Chapter 21: Ping, maybe
What’s a ping?
A ping, like the metaverse, mentioned but not yet explored, is a new concept, though only in the sense that it is a recent variant of a larger concept. A ping is a stable cycle of energy in the part of the continuum of the universe that is the human brain. That stable cycle of energy is one node of a locus of irreducible difference. Irreducible difference is the difference between two things, one Shannon bit of information, S. It is the difference between two precisely localised states of a zone of the universe, such as a between a stick and a stone, or between the durable registration of stick and stone in a brain. One ping is thus by extension the difference between a stick and everything in the universe that is not a stick. In a universe composed of nothing but a stick, a stick could not exist. It also accomodates, as will I hope be seen, the fact that a universe composed of nothing but a stick is impossible, not just for intuitive reasons, but because a stick is made of other stuff, wood, and wood is made of other stuff, and all this other stuff necessitates yet more stuff, it in fact necessistates a lot of the universe that we now live in. So Ping is not an essentialist idea. There is no essence of stick-ness that makes a stick a stick. What makes a stick a stick is the state of a precisely bounded zone of the universe, the information that travels from that zone into the human brain and is articulated to, we are not yet clear how, the durable registration in that brain of a type, stick. That is to say the ping stick, all of it, is not just the locus of the bit of wood which is not a twig or a branch or a snake or a planet; not just the durable registration in the brain where when you say to me “we could poke it out with a stick”, we both know immediately what we are talking about, and neither of us will hunt about the place for a shovel. And this whole distribution, a term which will need a little more examination, of information, from the stick to your brain and out of your brain by rapid muscle contraction and into my brain via pressure waves through the air is the ping stick.
The language here is ponderous and pedantic, but it has to be because it has to say exactly what a ping is and what it isn’t. A ping and the meaning of a word overlap, but they are by no means the same thing. A ping is a unique and bounded distribution of information, as the above paragraph made clear when stick, without an actual stick being anywhere present, traveled from your brain to mine, and hopefully out into the world again when one of us found an actual stick and could proceed with said poking.
Here are a few propositions about pings:
- Difference is binary. You cannot have “x not y” without both x and y.
- The smallest possible number of pings is 2, equivalent to a Shannon bit S = 1 in information theory.
- The irreducible difference between x and y, the ping, is the locus of meaning.
- The ping is the fundamental stable structure of human culture.
- The ping is also the fundamental stable structure of all animal cognition.
- Pings can combine, and there is no limit on the number of their combination; ping and ping ping and…n.
- Combinations of pings can combine.
- Any number of pings can emerge from a ping.
- Any ping, despite being a locus of irreducible difference, is resolvable into constituent pings.
- A ping, or any combination of pings, can travel between brain and brain as information, via any medium perceptible to the senses.
- A combination of pings can also be a ping.
- The locus of variation in any combination of pings upon which selection can act is the ping.
- Irreducible difference is a contextual, not an ontological property.
That’s probably enough to be going on with. Rather more than, you may think. And for something that does not so far exist in the discourse of reasonable human beings, the claims are pretty massive.
Also, on the face of it, they are contradictory. Logically, if a ping is indivisible and irreducible, it cannot be true that a combination of pings can also be a ping.
A dog and a cat
We are walking. It is dusk. We see an animal standing against the dying light at the end of the path. We hope it will move as we walk on. There is something slightly threatening about it and in silhouette its size is difficult to determine. “Is it a dog or a cat?” my companion says. Her voice is hushed, as in the presence of something other worldly. I don’t know which I hope it is.
Okay, x or y? Dog or cat? If everything in the world was a dog, I mean everything, wherever you looked there was nothing but dog, then dog would be meaningless. Whereas if there was suddenly a tree, then a dog could be a dog not a tree, and a tree could be a tree not a dog. The meaning of dog and tree would be the difference between them. The meaning of dog is not in the dog. This is even simpler if it’s a stone, because a stone is a simpler thing than a dog. The meaning of a stone is not in a stone. A stone had no meaning until it was registered (a ping) inside the human organism, and its meaning was the difference between it and everything that wasn’t a stone, as a stick for instance, or a rock.
So when my companion asked, in hushed tones, “Is it a dog or a cat?” the meaning of each was quite clear to me, no ambiguity. Dog was a ping and cat was a ping. The meaning of dog is the difference between everything in the world that is a dog and all the other things that aren’t. In our ordinary everyday natural lives the meaning of dog is clear.
But if I am an encyclopaedist and the next entry is dog:, I’m not going to get away with ‘Noun: anything in the world that is not not a dog’. I’m going to have to embark on a description of the combined characteristics which constitute a dog, and differentiate it from all other species of animal, with examples. This description will involve a hundred pings, or a million, or an uncountable number depending on how far you want to go. The word species can be employed as a ping, but there again long papers, whole books can be devoted to what exactly is or is not a species. Ping upon ping to a trillion pings. If you really wanted to, you could spend the rest of your life defining a dog, down to the cellular, the molecular, the fundamental particle level. However, communication is economical and falls into the lowest possible energy state. If I say, “We’re getting a dog next week” you’re not likely to ask me for an encyclopaedic definition of a dog. Dog there is a ping, an irreducible locus of difference. We’re getting a dog, not a cat or a washing machine. The economy of communication has given you the irreducible bit of information about what it is we are getting next week.
Then you ask, “What kind?” Now we are looking at all the pings in the dog ping: spaniel, poodle, Rottweiler. What sex? Basically only two possible pings, but both modifiable by surgery. “Rescue dog?”
Pings have two states, open and closed. The closed ping is as in natural language at its lowest energy level, “we’re getting a dog”. The open ping is the same ping, but open to an examination of some, or all of the pings that might constitute a description or definition or picture or video or DNA analysis of or story about, the list is indefinitely extensible, a dog.
It is in that sense that a dog ping, closed can, once opened, be derived from or constructed with a combination of pings, each of which in turn can be open or closed.
So, this thing that does not so far exist in the discourse of reasonable human beings, this ping the existence of which I have assumed or asserted and then had the brass neck to lay down what look as if they are supposed to be laws about — these claims are crazy, are they not?
I know it’s a leap, but not in the dark. Here we have a situation where something needs to be explained, that is, how did human beings come to be as they are? And, to date, there is no detailed model. I’ll go further. There is not even an attempt at an explanation that does not try to avoid the basic question by bending and pummelling psychological and sociological faux-hypothesising into an apparent description, adding a lot of fancy mathematics and jargon, and then pretending it’s a theory. All that emerges is Pitt Rivers’ “metaphysical project” and indeed Karl Popper’s “metaphysical research programme”.
There is an additional problem of testability in evolution. Darwin’s theory, though believed by a small but vocal and articulate minority of Earth’s population to be correct, is not predictive. Evolution of a biological species, itself a problematic entity, is multifactorial, depending on mutation, epigenetic processes, random genetic drift, as well as variation in the environment which does the selection, including intra-specific variations in genotype, phenotype, extended phenotype and behaviour, inter-specific ditto, and variations in climate and nutrition sources; in other words there is selection across a continuum that includes the world outside and beyond the species’ extended phenotype, that extended phenotype itself as a modification of the world, and the organic, within-the-skin phenotype. In certain situations one of these may be obviously dominant, as nutrition source was in the evolution of various finches from one stock that Darwin observed on the Galapagos, and it is this obvious cause and effect relationship that gives strong credence to his theory. But the theory itself is not predictive. Multifactorial things are more like the weather. They proceed through the space-time continuum where they are limited by contextual constraints, in the case of the weather, atmosphere, oceans, sun, gravity, the tilt of the Earth’s axis, dispostions of landmass and so on, and in the case of the Galapagos finches, an island ecology with various but limited food sources, insect and seed, and a whole lot of other finches subject to much the same situation. But Darwin did not pretend that his theory could predict the tail of the male Peacock, the mating behaviour of the Ruff, the haploid-diploid alternation in the reproduction of green algae or the morphology of human female breasts. What it could do is account retrospectively for these unpredictable outcomes.
I ought to point out at this point that when I say the Ping Hypothesis is the only current account of the emergence of the hominin EP, I am apparently dismissing out of hand other authoritative explanations which just now dominate academia in the cultural evolution field. I would hate to seem to avoid such explanations merely because I am daunted by their exhaustive explanatory power, so here’s a taster, and the link will lead you as far as you like into this interesting world.
Why does culture sometimes evolve via sudden bursts of innovation?
When Nicole Creanz and Oren Kolodny produced the following in The Conversation (“Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair”), they were Postdoctoral Research Fellows in Biology at Stanford University, funded in part by the Templeton Foundation. One can thus confidently assume that they were institutionally validated authorities, if not absolute authorities, on what they write:
…We allow new “large leaps” in knowledge to occur at a certain rate per person. Once someone in the population has made one of these rare large leaps, other innovations might occur more readily. For example, the invention of a fishing net could lead to other related tools – maybe a weight to sink the net – or combinations with other tools, such as adding a pole to wield it.
Here is another paragraph.
…We set the rules for a number of interdependent innovation processes to occur at different rates. For example, inventions that can be viewed as “strokes of genius” may be rare, while the invention of tools that are versions of existing ones might be more frequent.
Authoritative or not, there are questions to be asked, or several, about this approach. Are we to believe that a “large leap” or a “stroke of genius” can be inserted into an equation, or any computational procedure, and come up with non-circular results? And ask yourself what the kind of complicated statistical analysis uses a “large leap” as a mathematical constant. From calculations using this constant is adduced, “The invention of a fishing net could lead to other related tools – maybe a weight to sink the net…”.
Our authors refer to statistical models, but the statistical procedures seem to be predicated on narrative, Just So Story constants and variables. “Oh, my days, I’ve just through a stroke of genius made a large leap and invented a fishing net, but the fish are all under the surface, while this net floats on top. What to do, what to do? (Assumes Rodin’s Le Penseur pose, signifying the massive brain at work) “I’ve got it. By George I’ve got it. I’ll invent the weight, to weigh things down with. And while I’m about it I’ll invent the knot, to tie the weight on with. And, my days and I’ll be hornswoggled, having invented the knot it now flashes across my enormous brain that this net I’ve just invented is a woven structure with sliding joints around the holes, which is pretty inadequate in the long run because the edges keep unravelling and the holes keep changing size and though it’s meant to be square it distorts across the plane and becomes a rhomboid (oh, I’ve just invented the plane and the rhomboid as well). Once I’ve tied this secondary invention, the weight, onto the primary flash of genius, the net, with my next invention, the knot, I will begin adapting said knot to the construction of the net.”
I am an old man, and do not wish to be uncharitable about the undoubted enthusiasm of young people, so I’ll leave it at that.
And, before carrying on, I will just assert once more, as a testable statement, incessant I know, that the Ping Hypothesis is currently privileged by the fact that there is as yet no non-teleological non-supernatural post-Cartesian explanation for how the evolved being, Homo sapiens, came about.
The generation of a ping can be perceptual or virtual. It is perceptual when the information upon which the ping is formed comes into the organism through the senses. It is virtual when that information is generated by pings already durably registered in the brain, which collectivley construct the virtual theatre that represents the world; and then the additional distinction, a new ping, is generated in this virtual theatre. All new, or new to the subject, perceptually generated pings are registered as a differentiation from the already existant pings from which their uniqueness can be most usefully derived.
‘What’s that?’ [pointing to a millipede, black and about ten centimetres long]
‘It’s a ciongolo.’
Here the ciongolo is most usefully differentiable from other millipedes, other multi-legged arthropods (whether known as such or not), other creepy-crawlies, small lizards and snakes; and there is a whole millipedia of analysis at the intra-ciongolo level, legs, senses, digestive tract and so on. But the ping ciongolo is registered as a locus of irreducible difference, the difference between what is and what is not a ciongolo. This ping can then be subdivided into types of ciongolo, and its boundaries can be sharpened and more surely defined.
The perceptual process itself is of course a challenge. Take vision. How do we see things? Common sense mate. Information goes in through my eyes, along the optic nerve to the visual cortex, and there you go. Bit like a TV.
Okay, but we’re not really like a TV, are we? We are many orders of magnitude more complex than a TV. Evolutionarily, the brain emerged from the eye and other sensors, not the other way round. The eye and optic nerve are, size for size, the most energy hungry bits of the organism, even more than the brain and heart. A lot of processing, selective destruction of information, starts in the neural complex immediately connected to the human retina, before it transmits the resultant information out along the optic nerve. It is transmitted via the hypothalamus to the visual cortex, which has six main layers, all with different functions, and these layers themselves have layers, and there are interconnections and feedback loops and the whole thing is vastly complicated and in its relationships to the whole brain not yet perfectly understood.
One of the main divisions of visual function that is posited is the difference between visually guided motor action (catching a ball) and perception (“Is this a dagger that I see before me, the handle towards my hand?”). And Macbeth’s question raises an important point about vision. It can work on its own, independent of light entering the eye. We know this from dreaming, which is mainly visual, with a strong affective accompaniment, most of it anxiety. Some of us also know it from hallucination, brought on by drugs, mental illness, or malfunctioning of some part of the visual system itself. Macbeth’s question is not about the identity of the ping. He’s not enquiring of himself whether it is a dagger that he sees before him, or whether it could be more properly called a kitchen knife. It is clear that it is a dagger and he can actually see it. It’s not metaphorical, because he precisely describes its orientation in space. What he’s asking, as I understand it, is whether it’s a real, in-the-world dagger, or a construct of his highly stressed brain. He knows the answer, and so do we, but that’s not entirely reassuring if he can still see the fucking thing.
In other words, the brain can represent the locus of a ping and series of pings autonomously, without sensory stimulation from the world outside the skin. It does this because the many layers of the visual cortex are complexly connected to the rest of the brain, particularly memory. There are orders of complexity because, while we don’t yet know how memory works, we know it’s not like a filing system where you just have to work your way to the correct address of the file and bingo, there’s what you were looking for, a film actor’s name for instance.
Wouldn’t it be much more efficient if the brain stored this information in a rational manner, as in a set of drawers with a unique number for each?
There are at least two answers. The first is that evolved bits of biology are not teleological, they do not make a charted journey to a predetermined end state and while, in the context in which the human brain evolved, remembering names and faces was of great importance — social animals recognise faces and maybe some recognise names — the ability to catalogue and instantaneously recall hundreds, maybe thousands of them, not just people but gods and characters from fiction, even animals from cartoons, was probably not a million years ago a significant trait in terms of hominin survival. It’s not surprising that I can’t immediately recall the name of a woman I saw only once on the screen in The Great Caruso in 1952 when I was ten, even if at the time I thought I would never, ever forget her.
The second probable answer as to why memory operates in the way it does is economy. Your average dog has a pretty good memory. Our daughter’s family dog likes killing wrapping paper. When they all went up to her partner’s family for Christmas in Sunderland for the second year running, the dog on Christmas Eve sensed midwinter festivities in the air, and went unobtrusively upstairs, where she was on no account allowed, while everybody was eating. By the time they wondered where she was, she had flayed all the Christmas presents and given the wrapping paper a good seeing to. So dogs, or rather a dog’s organism, can compare quite sophisticated contextual cues with similar models already in their heads and act accordingly. That is a kind of memory. But if you consider how much a dog knows, even at the ping level, with how much you or I know at the ping level, then a dog’s knowledge is small indeed.
The human organism, principally the brain, can accommodate hundreds of thousands and probably millions of pings, some lasting a few seconds, some lasting, if the organism does, more than a century. Some things we would like to remember are probably entirely lost, unreconstructable. Other things we would like to forget are always there. It’s a dynamic and changing landscape, an emergent system, like the weather, with certain constants predictable, like rain, wind, sunshine, ice, and other manifestations, like the shape of a cloud, or the position of a single water molecule in a particular cloud, transient and only amenable to statistical analysis, if that.
In order to retain all this, the brain has evolved to be as economical as possible; like in thermodynamics, to fall into the lowest possible energy state consistent with ‘remembering’ a million different pings. That minimum energy state does not seem to be consistent with there being a photograph of a film actor posted somewhere in my head, with the name neatly printed underneath. The brain can put words together with pictures, but not in a way that seems natural to the human subject.
I am going to have to give some sort of representation of the volume in which the actual ping exists, the stable cycle of energy in the part of the continuum of the universe that is the human brain. It is in the brain that the ping replicates, combines with other pings in communities and alliances, and from the brain goes out into the world, either to act on replicated bits of the extended phenotype (heating a tin of baked beans), or to travel to other brains (have we got any baked beans, mate?).
But before that,
On the power of pings
A ping is the irreducible difference between something, and everything else. A basic ping is a simple entity. Take a table. There are many shapes and sizes of table, and many functions. It has a minimum of three legs, but there’s no reason, beyond awkwardness, why if it’s long enough it shouldn’t have twenty or a hundred.
Whatever its variables, we know a table when we see one. If I ask you to get another chair, you don’t come back with a table. A chair can function as a table, but it’s not a table, and vice versa. The nearest things to a table in shape and function are a bench, a chair, a desk, a stool and I think that’s about it. None of these things are confusable with each other. These are basic pings, they wink in and out over a very short duration. If you were writing a treatise on that whole set of furniture, you would use pings, probably geometry pings, height, aspect ratio, and function pings. But the basic ping, the simple entity, the fast-decay ping is available to the subject almost instantaneously, like the red kite in this sentence which you registered before you got to here, possibly as a ~ red rhomboid in the sky with a paper tail and a bit of string, possibly as a bird with a six foot wing span and a forked tail. I counted seventeen pings towards the end of the last sentence, from the ~. Most of them were things. Things are the basis of our thought. The rest of the words signify relationships of things. You registered these seventeen things at a fast processing rate, not pausing to contemplate, reflect on each one and analyse it, hmmm, red, now what is meant by red here? Is it the visual cortex’s registration of a certain wave length in the electromagnetic spectrum? Or does it perhaps mean ideologically left-wing? You didn’t do that at all, you performed an almost instantaneous register and erase, otherwise you’d have got to here a lot later than you did. You knew what red was as your eye passed over it at speed and onwards. Even if I hadn’t drawn attention to it you might remember five minutes afterwards what colour the kite was, and your visual cortex does a lot of work in ping registration, even when you’re reading. Your visual cortex didn’t process a kite of no colour, a grey kite, because once red is there, a basic ping, it becomes part of the kite.
But although it is part of the kite, red as ping still has an independent existence, uncountably extensible. Red chair. Red sand. Your turn. Oh,~, that’s a tilde, that’s a ping too, irreducibly different from a dash or a hyphen by one property obvious to the eye. And it could be a red tilde. ~. And the kite’s a ping too, separable from red, it could be any colour. ping ping ping ping ping ping ping at one or two per second. That’s the basic grain of how we ‘think’.
In biological life, one gene can have long term consequences of great significance. The genetic/epigenetic complex which says, at a critical point, not just “do it again” but “now do that whole thing again”, can produce segmentation, the chain, the segmented worm. In the most primitive, like a tapeworm, each segment is still a viable multi-celled animal which can produce eggs that continue the life cycle. These eggs turn into larvae which have six hooks that can latch into the wall of the intestine. Presumably segmentation is a matter of economy. The head of the tapeworm, not much of a head really, just the archetype of a sci-fi monster one millimetre across, is just an anchor with chitinous hooks and suckers. It would be uneconomical to produce one for each segment if one will do for many. An anchor is needed because the segments need to remain static in the nutrient flow and not move with it to a premature exit. The segments reproduce, bud, at the neck, and further down the line these clones mature into gravid proglottids, segments full of eggs, which in time fall off and hopefully travel in faeces to the next host. I’m not sure where sex figures in the lives of tapeworms, presumably at some pre-mature phase after ingestion when it is still mobile.
Each segment in the chain is covered by a layer containing microscopic hair-like processes which ingest nutrition from the gut. Once anchored in the gut, reproduction is by cell division, but in a segmented linear colony. The putative selection path of this characteristic, the way it had higher survival value than exploiting the gut as a proliferation of individual parasitical cells, can be inferred from the animal’s life cycle above— going with the flow leads to minimal nutrition, rapid excretion. That last part is important, because it is one of the three criteria for Darwinian selection, which must also apply to the evolution of culture. Selection must have observable value, minus for deleterious characteristics, plus for beneficial characteristics, zero for the maintenance of the usually optimum status quo, or for zero value genetic drift.
The segmenting genetic/epigenetic structure that led to earth worms and the abdomens of insects is complex, but the advent of the simple instruction, now do the whole thing again, was revolutionary.
The ping is a much more simple structure than a gene. It is just one thing, the locus of irreducible difference, and can replicate with fidelity to virtual infinity if it gets the chance. Red. Red can go practically anywhere, link up with anything. It is uncountably replicative, and the energy expended, as opposed to the energy consumed by even the resting brain, is minimal. Red gravid proglottids. That phrase has probably never been iterated up to this moment. When I started this morning I’d never heard of a gravid proglottid, and establishing it as a node of a ping, a stable cycle of energy in the part of the continuum of the universe that is my brain, would have taken energy, energy that I don’t give to millions of unattended pings that whiz through my immediate environment every day. And it is the case that the brain has so evolved that, wherever it has expended energy in the registration or a durable locus, that locus goes for an immediate pay-off, to put the ping back out there and test its chances of survival. That’s why when I was trying to think of some ping that might seldom or hopefully never have been combined with red before in the whole universe, my brain supplied gravid proglottid, which was already handy, rather than red mesenchymal cell, which up to that moment had no sort of registration in my brain, (zilch, I just looked for a word I’d never heard of in a molecular biology index), and is a pretty certain complete waste of the energy of pingification that its registration required. It’s not going to fly. It won’t be with me by lunchtime. Or more likely, given the way the brain works, like an irritating tune that keeps running through your head, it’ll keep popping up for days where it’s not wanted, never wanted, red mesenchmal cell, red mesenchymal cell, WTF. To the tune of Flanders and Swans’ “The left handed honeysuckle and the right-handed bindweed:
The red mesenchymal cell and the red gravid proglottid…
Feel free to improvise.
But once a ping is established, in the world and in a lot of brains, the energy required for its reproduction is very small. Ant. Don’t know why. I gave my brain no time to come up with a ping, and it came up with ant. Let us leave the ant to walk away, and move on.
 This is particular bollocks. Anybody with experience of any thin linear solid, including hair and the cables of electric lawn-mowers, knows that knots invent themselves, irritatingly and incessantly.
 It probably won’t be, because to print one red character in a text of 551,445 black characters will cost. But if you have a fine red pen you could do it yourself and initial your art-work in the margin, thus making your copy unique.