Ktismatics

29 August 2009

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Weir, 1975

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 12:15 pm

picnic mirror

picnic red

picnic tied

picnic magnify

25 August 2009

Bullying

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:05 pm

Bullies play a critical role in coming-of-age movies, embodying the fear we all have of one another. The bully never goes away; eventually he must be confronted. It’s never a matter of brute force that overwhelms the bully, but a combination of wits, leverage, and teamwork. Most important is bravery — not bravado, but rather a willingness to confront one’s fears, risking humiliation in order to attain some new measure of autonomy and self-assurance on the road to adulthood.

Teachers have watched these movies, surely. Why, then, when the schoolyard bullies have been neutralized, do they have to fill the void?

Adorno, in his essay “Taboos on the Teaching Profession,” denounces the stereotypical teacher as a “classroom tyrant,” a “caricature of despotism” whose power only parodies that of other educated professionals. In knowing more than his charges and in wielding power over those obligated to obey him, the teacher is “not fair, not a good sport.” To be good, a teacher must set aside these advantages accruing solely to his function:

“Success as an academic teacher is due to the absence of every kind of calculated influence, to the renunciation of persuasion.”

So here’s the story. Our daughter Kenzie is a junior in high school. As a sophomore she took advanced placement American History, which entailed a huge amount of work. She got an A in the class and passed the AP exam “above expectations,” earning university credit. This year every class in which she’d enrolled is either AP or IB (international baccalaureate, if anything even tougher than AP). Three days into the semester she decided that the IB World History class, which by all accounts imposes an even greater burden than the American History, was just too much on top of everything else. She decided therefore to switch into a regular section of the history class. Anne and I supported this decision.

On Monday Kenzie, fairly certain of her decision but a little nervous about rocking the boat, goes to school trying to reorganize her schedule. She stops in to discuss her rationale with her teacher from last year’s history class, a tough old broad who is an excellent teacher and whom our daughter respects a great deal. The teacher listens patiently and agrees with Kenzie’s decision. Two other history teachers, overhearing the conversation, start talking to one another. “What’s with these kids? Did they lose half of their brain cells over the summer?”

Next Kenzie has to get a signature from her current World History teacher in order to get out of his class. She tracks him down in his office. The guy isn’t going to make it easy for her. “It’s hard for me not to take this personally,” he tells Kenzie. Kenzie describes her overloaded schedule. “But  art?” he asks disdainfully. Kenzie is an artist first and foremost; every other class is optional, but not art. Apparently the other two eavesdroppers had “discussed” Kenzie’s case with this guy based on what they’d overheard in the previous discussion. Clearly they had come to the conclusion that this girl is a slacker, taking art just to keep the grade-point average high without doing any real work.

Next Kenzie goes to the counseling office to find out whether any sections of regular-intensity World History have any empty seats left. Luck is with her: there’s an opening in the 6th period section. The counselor tells Kenzie that she has to go back to see her current teacher again, the one who takes it personally and who hates art. Why? Because they had given her the wrong form to be signed. Kenzie balks: “I don’t want to go back there.” At that moment this history teacher passes through the counseling office. Here, sign this, the counselor tells him. He looks at Kenzie and stands there, not signing. “You approved it,” Kenzie reminds him. “I didn’t approve it. I don’t approve. I’ll go along with it, but I don’t approve.” He signs and walks off.

Eventually Kenzie got it all worked out, having passed through this rite of passage bruised but not crushed. But I ask you, is this bullshit really necessary?

22 August 2009

The Adaptive Unconscious

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:43 pm

I just finished reading Strangers to Ourselves. It’s the second book by that title I’ve read. The first was written by Lacanian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, which deals with the place of the stranger through the history of Western culture. The book I just read is by Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the U. of Virginia where I went to grad school. Tim focuses largely on humans’ limited ability to gain conscious access to the unconscious. He’s not an analyst or a therapist but a researcher in social psych, so he brings a different sort of information and interpretive framework to the conscious/unconscious division.

Based on a count of receptor cells and their neural connections, neuroscientists estimate that the human sensory system takes in more than 11 million pieces of information per second. Based on studies of processing speed on tasks like reading and detecting different flashes of light, cognitive psychologists estimate that people can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second. What happens to the other 10,999,960? It’s processed unconsciously.

That’s how we acquire most of what we learn about environment, people, language, routine behaviors, and social interaction. We acquire this kind of knowledge not by assembling a series of discrete facts or events — the kinds of things consciousness is good at attending to — but by mastering complex patterns. The unconscious is particularly good at dealing with patterns, not through conscious calculations of algorithms but through intricate neural networks that compare already-stored arrays of information with new arrays continuously presented to it through broad-band environmental tracking systems. The 10 million bits of sensory input aren’t all lined up in a row, waiting for our perceptual systems to structure them. The sensory systems are broad-band matrices that are able to detect structure that already exists in the ambient environmental array.

Consciousness is useful when we want to pay particular attention to something: catching a ball, cooking dinner, reading a blog post. A lot of other stuff is happening around us that we’re not consciously attending to — traffic sounds outside, the breeze from the fan, small movements of the other people in the room. Still, we’re aware of the details of our environment even when we’re not focuing our attention on them. It’s adaptive to be in a constant state of awareness in case something happens that calls for us to react. It’s not adaptive, though, to pay conscious attention to all the little details, because then we lose focus on the main task at hand.

We can call much of this unconsciously-compiled information into conscious awareness pretty much on demand. The accessible stuff is mostly content: names of childhood neighbors, how to order a meal at McDonald’s, the color of pumpkins. It’s nearly impossible to retrieve unconscious processes: how we know where a baseball hit over our head is likely to land, why we take an immediate liking to certain people, why we suddenly feel apprehensive or giddy, how we usually come across to other people.

It turns out that introspecting about unconscious processes isn’t a very useful retrieval method. These processes didn’t start out in consciousness only to be repressed or forgotten; they never appeared in consciousness in the first place. Human cognition is more adaptive when most of it takes place in background mode, out of our awareness. There just aren’t very many direct neural pathways hauling this stuff up from the sensory and emotional and pattern-matching activities going on in our brains. “Look out, not in” is an appropriate rubric. Often it’s more reliable to observe our own behavior in particular situations and try to reverse-engineer what might have motivated it. This is how other people infer things about our goals and motivations and biases — by watching and evaluating behavior. Consequently it’s also informative to ask other people what they see in us — if we can bear hearing the truth. Or we can invent situational scenarios and imagine how we would likely react. We’re unconsciously equipped to communicate with other people, so talking can be a productive way of getting the unconscious material out of our heads and into words. Writing works too, as a sort of simulated conversational medium. Still:

“Although it may feel as though we are discovering important truths about ourselves when we introspect, we are not gaining direct access to the adaptive unconscious. Introspection is more like literary criticism in which we are the text to be understood. Just as there is no single truth that lies within a literary text, but many truths, so there are many truths about a person that can be constructed. The analogy I favor is introspection as personal narrative, whereby people construct stories about their lives.”

– Timothy Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves, p. 162

16 August 2009

Hammer in the Head

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:15 am

An artifact is an object that’s been intentionally designed and built by humans. From a purely material standpoint an artifact is neither more nor less real than a naturally-occurring object. Usually, though, humans recognize the difference between nature and artifice. People tend to use artifacts for purposes intentionally built into them by the artificer; e.g., when I want to hammer something I look for a hammer. The hammer emits information signaling its designed-in utility, and this information is received by the human would-be hammerer. But since necessity is the mother of invention, I could also pick up a rock I happen to find out in the field and use it for hammering.

The rock isn’t an artifact, but it affords hammering. Is the rock’s hammer-ness an emergent property of the rock itself, or is it a property of the way I perceive the rock? Do I pick up information emitted by the rock that wasn’t designed into it, or does my intentional mental state actively construct hammer-ness, which I then impose on the rock? It would seem that both operations are in play. The rock is a material object that conveys higher-order information to humans about its utility for hammering. It’s certain that found objects like rocks were the first human tools — that’s why they call it the Stone Age. Hard, heavy, but not too heavy: the same information is conveyed by the naturally-occurring rock as by the specially-designed hammer. The history of human artifice entails the progressive shaping of naturally-occurring materials in ways that enhance their natural utility. Tool use and tool construction progress in parallel. This all seems non-controversial enough.

The found rock is a hammer by happenstance; that thing in the toolbox called “hammer” was designed and built for hammering. The rock was a rock even before I picked it up and used it to pound something; the hammer wasn’t a hammer until it got made into a hammer. But does the rock convey its hammer-ness to every thing and creature it encounters, regardless of whether they ever intentionally want to hammer something? Or is the idea of hammer-ness an abstract artifact in its own right, a thought about a particular kind of intentional agency that was invented by humans sometime in prehistory, such that the rock’s hammer-ness didn’t exist until the idea of hammer-ness was imposed on it?

My cat doesn’t get it: the rock and the hammer are just two hard and heavy physical objects occupying space in his environment. Even for me, the rock’s hammer-ness doesn’t occur to me until I need to pound something and I don’t have a hammer handy. Why do I think about using the rock for hammering rather than some tuft of grass or the cat? Because the rock possesses the physical properties of hardness and heaviness that work best for hammering. These properties exist in the rock independent of my thinking about them. But when I need something to pound with, I receive the rock’s already-existing hardness and heaviness as information about the rock’s hammer-ness.

My cat never intentionally thinks about hammering anything, and so he never gets the message from the rock. On the other hand, my cat can use his paw to swat things, in effect wielding his paw as a hammer. Early humans probably used their fists for pounding before they ever started using rocks.

Before I picked it up, the rock might have been resting in roughly the same place for ten million years. Did it acquire its hammerish properties only recently, after a hammer-wielding species evolved on the planet? No: the rock’s hardness and heaviness — features that make it useful for hammering — already existed in the rock before anybody thought of using it as a hammer. The rock has always had hammerish properties, ever since erosion pried it loose from the mountainside, turning it into a separate object, and gravity and the mountainside used the rock to hammer the pebbles, earth, plants, and small creatures it encountered as it rolled down to its resting place.

My fist, the rock, the hammer: the information about these three objects’ hardness and heaviness can be quantified and written down on a piece of paper. This hammer-ness information originates in these objects, is already part of them. What’s in my head but not in my cat’s head is the ability to receive and interpret that information relative to my intention to hammer something. When I pick up a rock with the intention of pounding something with it, I recognize information already embedded in the rock and interpret it with respect to my own intentionality.

All of this is well known and generally accepted. At the same time we see the renewed enthusiasm for a “flat ontology,” where the rock and the artifactual hammer are equivalent as objects and where the cascading rock’s crushing of objects in its path is equivalent to my intentionally picking up the rock in order to pound something with it. Maybe that’s why I’m inclined more toward psychology than to ontology. Intentionality, hammer-ness in the head, extraction of hammerish affordances in found objects, conscious design and construction of artifacts: each of these distinctly human activities emerged from its counterpart in the non-human world. But the separation of the distinctly human from the prehuman still strikes me as remarkable. And while humans still occasionally face the risk of being crushed by rocks tumbling down mountainsides, it’s largely a human-crafted environment in which we spend most of our lives and in which we exercise our distinctly human tricks.

What appeals to me is to think about psychology not exclusively according to empirical and therapeutic/analytic paradigms,  but also in ontological terms. I have far less background and experience to operate at this level, but the prospect energizes me.

13 August 2009

Ontology of Epistemology?

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:10 am

As far as I know, only creationists, panpyschists and solipsists content that outside reality is contingent on consciousness. Realists and antirealists alike distinguish between reality and epistemology, between what reality is and what humans can know about it. But the human ability to know is real in its own right.

What happens when some aspect of reality enters into my conscious awareness? Say I realize that it’s raining outside. It was already raining before I realized it. I might even have been subliminally aware of the sound of the rain falling on the windows. But now that sound has crossed the threshold into consciousness, and I think: it’s raining. The rain has now had an impact on my consciousness. I don’t have to create a mental representation of the rain, so that a mental image of the rain is created in my mind as a sort of shadow reality. My consciousness operates as a kind of rain gauge: its change of state — a new awareness that it’s raining — points to the presence of something real happening in the world. The rain registers its already-existing reality by changing the state of my conscious awareness, just as it did earlier to my window and to my auditory sensory apparatus. The rain has extended its sphere of influence, the extent to which it makes differences happen in the world.

The rain causes these changes of state in the world, but the changes happen to the window, to my audition, to my consciousness. The window is percussed and covered in water; my ear and brain hear new sounds; I think a new thought: these changes are real and distinct in their own right, apart from their common cause. In its interaction with the external reality of the rain, my consciousness demonstrates its own reality.

This description regards consciousness as a kind of object, a recording surface not unlike a window. And in many ways the brain is that sort of object — a congeries of neurons and synaptic connections physically located in the central nervous system. But consciousness isn’t just the static state of the brain; it’s more like a device that keeps track of changes in brain state. Some of these brain-state changes are triggered by changes in the state of the environment. Changes in brain state result from changes in brain processes: the auditory sensory input triggers activation of the “it’s raining” thought that’s already associated in the cerebral network with this kind of sound. Of course consciounsess often takes a more active role, but a major aspect of its own reality is its ability to detect external reality.

10 August 2009

Does the Song Want to be Sung?

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:39 pm

In our extended discussion on the previous post about memes, kvond and I focused quite a bit of attention on whether a song is an object unto itself and, if so, what sort of object it might be. Now I’m thinking about memic dissemination. It’s been proposed that memes, like genes, propagate themselves as a means of survival and domination of the memetic environment. Memes that successfully occupy people’s brains reproduce and thrive; those that don’t, don’t. In singing the song I am presumably cooperating with the song’s agenda for spreading itself virally through brains.

Certainly the song is a cause of my listening to it and singing it, inasmuch as I would never sing or play a particular song I’ve never heard. Repetition aids learning, so the more often the song is played in my hearing, the more firmly it gets inscribed in my memory and the better I can reproduce it in performance.  And the song may have affordances that attract my attention to itself: it appeals to my tastes, or it appeals to the tastes of others I hang with or admire.

But does the song want me to listen and sing? At first blush the premise seems ridiculous. Gravity is a cause of my not flying up off the ground, and gravity it attracts me to the earth, but it’s not personal, not intentional. Like gravity, a song is inanimate; it’s an abstract pattern of frequencies and intervals and rhythms: how can it want anything? I don’t believe it can. But maybe the song can serve as a conduit for conveying a human desire for me to listen to the song.

Suppose I want you to click onto one of my old posts. I could type an explicit request: please visit such-and-such a post. Or I could try enticing you by pointing out the post’s affordances: there’s something really extraordinary written in that old post that’s right up your alley. While the former tactic is more direct than the latter, they’re both indirect. I’m not forcing you to go see that old post, like gravity forces me down to the earth. Instead I’m using language as a mediator to convey my desire. And it’s not even an immediate mediation, as would be the case if we were talking face to face or over the telephone. There may be a gap of hours or days or even longer between the time I express my desire textually and the time you receive it. My message looks like a stand-alone textual “object,” but maybe it’s better to regard it as a delayed communique, conveying not just information but my desire.

A song could work the same way. The composer imbues a song with personal expressions of beauty and affect and maybe even truth, which he wants to convey through the song to the listener. For the communication to complete its circuit, the listener has to hear the song. And so the composer imbues the song with musical affordances for attracting the listener’s attention. Even if there’s a long delay in transmission, even if someone other than the composer performs the song, even if the performance is transmitted to the listener by electronic recording, even if there’s a delay of decades between composition and listening, the song still carries within itself the original communicative intent of the composer, including his desire that the song be heard. The song isn’t just an autonomous object; it’s an extension of the composer’s agency and intentionaliy. The song wants to be heard because it carries within itself the composer’s’ desire.

I recognize that this view is sort of old-fashioned. Next thing you know I’ll be proposing a hermeneutic of song that focuses not just on the song itself but on compositional intent. What is the composer saying? Among other things he’s saying this: listen to my song.

5 August 2009

Memes as Abstract Artifacts

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:02 pm

While I was enjoying a cup of tea at Larval Subjects recently, our host gracefully steered the conversation from emergence to memes. Recapping the basic premise, a typical meme is an idea or song or joke floating around in the environment. It can make innumerable copies of itself, but it’s essentially parasitic: each copy of the meme must infect a host organism in order to survive. This new meme “wants” to survive and to reproduce itself, which it does by lodging itself inside human brains. The meme manifests a certain property — cleverness or catchiness, say —  that the brain finds attractive or that lowers the brain’s resistance to infection, making memic reproduction more likely, just as sexual attraction makes biological reproduction more likely. The human “host” functions as a vector who, by telling someone the idea or singing the song, transmits the infectious meme to other brains.

Here’s my limited understanding of Levi’s position on memes. First, he regards the meme as an object. It’s essentially a material thing, consisting of a particular set of sounds or markings decoupled from their meaning. This conceptualization hasn’t quite stabilized though, and Levi vacillates between categorizing memes as material objects and as Aristotelian ideal objects that must be embodied in material form. The meme’s idea-ness or song-ness is an emergent property spawned by the raw meme’s physical properties but not reducible to them. Though idea-ness and song-ness were spawned by the meme, these emergent properties exist not in the raw physical meme itself but in the brains of people who see or hear them; i.e., the meme’s “hosts.” Similarly, the meme’s infectious properties — cleverness for the idea, catchiness for the song — emerge from the idea/song and likewise manifest themselves in the hosts, assuring that the idea/song takes up long-term residency. When the host states the idea or sings the song, the meme lodges itself in the hearer’s brain and the reproductive cycle repeats itself.

Rather than critiquing Levi’s scheme, I’m trying to work through the way I think about memes. It makes sense to me to regard a meme as an object. A song is a distinct thing separate from its singer; an idea exists independently of those who think it. I don’t, though, believe that the essence of a song or an idea is its materiality. But a meme isn’t ideal either, in the traditional sense of being perfect and eternal form or of existing only in minds. A meme is an abstract object. (I got this idea from Amie Thomasson’s Fiction and Metaphysics, about which I previously posted.) An abstract object is a structured pattern of information that isn’t restricted to any particular space-time coordinates and that can manifest itself materially in a variety of ways: in a voice or a musical instrument, on a piece of paper, or in someone’s brain. Though, as Levi observes, the abstract pattern has to manifest itself materially somehow, the pattern is real in its own right.

[A visual illustration of an abstract object: The top photo looks like a random assortment of junk, but when you line yourself up with it at the proper angle you realize that the junk is organized according to an abstract pattern that conveys meaning to brains familiar with the rules of arithmetic and the content of selected works of 20th century fiction. The abstract information embedded in the junk emerges in our awareness when get ourselves lined up with it, but the information was designed into the junk assembly. This junk pile is an artifact.]

junk3

In essence the meme is its abstract structured pattern; its particular material manifestation is of secondary importance. But the pattern has to be received as information in order for it to be perceived as a song or an idea, rather than just raw physical sounds or markings. My cat can be exposed to the textual or vocal embodiment of an idea and miss the point entirely, focusing solely on the materiality of the piece of paper or the sound. My cat as it sits on the table can see me pointing my finger at the floor and it will look at my finger: the abstract information embedded in the pointing gesture is completely lost on the cat. I could write a memo outlining my expectation that the cat not get up on the table and the cat would likely sit on the piece of paper for awhile until it got bored, then jump back onto the table.

junkThe meme’s abstract pattern isn’t an emergent property of the sounds or words or images in which it’s made manifest. That’s because the pattern is designed into the meme from the beginning. Almost all memes are artifacts. Composing a song or thinking up an idea isn’t all that different from weaving a basket or manufacturing a lamp. The main difference is that song-ness and idea-ness are more clearly abstract. A basket can’t duplicate itself in people’s brains; it has to be copied materially. Still, the idea of basket-ness and lamp-ness is abstract, and the idea can be made manifest in a whole host of different materials and shapes. The information that identifies something as a basket or a lamp is an abstract pattern that’s designed in to the material stuff of which it’s constructed.

A song isn’t inextricably connected to its composer, nor is an idea inseparable from the person who first thought it. It’s reasonable to count these sorts of abstract patterns of information as objects in their own right, decoupled from any particular material manifestation. But what happens when the song is materialized, say in its being played on a harmonica? Has the abstract song been transformed into a concrete song? Has it merged with the sounds produced by the harmonica to become a merged object with its own distinct properties? Surely it has: play the same song on a harmonica and on a bassoon: while the abstract pattern of songness is identical, the song sounds different on different instruments. Certainly the song is transformed in different ways by harmonicas and symphony orchestras and copies of sheet music, while still retaining the same abstract songness. I’m not sure what to think about it, but I suspect Latour’s ideas about translation will prove helpful here.

What about the idea of memes reproducing themselves by parasitically colonizing brains? I suppose you could look at it that way. What I think, though, is that consciousness is overemphasized in the way we pick up things like songs and ideas. Much of what we learn we acquire unintentionally, unconsciously. With practice I learned to hit a moving tennis ball back over the net. The information I need to accomplish this feat is abstract and calculable, but I don’t perform the calculations consciously — it’s an unconscious calculation. Did the hand-eye coordination meme reproduce itself by colonizing my brain? No: I learned it because I wanted to and because I practiced, even though the learning took place unconsciously. I learned to speak English as a child without consciously studying the grammar and syntax and vocabulary: I picked it up unconsciously. Did the language reproduce itself in my brain? No: I wanted to understand other humans and to communicate with them, and I learned to do so unconsciously. Even when I purposely read a book, I pick up bits of knowledge that I didn’t consciously commit to memory.

Knowing your way around the neighborhood, recognizing people’s faces, riding a bike, picking up tunes: most human learning takes place unconsciously. Consciousness is functions mostly as the attentional interface: the unconscious takes care of storing and organizing. I can call up the answer to 7 x 8 from memory without constantly rehearsing the multiplication tables in my head. It’s part of Freud’s legacy to regard the unconscious as a repository for things that were once conscious but that we’ve subsequently repressed. That happens, but it’s a relatively small aspect of unconscious thought. “All thought is unconscious,” Donnel Stern asserts; a thought becomes conscious only when we need to call it into awareness for some reason. If memes are self-reproducing parasites on our brains, then so is practically everything that we’ve learned in our lifetimes. I think it’s more plausible to say that we unconsciously pick up all sorts of brain content that amuses us or is useful to us because those are the sorts of abstract patterns that humans attend to in their environment.

Besides, memes are artifacts. Songs are written by people who want them to be heard and played and sung. Ideas are formulated by people who want them to be known and understood and accepted. The memes aren’t out there reproducing themselves on their own; they’re being actively disseminated by their originators and their “hosts.”

3 August 2009

Virtual and Fictional Properties

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:07 pm

This morning Larval Subjects put up a post about emergence, using for illustrative purposes a deceptively simple video game that Dennett discusses in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. “The Game of Life” consists of an array of on/off cells in a video display, an initial configuration of ons and offs, and a simple if/then algorithm by which the initial configuration is transformed iteratively into subsequent configurations. The printed narrative displayed during the demo says that the game “demonstrates how complexity can arise out of simple, low-level rules.”

The algorithm running the game is completely deterministic: all subsequent iterations of the video display can be predicted precisely from the initial configuration. At the lower level of systemic organization the algorithm assigns an on/off position for each of the cells, and that’s it. What features of the game are “emergent”? Jaegwon Kim identifies five “central doctrines” of emergentism:

  1. Systems with a higher level of complexity emerge from the coming together of lower-level entities in new structural configurations.
  2. Higher-level systems exhibit higher-level emergent properties arising from the lower-level properties and relations of its constituent parts.
  3. Emergent properties are not predictable from information about lower-level conditions.
  4. Emergent properties are not explainable or reducible to the lower-level conditions.
  5. Emergent properties have novel causal powers of their own.

The emergent properties of the Game of Life are its “repeating patterns of information,” as the demo’s narrative phrases it. The sum of individual on/off settings can anticipate neither the complex clusters and dispersions of ons and offs that illuminate the screen at any given time, nor the changes in the patterns over time as successive iterations are displayed. While most of the multicellular patterns flicker abstractly on the screen, some patterns bear uncanny resemblances to familiar objects moving through the simulated world, performing recognizable functions. Names have been assigned to some of the more compelling patterns:  gliders, eaters, puffers, guns, trains, rakes, spaceships.

I detect the emergent properties when I watch the game go through its iterations. To what extent are they  properties of the game itself? Certainly at the lower level the individual cells do light up or go dark. Certainly in the aggregate the lights form patterns. But what about those higher-level clusters of cells that appear to move across the screen over time: do they really move? They seem to eat other objects or fire weapons or propel themselves across the screen: are they really doing so?

The seemingly mobile and purposive objects that emerge from running the game aren’t physical objects being tracked by a camera or a computerized eye. I’d say that they’re optical illusions, imposed by our perceptual systems on the higher-level emergent optical outputs generated by the program. The illusion takes advantage of the human perceptual system’s ability to impose higher-order structure on sensory input so as to extract meaningful information from a visual array. So: at time t I see an illuminated rectangle of dimensionality L*H located at position XY on the grid; at time t+1 I see an illuminated L*H rectangle located at position X(Y+1). My visual perception system interprets this information as evidence that the original rectangle moved a little bit to the right. Inside the game’s algorithm, though, what happened is that the leftmost cell on the illuminated rectangle switched from on to off, while the cell just to the right of the rectangle swithed from off to on. This isn’t the same rectangle moving to the right; it’s two separate rectangles displayed sequentially.

One could use this video game to demonstrate why solipsism might be true: our retinas work more or less like the video game, with our brains interpreting the changing patterns of digitized retinal cell activation patterns as discrete, moving, even intentional objects. This is the premise behind virtual-reality paranoia tales like Total Recall, Existenz, and The Matrix: vision is a solipsistic illusion disguising some other hidden reality — or perhaps the absence of reality.

A realist, on the other hand, observes that the video game’s illusion works because it exploits visual and cognitive mechanisms for extracting information from the environment about real objects actually in motion. As supporting evidence for the reality of what we see, we know that we can move our heads to track the movement of an object appearing in our visual field — a flying bird, say — in such a way that the image recorded by our visual system does not move: we keep the bird constantly centered in our field of vision. We aren’t fooled by the static shot captured by our eyes into thinking that the bird is suspended mid-flight. Why not? Because we’re moving our heads, and also because the other objects in the visual field surrounding the bird appear to be in motion relative to the bird — as if everything other than the bird is moving backward. This is the sort of observation — a sort of ecological phenomenology of visual perception — that J.J. Gibson offered to empirical psychology back in the 60s and 70s, keeping the field’s nascent cognitivism from getting too solipsistic.

Similarly, a fiction writer can write a bunch of sentences and from those textual fragments a fictional character will emerge. It’s an illusion: the character isn’t real; the reader assembles from the author’s sentences a simulated person who looks, acts, speaks, and thinks in particular and consistent ways. We could argue that, because the fiction-writer’s trick works, we should regard the way in which we perceive and understand others who populate the real world as similarly fictional, and that all we encounter are the solipsistic projections we impose on them. But, as with the video game, the fictional character works because we’ve learned to extract information about real people populating our environment by attending to and understanding meaningful sentences uttered by and about them.

So: should we regard simulations of objects and people, these trompes l’oeil with emergent properties that depend on our ability to assemble and interpret information in self-deceptive ways, as real and autonomous objects? Or are the arrays of on/off cells and word strings really real, whereas the emergent objects and people that we assemble from the raw sensory input are unreal? Or are these emergent objects and people real to us, subjectively and intersubjectively, but not real in themselves?

Get Out

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:55 pm

Which protester would you find more persuasive and energizing; with which would you be more likely to join forces in concerted political action: the strident grimacer, or the ingratiating smiler? Maybe it’s the sign that sucks?

grimace get out

smiling get out

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