Virtual and Fictional Properties

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?


  1. sam carr says:

    We have to try to ‘fill in the gaps’ in order to try to begin to interact with the real world that’s out there. The gaps may be real or they may be due to the limitations of perception or cognition. It’s a tough job figuring out which is which. This same ability is applied to all things including our art. What we perceive of the artist’s creation may not correspond to the artist’s intent, but in art does that matter? I hope it does yet I’m not sure that I should…


    1. john doyle says:

      “It’s a tough job figuring out which is which.”

      I agree, Sam: this is part of the job of science, distinguishing features of minds from features of the outside world. This isn’t mind/body dualism: what happens inside minds is real enough. It’s more a matter of understanding the causes and properties and processes from which these varying kinds of realities differentiate and sustain themselves. I think it does matter to make these kinds of distinctions: to do so is to put a particular kind of “difference engine” to work, extending reality just a bit further through its investigations and artifices.


  2. john doyle says:

    Levi Bryant responds on his own post to which I linked, as well as on this follow-up post. Two features immediately stand out in Levi’s formulations that trouble me a bit. He says that the distinction I make between real and illusion is itself unreal, and that illusions have their own reality. So, e.g., the game presents a display that looks like a shape is moving across the screen whereas in material fact the shape is being dismantled and replaced by another shape at each iteration of the game’s algorithm. However, the appearance of movement we perceive is real in its own right, and therefore it is real period — not less real than real movement. That’s fair enough: an illusion is a real illusion. From a scientific perspective, though, part of the work is to decouple illusion, which is an artifact of human subjectivity, from the actual objects and processes in the world and in the brain. I.e., part of the work is to make differences between real illusions and real material happenings and real cognitive processes.

    The other idea that struck me was Levi’s contention that some emergent properties of a complex object can manifest themselves in the object while others can manifest themselves elsewhere in the world. So, e.g., an emergent property of the game is the impression of animated critters and ships and so on that implant themselves in the minds of the game’s players. Or an emergent property of a rock rolling down a hill is the newly-crushed state of a blade of grass the rock encountered on its path. Here emergence becomes a property not of the object from which the property emerged, but of the connections between the object and its environment. It’s as if the object throws its properties onto other objects, causing them to change. This I guess is in keeping with the second part of Bryant’s ontological maxim of “difference that makes a difference.” I’ll have to give it further thought.


  3. Wow, you get a personal response from the big guy himself, you are not entirely rejected then, there’s still a chance – I am so jealous!


  4. john doyle says:

    Is your jealousy an emergent property of the Big Guy’s response? Does the jealousy-object exist in his response, or in your head, or in comment #3 to this post? Is my acceptance real or illusory, or is your perception of my acceptance reality enough? By the way, I think someone should create troll and vampire avatars for posting as memic responses to annoyingly off-topic comments LIKE YOURS, Mikhail.

    I should have mentioned on my response to Sam that theology too operates a difference engine;e.g., does the fault lie in the stars or in ourselves?


  5. [head explodes] – me needs to think… hard…


  6. john doyle says:

    No need to answer, Mikhail — just add another question to the list. It’s fun!

    Meanwhile, I’d say that the work entailed in distinguishing physical motion from virtual motion, or distinguishing acceptance by another from the impression of acceptance, is a difference that makes a difference. Knowledge too is real, comprised of a bunch of knowledge-objects, pointing to but distinct from the objects known.


  7. The narcissistic cat says ”What he draws attention to are certain physical constraints in matter that give rise to persistent organization under specific conditions.”

    But I would go back for a moment to our little discussion of exploding the frame. I remembered in the meantime that I once saw a brilliant animator’s lecture where she showed the following: sometimes when in frame A you draw one expression, and then in frame B a completely unrelated/disjointed/illogical expression, you get by some strange form of ”alchemy” a completely inexplicable (in terms of animation language as well as the laws of cinematic projection) expression. Because the two frames are separated by a gap, which now seems to paradoxically bring them together, you could not say that the (”emergent”) effect is caused by physical constraints???


  8. Or is this maybe exactly the illustration of the point, because the two frames generate a being despite the animator’s intentions, so in this sense you could say the drawings themselves make their own art?


  9. john doyle says:

    You’re right about the juxtaposition of frames generating emergent properties, VOPR. Now what about the cut, the gap? It’s there to show that (what seemed like) a complete and continuous reality can be divided from itself. These are the two complementary moves of differentiation: clumping and splitting. Merging two objects into a composite object generates emergent properties. In dividing one object into two separate fragments, each fragment acquires autonomous object-value and emergent properties of its own.


  10. john doyle says:

    Regarding emergence and art and “drawings making their own art,” here’s more from Paul Valéry:

    “In every created work there is a union of desire, idea, action and material. The relations between these are very diverse, far from simple, and at times so subtle that they cannot possibly be expressed. When this is so — when, that is, we can find no sort of formula that will represent and define a work and thus enable us to imagine it as being made and remade at will — then that work is a work of art.

    “The nobility of an art depends on the purity of the desire that gives rise to it, and the artist’s uncertainty as to the happy outcome of his activity. The more uncertain he is of the results of his efforts, on account of the nature of the material he wrestles with and the means he employs of subjugating it, the purer is his desire and the more evident his worth.”


  11. Merging two objects into a composite object generates emergent properties.

    Eloise, the objects in this context are NOT merged, they are two frames displayed at 25 fr per second, the time gap remains between them, as does the blank line on the film strip, and YET, as the Gypsy woman said, THERE IS THE MAGICK. So maybe the narcissistic cat’s whole point is that AKSHIONS HAVE KONSEQUENCES AND YET THERE IS THE MAGICK.

    The narcissistic cat bricoleur has already spent quite some words chastizing us not to privilege the signifying function of the sign, but to embrace its materiality AS WELL.

    In the ”overlap” between the two frames, a hauntological ”third frame” is created which is this uncanny character expression that you instantly recognize as new, as alien, it comes from the Beyond. But where does it come from? From the interaction of the drawings themselves, from the interaction of the pencils, from God, from human…? But I know one thing for sure, the drawings are not constrained, or they are fairly negligibly constrained by the medium (there’s no limit to a draughtsman’s imagination). So I don’t think it is the material itself that creates the effect in this case, it comes from the No-Place.


  12. So I want to underline, it neither exactly comes from the artist (he didn’t plan the effect), nor does it come from the medium (though the framing and the projection speed make it possible), it comes from nowhere.


  13. Eloise I think the problem is really what my hero and Asia Argento’s loverboy Shaviro stated in his brilliant dismissal of the Egyptian Temptress’s seductions, that is to say, that the Temptress pays no attention to the PROCESS, and keeps on ranting about objects as static and isolated entities. I think this is basically what I meant when I asked what the significance of the objects is for humans if they’re unknowable, only seems like this Whitehead already gave the answer.


    1. john doyle says:

      Regarding process, that’s the reason I distinguished between the actual motion of an object versus the apparent motion of the computer game. Motion is a process affecting the object; the computer game simulates motion by rapidly iterating a sequence of static positions, tricking our visual system into thinking that real motion is occurring. The visual perception of both phenomena are real enough, but vision too is a process: the eye extracts information from the environment and sends it to the brain for interpretation. The process of motion can be faked; the process of visual perception can be fooled. Process, not just stasis.


  14. ”A little boy went out to play. When he opened the door, he saw the world.
    As he walked out of the door, he caused a reflection. EVIL WAS BORN, AND FOLLOWED THE BOY.”

    Eloise I think the Doppelganger comes out of this ”nowhere” I am talking about, the Beyond,
    the Other-Worldly. It is because he is supermposed over dimensions. Whether you argue
    him as material (in some gnostic format) or as spectral (more in the Christian tradition),
    we’re talking about the same thing, a virtual or spectral or ”astral” as some people call it
    surpluss, excess, that simultaneously has its OWN LIFE and is as real as the person who
    caused it, the boy who caused the reflection.


    1. john doyle says:

      God isn’t dead, he’s unconscious — isn’t that what Lacan said? Most of what we say and do comes out of the unconscious, and if we reflect consciously on it we cannot readily say how these ideas and brush strokes came to us. We don’t have very good direct access to the unconscious, as I’m sure you’d agree. It seems mysterious, spectral, as if it came from nowhere or from the Beyond — at least that’s how interpret it.


  15. Anyway Eloise I have a problem here because I sense this inclination to mix mathematics with art, and they are two ontologically incompatible realms despite Dominique Dworkin’s attempt to marry them, she still plays the guitar separately from writing software. The self-generating aspect of these eerily alive objects, is of course related to AI and the necessiry of reconciling with the coming artificial intelligence. However this is still a far cry from human creativity, which can JUST make things. I furthermore object to the bricoleur’s marriage of cognitive psychology terms like affordance with language more in the Continental vein. Like the cat’s forgotten Lacan’s primary lesson that language speaks us, so that the word ”affordance” already conjures up boring pseudo-intellectual movies with no creativity.


  16. john doyle says:

    I realize this sort of thing isn’t your cup of tea, VOPR. Having spent some quality time recently at Larval Subjects, I’ve gotten a better glimpse of how Levi intends to populate the world with objects as he builds his ontological scheme. And it’s true that the object-oriented approach does open up some interesting questions. Here’s the meta-question for me: is my interest stimulated entirely by others’ interests; are the ideas, meme-like, populating my brain of their own accord; or am I groping toward something like an object-oriented psychology (OOPsy?)? Anyhow, I’m not critiquing Sinthome’s model directly; instead I’m trying to think some of these things through in my own terms. Philosophizing and scientizing might not be art, but they can be creative.


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