I often find myself wondering with fascination about the role experience plays in shaping our conception of the world. Recently, I was inspired to think about repetition in this context. That is, we have a deep sense that there are repeating events. But such a thing must be true only in experience, given that any event is, in some way, distinct from all others. Put another way, any event is only identical to itself. At the same time, repetition often has great significance for us, a significance that seems to touch on something true about the world independent of human experience.
Here are some brief musings on the relation between ‘event repetition,’ experience, and our world-conception. What there is to be learned here, I’m not sure. Yet I find myself drawn to this line of inquiry, and do get a fuzzy sense that there is something to be gained from reflecting on it.* Perhaps a deeper investigation into event repetition — both perceptually experienced and not — could reveal useful tidbits for when dealing with bigger questions, such as those related to cognitive biases, social interaction (e.g., stereotyping), experience of ‘objects’ over time, cyclical brain-states (e.g., meditation, sleep), evolutionary psychology, personalized medicine, sense of self in the context of personal identity over time (more on this below, in Part II), and induction (experiment repeatability).
There are also moral implications to this that, I think, lend support to a particularist notion of morality: any moral event is only identical to itself. So, to know (or understand) that an event is wrong, is to know something about that particular event. This would be distinct from what I take to be a less useful (though still nice to have), general knowledge about broader categories of moral events, which have particular events as members. I’m saving that discussion for another day, however.
[*I began thinking about this topic after being asked to contribute to a newly founded magazine whose first issue was going to be broadly themed on ‘pulse.’ I drafted notes on two occasions, here presented as Parts I and II (neither of which was finalized, because the magazine folded before publication). Part I is a straightforward survey of the subject. Part II, written one morning while bleary-eyed and half-asleep, is stylized as a kind of letter inviting the reader to think of herself or himself as a series of non-identical, though significantly related, events — as a pulse.]
Part I. Brief Thoughts
A PULSE IS A SERIES OF NON-REPEATING EVENTS:
Imagine a series of finger snaps produced at a more or less steady rate of one per second (i.e., 60 bpm). We experience the finger snaps as a steady series of repeating events — as a pulse. We experience them as such because they seem to bear some special relation each other, to go together.
Certain conditions must be met in order for things to seem this way. I won’t attempt to list them all, but will note five:
(1) The events that constitute the pulse must be within a particular range of speed. One per thousand years is too slow, while one per thousandth of a second will just sound as a continuous drone. Indeed, within a single finger snap there are smaller and smaller ‘pulses’ we don’t experience as such. Which gets at the question of what the smallest thing is that counts as an event — the prime building blocks, or atoms, as it were, of an event. One can also imagine a kind of meta-pulse, which would be a series of pulses (a series of collections of finger snaps), which also escape our notice as ‘pulses.’ With this in mind, any given finger snap could itself be a meta-pulse (both horizontally given the smaller vibrational units that make it up, and vertically given that the sound of a finger snap contains a collection of overtones), but we don’t think of the finger snap as a meta-pulse, because we experience it as a single event.
(2) The constitutive events within the series must resemble one another in some conspicuously meaningful way (call this ‘salient resemblance’). The same 60 bpm ‘represented’ by finger snaps could also be ‘represented’ by a light flashing once per second, or by a tiny purple elephant floating by one’s window every second. Salient resemblance could also include a temporal element, so that each event need not be of the same ‘sort’: If encountered at a rate of once per second, a finger snap, a light flash, and a floating-by elephant could just as easily impress upon one a pulse of 60 bpm. (Note: Here we consider the possibility that temporal placement counts as a defining feature of the event.)
Not just any sort of resemblance will get an event into the pulse set. Random or accidental features held in common will likely lack salience. A tree, saltshaker, tailpipe, and a piece of chalk (each being cylindrical), entering one’s notice at some jagged rate (say, on average, once per 3.74 minutes), will not register in one’s experience as a pulse.
(3) The pulse events must be in proximity to one another, preferably coming from a common source. But the notion of a common source is itself tricky. A band of musicians is a common source, and a set of fifteen people snapping fingers in timed succession while standing in the same large room could be a common source. Ultimately, the universe could be considered a common source. (Note: Here it seems that spatial relation counts as a defining feature of the event.)
(4) Intentionality. If a series of snaps seems accidental (e.g., three people walking by a few seconds apart each happen to snap their fingers), it won’t be experienced as a real pulse, though the coincidence might be noted. If we think that the snapping passersby are coordinating, and as such mean to be creating a pulse, we will experience it as a pulse. It’s worth noting that, intentional or not, if fifteen passersby snap at the same rate, we will begin to assume that the pulse isn’t accidental. (Though the passersby need not be aware of one another. Imagine that fifteen people are listening to the same live broadcast of a radio show in which listeners are asked to snap along.) (Note: This condition only matters when a mind is present. Pulses resulting from constants such as gravitational pull and neural signals satisfy this condition through a kind of special, internal logic that we assume to exist in the fabric of the universe.)
(5) Projectability confirmation. The observer predicts that the nature of a subsequent event will equal that of its predecessors, and that prediction is vindicated.
EFFECTS ON US, BRIEFLY CONSIDERED:
Salient ‘Resemblance’ in the Physical World: I’ve been referring to successive events that seem, in our experience, to saliently resemble one another, and which we thus classify as event repetitions (such as a pulse), even though there is no genuine event repetition taking place. To be clear, however, it does seem that there are successive physical events that share in common some features that make them physically (not just apparently) saliently similar. Part of what makes their similarities significant (rather than accidental, as in the case of, say, the waves emanating from a stone dropped in water) is the end toward which the events travel as their instances accumulate. The end of successive finger snaps is to produce the experience of a pulse. But one can easily talk about ends that reside outside of human experience as well. For example, strike a rock in the same spot over and over again, and it will split. (Nikola Tesla boasted on multiple occasions that he could do the same to the Earth by administering a repetition of vibrations tuned to the right frequency — a planet-scale version of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse.)
Of course, each strike can’t be the same event, or the rock would never split. Yet there is something significantly similar (i.e., significant about the properties held in common) from one act to the next, and the accumulative effect of that repeated similarity is powerful. (Relations between events, such as ‘similar to,’ ‘taller than,’ ‘the same weight as,’ ‘of equal velocity,’ ‘louder than,’ etc., are not themselves events; we can accurately say relations — and thus identical properties such as ‘weighing fifteen pounds’ — repeat, just as we can say that the fact that something happened repeats when any given thing happens after any other thing that happened; more on this distinction below.) Finger-snapping and rock-striking are easily imagined. Other kinds of event series, and their accumulative effects, might go unnoticed — i.e., we might not detect the similarity relation between the events, or even detect the individual events at all. A successful investigation into repetition would, I think, extend from the conspicuous to the hidden.
The Metronome Effect: The effects that ‘repeated’ events (wave cycles, oscillations, pulses…) occurring outside of our experience have on us are probably as varied and constant as they are obscure. Reflect on the example of putting several pendulum metronomes, set to the same tempo, on a shared surface: they will eventually align with one another, so long as that surface is sufficiently pliable. I imagine this would also work even if they were very far apart, given enough time upon an especially sensitive surface.
It would be a crude oversimplification to suggest by way of analogy that humans tend to line up just like these metronomes do. But, perhaps there’s some subtle observation to be made here. Indeed, perhaps a compatibilist such as myself could point to the fact that we aren’t like these metronomes. If we do line up in this way, due to some universal activity that rings in sympathy with the fabric of our shared material reality, it’s by no means an activity that is as thoroughly pervasive as a metronome doing its metronome thing: oscillating at so many beats per minute. Of course, perhaps we are all doing our own thing, according to our own pre-determined nature, so that, while we don’t line up in the same particularly way, we are all similarly responding to the same universal conditions. Fine. In my view, follow this thought through a bit more, and we still end up with compatibilism. But I’ll leave discussions about free will for another day.
At any rate, even though it’s an oversimplification, perhaps this example at least provides a fun thought experiment about the possible effects on moving bodies of repetition, something beyond our experience. But again one must keep in mind that there must be something unique to every vibration at play here, because otherwise nothing would change; the metronomes wouldn’t align. What these events hold in common, then, seems just as important as what they don’t. (This remains true once all the metronomes are aligned as well.)
Ad Infinitum ad Hilarium: Excessive repetition as comedic device. Here are two favorite examples, drawn from my admittedly limited knowledge of television culture. I’m not going to dissect these, nor am I going to speculate much on why some of us may find them funny, but I will make some notes about differences between the two.
The first is from the 1990s sketch series, Mr. Show. A skit called “The Story of Everest.” When I first saw this, which was a few years ago, I couldn’t stop laughing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyrM7GxyzGg
The other is more recent, and the repetition is more central (distilled, perhaps, by and for sensibilities desensitized by overexposure to the self-conscious absurdity that has increasingly been the staple of mainstream comedy since the 1990s). “Kristen Schaal is a Horse,” a live performance by Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lvd6MBsiDBo
The Mr. Show skit more less operates within the framework of a narrative, in which the comedic conceit isn’t just repetition, but is also the irony that mounts in severity as the event in question repeats (I’ll say no more, so as to avoid spoilers). The point is, there’s a story. And each instance of the event in question is not a repetition, but rather is a new event whose sum includes the instantiations that came before it. In other words, the third instance has as part of its definition the fact of coming after the two instances before it.
In the Schaal and Braunholer example, there is only the slightest pretense of a framing narrative (i.e., the setup). Perhaps we could say that the repetition is itself the real narrative here, if indeed we can say there is one (the fetishism for narrative in all things that has been developing since, I don’t know, probably Freud, has gotten out of hand — not everything needs to be a story). At any rate, if there is a story here, it’s manifest in the (let’s say, hesitantly and pretentiously, anti-Sisyphean) pushing against the impossibility of genuine repetition. So, if you go to any point in the video, you can sense roughly that the duo is either early, midway, or nearing the end of the performance.
Note that if you were to merely repeat the frames of a single repetition, the resulting ‘performance’ would ring false, lack texture, and so on. Again, the differences from one iteration to the next is as meaningful, if not more so, as are the similarities. Indeed, by the end, Braunohler’s performance has greatly deteriorated into a kind of meaningless and prolonged grunt, while Schaal, though clearly tiring out, smiles on maniacally. This is not a repetition, yet is described as such.
Mirror Neurons: Think more about this in the context at hand. From Wikipedia:
A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed inprimatespecies. Birds have been shown to have imitative resonance behaviors and neurological evidence suggests the presence of some form of mirroring system. In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.
[UPDATE: Gregory Hickok has debunked mirror neurons! For an overview, check out this great interview with Dr. Hickok on Brain Science Podcast — and listen to all the other episodes while you’re at it. It’s a fantastic podcast. At any rate, I look forward to V.S. Ramachandran’s response to Dr. Hickok’s book.]
Merging of Repeated Experiences: Experiences that occur with great frequency get lumped together in our memory as a kind of vague, single event. For example, we don’t have distinct memories of every shower we’ve ever taken (unless maybe we’re Marilu Henner). (Perhaps this affects our sense of time: fewer event memories over a given space of time might make that space seem smaller. Especially if the event adds little to our mental space. That is, taking a shower or eating breakfast adds little. Listening to lectures on new topics adds a lot, and as that accumulation adds to our mental space, we infer having passed a greater amount of time. This could be among the several possible reasons that time seems to speed up as we get older: we do and learn fewer new things.)
Message Repetition as Rhetorical Device: Hearing and/or seeing (again and again) is believing. An essential tool for advertisers, politicians, lawyers, and con artists of all stripes.
To counter my claim that events don’t repeat, one might be tempted to offer up difficult cases, such as the repetition of a word, or a general act (e.g., “the finger snaps aren’t identical, but the fact that fingers were snapped is repeated”). Or what about the repeated recording of a single finger snap? I’ll touch briefly on these sorts of objections here and in the next section.
I see a rose. I refer to it repeatedly, once per second: “Rose, rose, rose, rose, rose, rose, rose…” Does this example feature a repeating event? The ongoing utterance of “rose” is not one, as each utterance is unique, even only if each happens at a different time and in relation to a different number of utterances that came before and after it. But what about this: Every second, though each utterance of the word is unique, each utterance is (a token) of the exact same word, a word that is identical to itself, and that denotes the same referent. Thus, the same word is repeated in series, resulting in a series of repeating events.
The problem with this objection is that it conflates the utterance with what the utterance is intended to do: refer to a rose. In the end, the word just is the event of referring to the rose, whether uttered or written. Consider it this way. Suppose we were to decide that the sound of a finger snap refers to roses, just as the English word “rose” does. Suppose we agree on this, and get the rest of the English-speaking world to agree. Has our series of non-identical finger snaps now become a series of a repeating identical events, i.e., the event of referring to a rose? Only in some vague conceptual sense, and that’s my point.
Suppose one were to say, “ah, ok, then what’s repeating is the manifest intention to refer to the rose,” I would say that this is all fine and well, but that each event that is the manifestation of that intention (i.e., the utterance) is unique. In other words, to claim that a repeated word constitutes a series of identical events is no more compelling than saying, “each second, something happened, and something, as a concept, is identical to itself.” Something is not an event, but rather is an idea that refers to some particular — or perhaps any random — event or thing (to say that something happening is identical to something happening, is to say that anything is identical to anything; and a word is not an event, but rather a concept we use to refer to the act of referring to things linguistically. Again, when ‘snapping’ refers to a rose, it is a word no more than is pointing to a rose or signing a rose. Indeed, pointing to a rose repeatedly would clearly be a series of non-repeating events (note that referents need not be things in the ‘real’ world; similar observations can be made about the words “dragon,” “time travel,” and “the number seven”).
To consider this yet further, suppose we did accept that referring to the rose is an identical repeating event. We then might as well accept as a genuine series of identical events the repetition of any uttered linguistic symbol used to refer to the same rose. For example, I look at the rose before me, and utter: “rose, the flower in my left hand, the thing Ellie gave Tobias the other night, rosa, the slowly wilting object of my current thoughts, <whatever the word is in fifteen other languages>…”
We get similar results when just thinking the word “rose” repeatedly.
DIFFICULT CASES CONTINUED / SUBTLE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN EVENTS MAY BE CUMULATIVELY DRASTIC:
I’m not claiming that we don’t experience repetition. That point, rather, is that the material sources of our experience of repetition are themselves not actual repetitions. There are some fascinating examples that bear this out. For example. Consider, for example, that you experience Colors A, B, C, and D. A is indistinguishable from B; B is indistinguishable from C; and C from D. However, A and C look distinguishably different. And A and D, even more so. Had we gone as far as G, we might have a different color altogether.
And here is an example in which the same color-in-the-world (i.e., light wavelength) results in different color experiences. Note also the illusion of repetition (i.e., alternating black and white, when, really, there are many shades of gray at play) (note also that when I say “illusion,” I mean that what we experience [which is itself never illusory] doesn’t correspond to the external world in the way that experience leads us to believe it does):
These examples bring to mind another difficult case. Suppose you have the image of a red card, and you repeatedly flash it on a computer screen. Is this not a repetition of an identical event? Response: What is the event here? The image of a red card? No, for either of two reasons. First, it is either not the exact same image each time, which is to say that something surely has changed from instance to instance (e.g., something in the material makeup of the transmission medium). Or, second and more interestingly, it’s simply the same static image, in which case there is no repetition, simply ongoing sameness. Suppose you are looking at a single image, and you close and open your eyes in repetition. Was there before you a series of physically repeating, identical images? I think not. Any actual repetition that happened was in your experience only, as a result of a cognitive limitation in discerning when something is simply static and unchanged, and when it’s a newly instantiated event.
Of course, I don’t deny that we experience repetition, but rather that the material source for our experience of repetition is itself not a repetition. This gets particularly interesting, I think, when we consider personal identity over time.
Personal identity over time is what happens when we consider we consider all the events of a series to constitute a single person, despite the following conundrum: We consider each event of the series to be identical to the events that contiguously flank it, yet dissimilar to the events in the series that don’t contiguously flank it. This becomes especially difficult to reconcile when the series of events believes itself to be a single person over time.
Part II. You are a series of non-repeating events.
(DRAFT) Epistle Metaphysical #X…
You are a non-repeating series of events. The events that precede and succeed one another in this series consist, each of them, of yet smaller events, the smallest unit of which is a vibration. A vibration is an event (indeed, it’s the smallest kind of event); a series of vibrations is an event; a series of events is an event. And so on. Events such as these have accumulated to form a series of non-repeating events, which itself forms the single event that is you. You, then, are a series of vibrations, and you are any single vibration located at any given point within the series.
For example, you are the event sitting in the chair at 12:00pm, and you are the event sitting in the chair at 12:00pm and one nanosecond. (Notice that, on this account, we are not concerned with simultaneous events, in which case there are many happening within you — being emitted by you — at any given moment; we are concerned, rather, with the series of events that you are from moment to moment.)
You are a series of non-repeating events that accumulate into a you that is passed along from you to you to you over time. Each event is nearly identical to the one before and after, but you today are not the you of ten years ago. The collection of events that formed you this morning is very similar, though not identical to, the collection that composes you this afternoon. More importantly, the event that you were at 12:00pm is nearly identical to the event at 12:00pm and one nanosecond, but not actually identical.
(If there is a quick and drastic change, disruption will be accounted for so that pre-disruption series integrity is preserved as you. This is easy to see with sudden death, but would also be true in the case of a severe shift in personality due to a disruptive neurological event: you will be said to be no longer you.)
The relations held between the events that form you, such that each event is similar enough to the others to be the same you, is obscure. That is, the identifying feature, or set thereof, that remains unchanged from the first event to the last is unclear. Your memory and those of others around you sense and presume a continuity, but even according to the best accounts, you are constituted by instances of you-ness that occur separated by gaps in time. You, as a concept, are viewed, stored, and replayed at best as a pixelated assemblage. This is true no matter the medium of remembrance or documentation, organic or plastic.
So, you, as a phenomenal existent, dematerialize and re-materialize according to the resolution of the medium that perceives you. You assume that this is just a flaw of perception, and that you exist statically throughout the process. You, you think, are not a series of discrete events that only appears pixelated, but rather are static, like the gray wall that is always there, even when we use that wall to form a pulse by alternatively illuminated and obscuring it. You are a continuum, you think, and contain infinities, like a special line across the Cartesian plane. But your evidence for this is a priori. Indeed, your experience of yourself suggests otherwise, suggests finitude of the line… of you.
You are a series of vibrations — of cycles, small and large. You are individuated, at least to those who know you, from those who are not you. You are even separable from yourself, depending on the circumstances and the vantage point.
What is the common feature from moment to moment responsible for your continued you-ness, so that we know, for example, to whom arbitrary designators such as name and social security number pertain. Upon inspection, we see that it’s not patterns of behavior, tastes and predilections, DNA, or skin border. Nor is it anchored to consciousness. No, this is among the least continuous and mysterious, elusive, unquantifiable features of you. Is it, then, the bundle of these and other things? This is just problem reemergence, as the question is: What is it that makes the bundle, as it changes from one collection of items to the next, you? Or, to put it another way, considered to be you rather than someone else.
Given sufficient similarity between simultaneous events within two separate series, could identity be exchanged between these series? Would it be possible to alternate the identities of two similar (though objectively distinct) people through some means of physiological and psychological manipulation, such that even they (or especially they) would forget who is who? It’s not unimaginable, but we would consider this a perversion (even if achieved through some pleasant means). But a perversion of what? Of nature? Of humanity? Of the self? Of identity?
Given that you are a series of non-repeating events that appears continuous, disruption in that series is an instance in which the apparent continuity has been lost. It can be subtle, such as when reason cannot make sense of a relation between events. Or it can be drastic, such as when every particle that’s ever contributed to your formation has become otherwise engaged. You are only you when the activity of some particles are such that (i.e., when some things are arranged is such a way that) some version of you emerges, though this need not be you proper. There are instances in which we might consider you to no longer be you, and for you to consider yourself to no longer be you, but this is in a manner of speaking. You are still you: your debts and achievements are still your own (even if you no longer know it), so long as the activity of some particles make it so.
You are a you that survives a reiterative course of dematerializing and re-materializing from moment to moment. The holes in between aren’t disruptions, as disruptions are irregularities and thus unpredictable. The holes are rhythmic, symmetrical, pulse-like. But you are not the holes, but rather the events between the holes. (What the series of holes compose, I have no idea.)
Identity is a story we tell ourselves as a means by which to endure the above reiterative course of non-repetition. Thus, it’s a largely arbitrary story. Hopefully we are in a position to choose one that works (good therapy, I’m told, helps us replace a story that doesn’t work with one that does). The baseline for this narrative is the continuous self. But you are a series of non-repeating events. Consistency must be imposed, dug up, puzzled together, by yourself and others.
You are a series of non-repeating series of non-repeating series of events, each whose smallest constituent is a single unit of vibration. These are too small to perceive, too small to contribute to the self-narrative, and yet, ironically, and partially for this reason, they hold the most relational similarity to one another. Indeed, they are indistinguishable from one another. Thus, you are a distinct series of non-repeating, indistinguishable events.