The neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga has written a lovely appreciation of Jorge Luis Borges in the latest Nature (not online). Quiroga focuses on Borges interest in neuroscience, which led him to write his classic short story Funes the Memorious, about a man who cannot forget:
In the story of Funes, Borges described very precisely the problems of distorted memory capacities well before neuroscience caught up…In a study using electrodes to probe the hippocampus in epileptic patients for clinical reasons, we identified a type of neuron that fires in response to particular abstract concepts. For example, one neuron in a patient fired only in recognition of different pictures of the actress Jennifer Aniston; another responded only to images of another celebrity, Halle Berry. It is thus possible that these neurons link perception and memory by creating the abstract encoding we use to store memories — especially considering that we tend to remember concepts and forget irrelevant details. If these neurons are lacking, the ability to generate abstractions may be limited, leading to pathologies such as autism or characters like Funes.
Even without this scientific knowledge, Borges’s intuitive description is sharp: Funes, he wrote, was “virtually incapable of general, platonic ideas … His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them … To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars.”
I’ve written about Funes before, but it’s worth pointing out that the short story isn’t Borges’ only work with neuroscientific implications. One of my favorite Borgesian parables is The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, which describes a “certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”. What makes this encyclopedia so peculiar is its division of knowledge. The animal kingdom, for instance, has been parsed into the following categories:
(a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.
The moral of the story is that all categories are arbitrary; there is no natural way to subdivide nature. Of course, our own classification schemes don’t seem strange at all – they seem necessary and true. That faith, however, is a mere side-effect of the mind, which has a weakness for essences. This is known as essentialism, and it’s reflected in our instinctive belief that there is something intrinsic to every thing, from tigers to chairs to water, that make it that particular thing. (A tiger born without stripes is still a tiger, right?) Look, for instance, at Platonic idealism, which argues that behind the chaotic confusion of details – there are so many different kinds of chair – there is an ideal chair, which reflects the essence of all chairs.
Children are natural essentialists. Frank Keil, a psychologist at Yale, has done some interesting work that captures this tendency at work. He begins by showing his young subjects a variety of visual transformations: a tiger that’s been dressed in a lion suit, a porcupine that has been turned into a cactus, a real dog that resembles a toy. Not surprisingly, the children dismiss these transformations as irrelevant and superficial. The porcupine is still a porcupine. The dog is still a dog. The tiger is still a tiger, even if it looks like a lion. It was only when Keil told the children that the transformations also took place on the inside – their internal essences had been altered – that the little kids were convinced the animals had changed categories. The tiger was now a lion.
The lesson is that even a kid would find the Borgesian encyclopedia peculiar. Plato thought it was possible to “cut nature at its joints, like a good butcher”. But this faith assumes that nature has joints, and that the essences we perceive are real and everlasting. Unfortunately, those essences are mostly figments of the mind, projections of a brain that is born believing in Platonic forms.