected Universe" and "the Five C's of Historical Thinking"

With their 15th feature film in this series, Marvel Studios continues to demonstrate cinematic world-building that has depth, vision, and four-dimensional verisimilitude. The characters and situations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe continue developing in ways that are well thought through, overall. But not least among the many reasons I love watching these MCU movies is because great storytelling inspires me to think about historiography. Specifically, the idea of "Connectedness" reminds me of Thomas Andrews' and Flannery Burke's "Five C's of Thinking Historically", from their 2007 article for the AHA (American Historical Association).

The Five C's are: (1) Change over Time, (2) Context, (3) Causality, (4) Contingency, and (5) Complexity. It's an important piece that's received a great deal of attention, so I won't attempt to summarize it here, but I will briefly note the prominence of Sam Wineburg's 2001 classic, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Although Wineburg didn't compare fiction and non-fiction, it is my personal observation that one of the many ways human brains begin learn to think historically is by maintaining an awareness of elaborate fictional worlds as they develop. In this regard, I further believe that serialized storytelling in visual media has the advantage of keeping CHANGE front and center. In a novel, you might forget the main character received a meaningful scar or developed a limp (until the text finds a reason to remind you about such a detail), but in films, television, or comic books you receive constant reminders of those residual changes simply because of the visual representation. The Marvel Comics Universe (like their Distinguished Competition) are the products of literally thousands of story creators - hundreds each year - who have modified a single story world with new creative dynamics on a monthly basis, and for several decades. There's a lot to keep up with, and although the visual aspect makes the information more feasibly managed, that also expands the limits of how much development can be attempted, from one year to another. 

My point here is that it can be a bit of a cognitive workout. Keeping up with an entire "connected universe" pushes the brain in some ways that you don't get if the story content of your favorite tv show is more self-contained and episodic. Or, as my daughter pointed out with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the whole audience can enjoy the story on a surface level but it also rewards thoughtful viewers who make a few deeper connections (and I'm not just talking about "easter eggs"; watch some of the recent mini-features on the MCU DVDs for commentary about this). I say again, this is one common way in which people begin to develop important skills in historical thinking. Others learn the 5 C's when they become skillful at party planning, or take on long-term logistical problems, or learn to manage complex ongoing projects, and so forth.

Some academic professionals learn to think historically because they write books, which require long term vision, accomplishing a variety of tasks on a demanding schedule, and overcoming a complex set of obstacles as the project develops. In fact, I've met some scholars who reveal no penchant for historical thinking except when they're thinking about the development of documents - like the supposed proto-history of the four cannonical Gospels. It might even be fair to say that most of the genuine historical thinking which one typically comes across in the guild of New Testament scholars has typically focused on Gospel composition. In those conversations, they assess complex hypothetical scenarios, but when I string together purported events featuring the Gospels narrative protagonist(s), or featuring Paul and his traveling companions, I too often get responses ranging from "deer in headlights" to "you can't do that" to "I don't trust these kinds of constructions." Well, fiddle-de-dee. 

WHY don't YOU deal well with historical thinking? 

Perhaps one reason you don't is because you haven't yet had the pleasure of engaging your mind at great length with a large enough fictional universe. Yes, there are other ways to get there, as I've noted above, and obviously not everyone who watches Marvel Movies or reads Marvel Comics will engage them deeply enough to develop the mental skills which can lead towards effective historical thinking. But this kind of thing is a big opportunity. At the very least, it's a potential means of entry.

Regular readers know how much I long for the day when all christian believers (or, just for a start, trained professional scholars) will engage the "story content" of the New Testament with the same kind of "mentally connected" world building that enables the development of thinking about (1) Change over Time, (2) Context, (3) Causality, (4) Contingency, and (5) Complexity.

If you can't do that yet when thinking about the historical past, try engaging deeply for a number of years with an elaborate fictional universe that keeps developing continuously. Great historical minds do occasionally begin their development from such humble beginnings.

Besides, fiction and non-fiction are alike in many other aspects. If you want to know more about that, try searching my site here, or waiting to see what I write in the future.


April 16, 2017

Which One Jesus? Whose One Jesus?

Richard Burridge's Four Gospels, One Jesus? (3rd ed.) was just reviewed in RBL by Matthew Baldwin, whose analysis really heats up in these final paragraphs:
Certainly Burridge does not put forth in this volume a single life of Jesus, yet he would reject Schweitzer’s suggestion that any unity is monstrous. He concludes that there stands behind the gospels a single Jesus who has been portrayed in four ways; the four portraits “tell essentially the same story” (168), and while “there may be four gospels, … there is only one Jesus, and he is God, come among us as a human being” (173). It is questionable to this reviewer whether such a conclusion has arisen genuinely from Burridge’s own strict reading of the gospels themselves... 
In the new afterword Burridge does not quite respond to critics of his proposal for finding one Jesus among four Gospels. Instead, he seems to emphasize with the believer’s difficult struggle to find unity in diversity. Finding one Jesus to believe in after discovering four distinct literary portraits is indeed difficult. But I doubt that all (or even most) readers will be satisfied with the serene pastoral advice offered by Burridge in the finale of the this edition: “at the end of all our reading and speaking, lecturing and debating, we need to shut our mouths and close our eyes, give our imagination to the Holy Spirit who inspired the four gospel writers, and respond with silence, prayer and praise to the one Jesus” (198–99). Thus the writer erases, rather than answers, the question mark at the end of the main title of his book.
So far as they go, I think Baldwin's criticisms are entirely fair, and I would not defend Burridge on any point mentioned in the review. That being said, I remain fond of Richard Bauckham's astute observation that the believer cannot avoid making one Jesus of all four. On the one hand, therefore, I agree with Baldwin that it can be "indeed difficult" maintaining distinct views of the four distinct portraits of Jesus AND ALSO "finding one Jesus to believe in." But on the other hand, Baldwin should not fail to recognize that the cognitive process of an interested reader cannot be shut down or closed off, and that whether or not we "give our imagination to the Holy Spirit", it is inevitable that our minds will in some ways conflate aspects of these four "portraits" into one reimagined Jesus. That's simply how human memory and imagination are bound to work.

The question I like to raise is whether or not we should help people accomplish this mental conflation with less haphazard and more guided procedures.

Now, with ALL THAT being said, I agree strongly with Baldwin's final point in his review. Burridge essentially erases the question mark without answering it, and I am certainly unsatisfied by the "serene pastoral advice" that we need to "shut our mouths and close our eyes" while pretending that everyone in the church has somehow magically built the very same "One Jesus" in all of their minds. In actual fact, Burridge has his one Jesus, Bauckham has his, I have mine, and I suspect Matthew Baldwin has his own "One Jesus" who is even partly informed by the fourth Gospel as well... but perhaps none of us has constructed our "one Jesus" in quite the same way.

Coherence depends on which details are included, and constructing the "four distinct portraits" is equally as subjective a process as constructing a singular Jesus from similar aspects appearing in all four together. Details in the four Gospels aren't uncompatible. The "portraits" are distinct because they are constructions.

The reticence to compose a life of Jesus serves to empower religious dogma, which makes the clerical deference to "four distinct portraits" a convenient excuse. But is that, too, inevitable? Instead of this old willful ignorance, which pretends to be universal knowledge, what if there was another option?

What if we encouraged every fan of the Gospels to open their eyes AND to open their mouths (or their pens and their keyboards) and to put forward their own combined portrait, their own synopsis, their own composed Life of Jesus? What if we embraced the cacophony of this process as a needed first step? What if we acknowledged that such cacophony has been going on in silence for all the centuries of Christendom? What if we then proceeded to examine these natural processes of audience imagination with a critical eye? What if we tried to learn how some readers combine well, in their minds, and other readers combine poorly? What if we gathered enough data to observe trends and patterns among normal readers in their methods for doing this work? What if we could eventually begin to form critical judgments about how readers might or might not seek to combine aspects of the four stories into one single story?

What if we could eventually advise religious believers on how to exercise their belief more intelligently... rather than merely telling them "Yes, you can" or "No, you shouldn't" try to do such a thing?

What would you think about doing something like that?

April 2, 2017

Remembering Life Stories (7): Biographical Redundancy

While a rigorous defense of today’s post depends on understanding the six previous installments, the basic concepts should be fairly straightforward, and perhaps even self-evident in certain aspects. Hopefully, you’ll keep up just fine. Here’s a short synopsis, in advance:

Informational Redundancy enables cognitive chunking of familiar biographical sequences, but the resulting coherence of particular Life Stories varies widely because some serial patterns of biographical temporality are more common and more familiar than others. To understand (in theory) how these variations can be measured comparatively (along a spectrum of “Narrative Redundancy”) we must illustrate-by-analogy. The bulk of this post will therefore examine the relative degrees of informational redundancy in thousands of uniquely patterned English words. Just as the most common letter patterns become mnemonically ‘unit-ized’ so that some words require less mental reconstruction to spell (that is, to ‘un-chunk’) than other words, so it is with remembering life stories. The more familiar biographical sequences offer greater redundancy and thereby take on a higher degree of narrative unity, while the less familiar biographical sequences present information with less available redundancy, which accordingly demands greater effort from reconstructive remembering. Thus, by analogy, we demonstrate the way in which Biographical Redundancy is theoretically relative, and diversifies the middle range of storylines in our proposed spectrum of “Narrative Redundancy”.

And so, without further ado, we shall now try to unpack all that gobbeldygook!

~~~~~~~ Intro ~~~~~~~

At the very least, we established in post 6 that coherence is relative. At the high end of the coherence spectrum are Emplotments, with chronological fabulas that are very easily reconstructed due to mnemonic advantages of story content that features causality. The highly temporal content of those cognitive storylines can approach 100% informational redundancy. At the low end of the coherence spectrum are Chronicles, which are very difficult to remember in serial order because each successive event in the chronological sequence seems somewhat randomly placed. The highly non-temporal content of those cognitive storylines can approach 0% informational redundancy.

With these two obvious poles, it was easy enough to propose that the broad middle of this coherence spectrum must include Life Stories, because the biographically temporal content of their linear fabulas tends to form patterns, which can be cognitively chunked (or “unit-ized”) by readers who have expert-level familiarity with longitudinal patterns of human existence. Up until now, however, this moderate level of mnemonic coherence has been ascribed to the lesser “Unity” of familiar patterns and cognitive chunking. What today’s post needs to accomplish, therefore, is to demonstrate that the broad middle can be assessed in the same terms as the top and the bottom. Today’s goal is to explain the relative coherence of biographical storylines in terms of informational redundancy. Thus, today’s post is called “Biographical Redundancy”.

It’s obvious enough that some Life Stories are more coherent than others, but how much more coherent? Can we comparatively, albeit hypothetically, measure the redundancy of a Life Story?

Although it’s clearly impossible to measure anything about the content of a fabula (which exists only in the memory of someone who has received a discourse), we can demonstrate that serial patterns can be individually comparable according to the “predictive regularities” of their content… that is, comparable according to the degrees of probability featured in moving from one bit of each series to the next bit in that series… or, in other words, comparable according to what Claude Shannon called informational redundancy. Again, we cannot even list what these bits of content might be (in the actual cognitive workings of any remembering mind), but with enough effort we could hypothetically build models of several biographical fabulas and then compare those all, collectively. Today, however, I’m going to take a much more feasible approach.

I will now attempt to illustrate the hypothetical comparability of a countless number of life story patterns, and I will do so entirely by recourse to analogy!

~~~~~~~ 1/3 ~~~~~~~

It is not at all trivial to point out that the acquisition of mastery in spelling requires expert levels of familiarity with a broad diversity of relativity common and uncommon sequential patterns. We usually take it for granted, but the ability to spell properly constitutes a mind boggling amount of cognitive chunking, without which the informational costs of remembering word forms would be practically and mnemonically insurmountable.

To understand cognitive chunking in terms of information, let’s jump back in time to about 80 years ago.

When Claude Shannon was pioneering the field of information theory in the 1940s, some of his early breakthroughs came by examining the ordered structure of words and letters. In 1951, he said, “anyone speaking a language possesses, implicitly, an enormous knowledge of the statistics of the language. Familiarity with the words, idioms, cliches and grammar enables him to fill in missing or incorrect letters in proof-reading, or to complete an unfinished phrase in conversation.” (Note: because Shannon was speaking about expert language users, this avoids controversies about language aquisition.)

One easy way to observe this “informational redundancy” in language is by removing vowels. For instance: “y cn rmv th vwls frm mst nglsh wrds nd stll cnvy th sm mssg”. This illustration proves vowels in English are somewhat “redundant” but observe also that in normal writing these redundancies are mnemonically advantageous. As readers, the extra clues help us feel more confident about basic decoding, and dealing with much less uncertainty helps the process go faster, securing effective transmission of the original message. In other words, the redundancy is precisely what provides opportunities for efficiency. (Hold that thought for a minute.)

Another type of redundancy that’s easily observed in English words is the frequencies of individual letters. Most Americans learn the ten most frequent letters (e, t, a, o, i, n, s, h, r, d) by playing Hangman or Wheel of Fortune, but the exact statistical measurements were generated first by cryptographers, who found it useful to know the exact letter frequencies when breaking a code. That kind of math gets more complex when you start observing that groups of letters form common patterns. For instance, the letter “t” is most often followed by “h”, “o”, “i”, or “e”. In turn, “th” is most frequently followed by “e” or “a”. Thus, we observe a variable pattern which begins many common words (the, then, they, their, that, than, thank), and we might also note that the most common chunks of letters are often made of individually frequent letters, and for that matter the most common English words often include frequent letter combinations.

Since these patterns are sequenced, we can often predict which letter is going to come next. This “predictive” function of sequencing letters is especially helpful in basic cryptography, telegraphy, and electronic messaging. For our purposes, this will simply illustrate the power of statistical regularities for recognizing variations in pattern. Shannon referred to all of this as “redundancy”, eventually estimating that the English language altogether was about 50% redundant. That is one reason why most people are able to learn thousands of words.

The high level of redundancy in most English words makes it easier to store them as cognitive chunks, and makes other words easier to reconstruct by remembering patterns. In all cases, redundancies help reduce the informational cost of learning new words (i.e., remembering new spelling sequences). Note that the phonetic compliment of each complete word is another mnemonic advantage, but phonetics alone cannot account for the development of expertise in spelling, which is why I remain focused on spelling in this post. It is in written form that the “whole word” remains most observably a lengthy, elaborate sequence of individual letters. To someone unfamiliar with written English, the combinations at first will appear to display tremendous randomness. However, with careful attention and a great deal of effort, the frequencies begin to appear more easily, and then one begins to observe frequent patterns, and learn common words. Eventually, once expertise is obtained, the entire complexity becomes easily managed.

The key point of all this for today is that frequency enables predictability. ((**Although we’ve progressed now in this series to declare, with significant nuance, that mnemonic reconstruction depends on “informational redundancy” - a.k.a. “predictability in retrospect” - but to understand what this means it can still be most helpful to simply think in terms of basic probability.**)) In colloquial terms: knowing the liklihood of possible outcomes makes it easier to guess (successfully, with fewer guesses) which outcome will (or, retroactively, did) actually occur. Again, probability assists prediction… and, by the same statistical accomodation, probability also assists reconstructive remembering.

If you were operating a telegraph receiver, waiting for the next letter to come over the wire, crypographic statistics would be helpful in predicting a transmission, bit by bit. In a similar way, today’s information scientists apply such “predictive regularities” in designing computer algorithms for sending and processing strings of data efficiently. (They call this “data compression”, which we’ll examine in Post #9, but for now let’s keep focused on “predictability”.)

If you’re reading only one letter at a time, “t” implies one or more of its probable subsequents. In some way, in the span of a split-second, your statistical knowledge actually helps prepare you to read the rest of the word. But from a broader perspective, what happens is that collections of these frequencies creates patterns that invite familiarity. On some deeper level your brain may know all the statistics. On a more conscious level, you simply wind up learning common words more easily because they build on high frequency letter combinations. These dynamics regularly assist readers, code breakers, telegraph operators, and the winners of spelling bees. What you and I call “predictable” can be called “redundant” in Informational terms.

((**For more on telegraph messaging, and a bit on the overlap between information theory and cognitive psychology, scroll to the bottom for excerpts from George Miller’s famous paper about “The Magical Number Seven”.**))

The point is that serial patterns can be understood as combinations of frequencies.

Here’s one example of a serial pattern that’s made up of frequencies.

Consider that the most common word in English (“the”) contains the two most common letters, and the 8th most common letter. From a causal standpoint, the word’s frequency is a big reason those letters are so frequent, but from a statistical standpoint (once the data is all in your head, so to speak) this causality is irrelevant. As an expert reader, you may consciously recognize the frequency of “the” but in doing so you also subconsciously recognize the frequency of “t” and “e”. The serial patterns which occur frequently enough to become familiar to us are often made up of individual elements which are common and familiar to us already. I say “often” of course because general frequencies aren’t uniform across all sub-groups of data. For example, “h” is the 8th most common English letter but it rises to 4th most common in the top 100 English words (in which sub-group, “e” is still 1st and “t” holds 3rd place), and the letter “h” is also less common in long words than short words -- which justifies your surprise when I said that “h” was ranked 8th overall, and which also explains why “h” is overrated for playing hangman or Wheel of Fortune. The high ranking of “h” is entirely due to its ubuiquity in high frequency words like: {this, that, these, those, then, than, them, there, they, their, his, her, he, she, who, what, how, which, when, with}, and - above all - “the”. All this underscores my main point. You recognize “the” all the more easily because “h” is extremely common in those kinds of basic formations. Patterns are all the more frequent when they combine elements which are frequent, or at least include some high frequency elements. The second most common word (“be”) is helped a lot by its second letter, and the word “just” (57th most common) benefits greatly from including “t” (2nd) and “s” (7th). That word would have been far more difficult for you to learn (for you to “chunk as a unit”) if it had been spelled “juxk”. (Note: our focus is not here on the initial acquisition of spellings, but a bit of thinking about acquisition can help illustrate my central point.)

In all this, I still have only one point, which I will now repeat.

Serial patterns are, in fact, combinations of various frequencies.

Therefore, if the underlying frequencies are comparatively measurable, according to statistical probability, then serial patterns built of those frequencies can also be measured - according to some rubric or another - by considering serial patterns as chains of probability.

~~~~~~~ 2/3 ~~~~~~~

As it is with spelling, so it is with biographical fabulae. In serial patterns, comparable according to frequency, predicting the story’s chronological structure (or “forwardly reconstructing” the sequence) is a matter of recognizing familiar combinations of probable outcomes. This is a core principle of what information theory is all about, the recognition of implications. To be “informed” is literally to see one step ahead.

It was no coincidence that William Friedman determined the informational content of a memory is what indicates its own temporal consequent (or subsequent). In cognitive terms, we remember “the time of events” whenver one eventful trace memory is able to direct (i.e., “inform”) the remembering mind about which event followed it (or, inversely, which event it followed). We discussed this at length in post 2 and post 3, where I listed several examples, such as: recalling Johnny’s high school graduation can guide my attempt to recall trace memories about Johnny in college, or the army, or some kind of vocational training. Of such remembering, Friedman would say the memory is sequenced by its relationship to a known time pattern. In those posts, I only added that Johnny’s life story might fit one of several known patterns, some of which we recognize as relatively more frequent than others. Now, in post 7, we are able to consider all this more precisely in informational terms, but the central concept has not changed. In essence, these informational underpinnings merely help to explain the fact that our familiarity with common serial patterns is what helps us reconstruct mnemonic content with a chronological structure.

That said, the explanatory power of information theory is the only means I have yet found by which to integrate all these various aspects of my developing thesis about Time in Memory.

If we understand “pattern” as a collection of frequencies, Freidman’s work integrates even more closely with Shannon’s. Whenever we recall only the first step in a recognized time pattern, the challenge of reconstructing the whole pattern is functionally the same task as a telegraph operator trying to predict the next letter of an incoming transmission. That’s also the same task that stands before any computer program that’s receiving a communication one bit (or “piece”) at a time. To go back to Johnny, recalling his graduation is the same as observing a “T” and predicting that “he” or “his” or “hat” might come next. It’s our general knowledge of broad statistical patterns that enable successful prediction, and it is likewise the broad variety of familar patterns in Life Stories which enables us (often, not always) to remember biographical content in chronological sequence with coherence. Since biographical sequences are entirely arbitrary, that is no small accomplishment.

The gradual way in which people become familiar with hundreds of variably structured life stories is a process of chunking with expertise, which requires a vast statistical knowledge of longitudinal patterns. It’s this same kind of process that enables us to spell thousands of variably sequenced letter combinations. On some level, our brains detect and evaluate individual probabilities on a comparative basis for predictive discernment, but on some other level we simply grow accustomed to familar serial patterns as a regular type of rememberable content.

If we undertook a perfectly careful and rigorous analysis, we might break down many of these patterns into their statistical components -- for biographical content, we would analyze our own modeling of such patterns -- but from a broader perspective we can simply observe that demonstrating a variety of patterns indicates an underlying statistical diversity. Hypothetically, any collection of patterns could be measured comparatively and ranked according to informational redundancy. More generally, if we have a broad collection of serial patterns, of demonstrably varying regularity and overall frequency, then that collection itself serves as evidence of the diversity in statistical frequencies which undergirds any similar set of comparable serial patterns. Theoretically, all we would need to do is isolate each segment (or model the event sequences) and gather a large enough set of statistical data against which to compare each particular sequence.

Obviously - as I said near the top - the subjectivity of our cognitive processes prevents us from doing this. However, it should be equally clear that our remembering minds have subjectively made such judgments already. Somehow, our cognitive faculties have been busy at this work for our whole lives, invisibly compiling the vast set of statistical knowledge for as long as we have been paying attention to the long-term changes that we observe to be relatively common in different people’s lives. The work we cannot do objectively, together, has already been done in some way by our minds, individually. This is all of the work that went into developing our biographical expertise, and it can also - therefore - be understood in informational terms.

Serial patterns are combinations of frequencies, and when each item in the series helps us “predictively” reconstruct the next item, then we can begin to repeat that serial reconstruction more and more quickly. This reconstructive advantage is what enables us to become familiar with serial patterns, and eventually -- all the while building upon the foundation of predictive regularity -- to memorize whole sequences as single units.

Thus, probability undergirds the mnemonic coherence of familiar sequences.

Thus, biographies are not merely a broad category in between plots and chronicles.

The informational redundancy of various life stories can be observed to approach lower range of emplotments, when the biographical storyline has been somewhat more heavily narrativized. The informational redundancy of various life stories can be observed to approach the upper range of chronicles, when the biographical storyline has been allowed to remain much more arbitrary.

The relative coherence of storylines is not, therefore, a separate issue within three genres or theoretical categories The relative coherence of storylines can be plotted along an infinite range of constructive rememberability. Therefore, Narrativization is not a categorical phenomenon.

Narrative coherence is - strictly speaking - entirely relative.

~~~~~~~ 3/3 ~~~~~~~

Mathematically, how should we theorize this “unified continuum of narrative redundancy”? The entire range, top to bottom, can be considered in terms of statistical probability, but individual storylines can also be thought of as informational “patterns”.

Technically, “pattern” includes anything that’s predictable between a 99.9% and a 0.01% probability. A chain of dominoes makes a beautifully predictable pattern because you know what’s coming next with 99% certainty, right until the moment it ends. A shuffled deck of cards starts out as an entirely unpredictable pattern because you have no way of determining which card will turn up first from the deck. Each time the dominos fall, it’s still 99% predictable, and each time the deck gets shuffled, the first card is 0.01% predictable. Through repetition, your mind recognizes that series of outcomes as familar serial patterns.

Pattern is probability and probability is pattern. Each term can be useful for describing various aspects of this conversation. The broadest, most accurate term is still “redundancy”, but “probability” remains the most accessible term. Either way, we’re still theorizing various sequential productions (or reproductions) of a series of data points, and the informativity of data is measured on a scale between randomness and certainty.

Narrative Redundancy.png

That's what information is, really. It's data which actually happens to inform you about something. To put that another way, the informative value of data is a measure of how much new knowledge each piece of data does or does not actually provide.

Total uncertainty measures at zero percent probability (no discernable pattern at all) and total certainty measures at one hundred percent probability (the ideal pattern to work from). Total uncertainty (zero pattern) is like the sequence of black and white pixels in a screen full of old TV static. That’s what we call “random chaos”. Total certainty (absolute pattern) is a dark black screen with no lit pixels or a bright white screen with fully lit pixels. That’s what we call “uniform structure”.

Perfect predictability describes a string of ones or a string of zeroes. Both sequences are near the top of the probability spectrum, because after a thousand entries turn up the same you’re pretty well convinced of what the next one will be. These perfect strings are also “perfect patterns” except it wouldn’t seem right in colloquial terms Nevertheless, uniformity is a pattern. The entire spectrum of Narrative Redundancy can be defined as a collection of informational patterns… and those patterns are measured according to probability… which means the amount of predictability… a.k.a. informational redundancy… in each particular string of narrative “data”.

Let’s break this down a bit further.

There are many kinds of events we’d call “highly probable” (i.e., greater statistical frequencies) and ***theoretically*** the probability of such events would be indicated by the frequent recurrence of said events in the universal set of statistical data which lists all known events of the past. Obviously, there are many reasons why we cannot generate a universal set of such data, although we could do so for something like the frequencies of letter sequences in English words. Nevertheless, insofar as the analogy holds, we could hypothetically compare all serial patterns that are made up of temporal content, provided only that we could generate enough comparable data.

If we did generate all such narrative sequences, what would we find? At the upper range, it wouldn’t occur to us to use the term “patterns” to describe highly structured sequences like the Iliad or the Odyssey. Nor would we think we saw “patterns” occurring down at the lower range, where sequences appear to be largely if not totally unstructured. No, the area in which we’d naturally think to apply the term “patterns” would be somewhere near the middle, where arbitrary sequences tend to contain subsequences which repeat fairly often. But pleast, note this well! That last sentence does not say we’d see one sequence that contains within itself some kind of often repeating subsequence. Rather, what we would find -- on this infinitely large collection of all conceivable life story fabulas -- is a very large set of individual life stories in which a particular subsequence would be evident. That is, to our perusal, that subsequence would be repeatedly evident. In this thought expierment, that would be the actual basis for recognizing one individual life story as containing a recognizable “pattern”. Furthermore, and merely to whatever extent it might be fair to say that this thought experiment modestly reflects our own recursively cognitive compiling of all available biographical data, that kind of broad perusal of countless individual life stories would be the only justifiable basis for recognizing one individual life story as containing a recognizable “pattern”.

Thus, in our diagram of this spectrum of Narrative Redundancy, the mid-range of the spectrum is labeled with the term “patterns” because this is where all the patterns appear that we tend to discuss as such.

While the most easily rememberable sequences involve 100% probability (narrativized causality), and the least easily rememberable sequences involve 0% probability (random chronicles), there’s a vast swath in the middle which includes the most common sequences that we actually recognize - and these sequenes (as we perceive and/or read about them) are neither extremely random nor extremely predictable. Now, within that “middle range” of recognizable (and not so heavily narrativized) Life Stories, there is a variable range of rememberability which depends on the regularity of that particular biographical sequence. The more heavily patterned an individual life story might be, the more likely our minds will be able to “unit-ize” that life story as a familiar serial pattern, as a “chunk” of recognizably human (albeit arbitrary) growth and development. In informational terms, that “familiar serial pattern” will have been “unit-ized” precisely because its represented event sequence reflects a high degree of predictability (i.e., “informational redundancy”).

Thus, “Biographical Redundancy” describes a large amount of this middle range in the larger continuum of “Narrative Redundancy”. Nevertheless, that middle absolutely stretches in both directions, so that it is (theoretically) a true spectrum of radically differentiated storylines.

Perhaps Literary experts who read this will be able to give more examples of published fiction and non-fiction stories which exist in-between the classic formulations of biographies and emplotments. Before they give their expert opinions, let me suppose that this overlap (NB, not “boundary” but “overlap”) could include early british novels like Pamela, Oroonoko, and Robinson Crusoe. Personally, I think the overlap (between biographies and chronicles is fairly easy to identify. First, we trend a bit downwards when individual life stories become more and more arbitrary, with biographical sequences which seem more uniquely random. Second, we trend towards true chronicles when an individual biographies give way to collective biographies, including family histories and some types of “history from below”. The lower-overlap-range might also include elaborate fictions like Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Hugo’s Les Miserables. Of course, it’s possible many readers would construct a highly coherent fabula of Les Miserables by focusing only on Jean val Jean, but readers know that Hugo’s actual novel is a cacophony of subplots and lingering personal backstories that are exhaustively detailed. Likewise, I’m not sure where we might put the novels of Charles Dickens because the structure of those fabulas would depend on just how many extended episodes and subplots of his interminable storytelling some individual reader might happen to recall. Actually, those last two examples are as good a reminder as any that this spectrum of coherence is a theoretical project. In particular, it can easily be blown to bits by experimental narratives like Ulysses or the entire tv series of LOST, but in general I do believe this will prove to be fruitful in various applications. Time will tell, but now I have truly digressed...
Here is the central point to which seven super-long blog posts have now brought us. The coherence of storylines varies wildly, rather than categorically, and all types of stories can be measured comparatively according to informational redundancy. This completes the introduction to “Narrative Redundancy” which I began in part 6.

Life Stories which seem objectively arbitrary can be relatively easy to remember as long as an individual is familiar with common patterns of biographical sequence. That may not quite measure up to most narrativized histories, but it’s a significant advantage - and a paradigm buster - and I humbly submit this theory deserves a great deal of further attention.

~~~~~~~ Epilogue ~~~~~~~

That last paragraph was my conclusion for part 7, today.

However, with regard to the coherence of Biographies, as a genre, there is one thing I’ve left out.

Today’s post revealed - perhaps most surprisingly - that biographical narratives are stories in which coherence depends on a broad familiarity with other similar stories. This is a key observation, with tremendous theoretical implications, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to all biographical storylines. Strictly speaking, this only applies to Life Story fabulas when the remembered timeline is reconstructed from start to finish (birth to death) in the forward direction.

As I pointed out in posts 1, 2, and 3, there’s an even stronger mnemonic advantage that comes into play when our minds can reconstruct biographical content in the backwards direction. Of course, this depends on the content of individual life stories as much as readers’ cognitive capacity and reconstructive aptitude, but as often as these dynamics are all put in play it takes the potential coherence of a biographical fabula to a much higher point on the scale.

Quite often, the biographies traditionally recognized as being more heavily narrativized are those which employ a strong dose of teleology.
Rather than reconstructing a serial pattern with modest coherence by remembering it “forwardly” in bits and chunks, a life story that features Teleological Redundancy can have its whole sequence summarized in its ending.

Fortunately, this popular dynamic won’t take very long to illustrate and explain.

Come back in a month or so for part 8 out of 10...

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As promised, here are several relevant excerpts (bulleted) from George Miller’s famous work following Shannon, in 1951:

  • … we must recognize the importance of grouping or organizing the input sequence into units or chunk. Since the memory span is a fixed number of chunks, we can increase the number of bits of information that it contains simply by building larger and larger chunks, each chunk containing more information than before.
  • A man just beginning to learn radiotelegraphic code hears each dit and dah as a separate chunk. Soon he is able to organize these sounds into letters and then he can deal with the letters as chunks. Then the letters organize themselves as words. which are still larger chunks, and he begins to hear whole phrases. ... surely the levels of organization are achieved at different rates and overlap each other during the learning process. ...the dits and dahs are organized by learning into patterns and that as these larger chunks emerge the amount of message that the operator can remember increases correspondingly. ...the operator learns to increase the bits per chunk.
  • In the jargon of communication theory, this process would be called recoding… There are many ways to do this recoding…
  • recoding is an extremely powerful weapon for increasing the amount of information that we can deal with. In one form or another we use recoding constantly in our daily behavior.
  • ...the concepts and measures provided by the theory of information provide a quantitative way of getting at some of these questions… a yardstick for calibrating our stiumulus materials and for measuring the performance of our subjects.
  • Informational concepts… promise a great deal in the study of learning and memory… A lot of questions that seemed fruitless twenty or thirty years ago may now be worth another look.

For reasons I am not equipped to explain, Miller’s prediction was delayed by several decades. One hunch I will admit nursing is that information theory requires complex statistical algebra, and it seems likely the popular front of the new wave of “cognitive psychology” in the 1960’s and 70’s either wouldn’t or couldn’t engage with such high level math. I have heard rumors to that effect, and it would make tons of sense, but it's moot at this point, and who really knows. At any rate, it's wonderful that there seems to be a positive new trend in the 21st century in which research psychologists are paying more attention to information theory when looking at cognitive issues of learning and memory. For today, this is all by the by, and frankly beyond my own understanding, but I do think I know enough to believe we should be hopeful about this development. I can at least say that some papers I barely understand have nevertheless been encouraging to me in my ongoing development of this theory about Time in Memory.

Anon, my friends…

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