30 June 2011

Inferential Perception

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:27 am

My morning walk took me on a mesa overlooking a cow pasture. In the corner of the pasture is a pond and, this morning, in the pond was a… what? The first feature I could distinguish was the head, lifting out of the water on a longish neck. The torso was spotted black and white. Four legs could be discerned. Not a cow, surely: too skinny for that. A horse? It had the triangular head for it. But there was something funny about the head: bright white, nearly gleaming; triangular like a horse’s, but if anything too triangular, like a poorly-drawn head of a horse, and seemingly too big for the body supporting it. And the legs: why could I see all four of them extended, as if the horse was floating on its side? But surely it wasn’t dead, since the first feature I had seen was the head, stretched up and out of the water on its long neck. My attention was momentarily distracted by cars moving along the road beyond the far edge of the pond. Looking back to the pond I suddenly realized that the horse was actually larger than the cars, maybe twenty feet long — far too big to be a horse. And the pattern of black and white spots had shifted, and was in fact still shifting as I continued to walk at an oblique angle to it. The pond, in contrast, retained its consistent flat grey-green color. Then, suddenly, I realized that I had it all wrong. What I’d been looking at wasn’t an object in the pond. It was a part of the pond’s surface, the only part not covered by pond scum. What I had taken to be the mottled pelt of an animal turned out to be a reflection of the partly cloudy sky behind it, its pattern changing with the wind and with my movement relative to the reflective patch of pond surface.

Smaller, more intricately patterned in light and shadow, more irregularly shaped than its background, this patch of clear pond carried all the visual signals by which one typically distinguishes figure from ground, object from context. Trying to discern what sort of thing this anomalous object actually was — during those two or three seconds of confusion I had engaged in an act of conscious attention and categorization and inference, whereby I repeatedly compared the features and the whole of what I was seeing with abstracted representations compiled in my memory from other specific objects I’d previously encountered and for which I had names. But the initial perception of this shape as a 3D object backgrounded against the 2D surface of the pond: that was nearly instantaneous, preconscious. But it wasn’t a direct perception. What hit my retinas as I looked at the pond was a 2D array of light in varying colors and luminances. Nearly instantaneously and unconsciously, I had transformed this luminance array into a perceptual representation of the 3D landscape I was looking at, assembled not only from the immediate sensory input extracted from the world but also from memory-driven unconscious inferences for making sense of the sensory input. It’s how perception works all the time.

*  *  *

In his clear and thorough and excellent post about concepts, Pete Wolfendale describes, via Kant and Brandom, the iterative process by which people revise their judgments about the world based on experience of the world. “This is,” says Pete, “the theoretical role of reason in constituting a unified account of nature.” Pete endorses what he calls “thick practices” of discerning reality:

“The causal features of the objects themselves act as constraints upon the development of our dispositions to respond to them in perception and action, and via them upon our dispositions to reason about them.”

Our “dispositions to respond” iteratively and inferentially to the world need not be stated explicitly, in the form of rules for understanding the world and for sorting its objects into categories. Usually the norms are implicit, to be inferred from patterns of  practice in engaging the world. Making norms explicit, in the form of statements communicated via language, is essential if humans are going to help one other recognize errors in their idiosyncratic subjective understandings of the world, and if they are going to learn new truths about the world discovered by others. But it’s also the case that an individual in isolation can correct an erroneous understanding of the world through activating the iterative practice of comparing features of the world with dispositions for interpreting those features.

While it’s possible to describe the iterative processes underlying perception propositionally, there is no reason to assert that the practice is intrinsically linguistic. Cognitive processes can operate without ever coming into conscious awareness. Conscious thinking is a relatively slow process, requiring focused attention on a relatively small number of features extracted from the world or from memory. In perceiving one’s immediate environment it’s more efficient, and more thorough, to rely on distributed, unconscious cognitive operations for iterating between sensory input and representations of prior perceptual arrays stored in memory. Perceptual inference need not rely on implicit reason or propositional logic, as evidenced for example by the observation that many other mammalian species improve through experience their abilities to navigate environments, not just by following a few well-defined trails but by staking out new paths and shortcuts they’ve never taken before.

The contention that inferential processes for understanding the world need not be conscious or even rational does not obviate Pete’s ideas about the importance of concepts and propositions in achieving a better understanding of what the world is really like. Though human reasoning and language are qualitatively different from and arguably better than the cognitive capacities of other animals, these abilities didn’t just come out of nowhere. The ability iteratively to compare concepts with the objects they represent evolved incrementally from similar comparative practices that don’t rely on concepts. And, like other mammalian species, we still deploy these non-conceptual iterative practices whenever we are actively perceiving the world we live in.

28 June 2011

The Interrogative Mood by Powell, 2009

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 9:23 pm

Would you rather be beaten with a board or a chain? Does any particular person strike you as the most intelligent you have seen or known? Have you ever participated in a cakewalk? What do you take on popcorn? Do you know what is meant by high explosive? What term would most accurately oppose the term “rigorous argument”? Would you rather spend an hour driving a hot rod or talking to a whore? If you could elect to find yourself in a Mahogany Chris-Craft powerboat on Lake Michigan in 1930 and then live out the life of that person in that time without returning to your life in this time, would you? Have you ever bred mice? Do you like tar? Do you know much about plate tectonics? Do you regard yourself as redeemed, redeemable, or irretrievably lost? Do you find that the flavor butter pecan, as in butter-pecan ice cream, sounds better than it tastes? What is the loudest noise you have ever heard? Have you done any mountain climbing? Would you eat a monkey? What broke your heart?

When the going gets tough, are you one of the tough that gets going? Have you ever dreamed you had apartments you were only sometimes aware you had? Do you have any ballet training, and if not, would you like some? Have you ever seen Newton’s Optiks? I have a vision of Debbie Marsden in a light blue dress saying somewhat proudly as we did the dishes that we would not do the flatware because “Mommie scalds these”; have you ever heard of someone boiling the silverware in her own household? Do you think Debbie Marsden might have become maladjusted somehow? Do you think there is any statistical merit to the possibility that quiet shy girls stand a chance higher in proportion to that of more robust girls of turning nymphomaniac?

27 June 2011

Dog Jog

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:40 am

Here’s something I’d never seen before: a woman and her seeing-eye dog out for a run.

After we passed each other I turned to watch their approach to the next intersection. The dog looked around and behind, presumably checking traffic (there was none), then the two of them proceeded across the road without slowing down.

25 June 2011

Salem’s Lot by King, 1975

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 9:15 am

His bedroom door opened two minutes later, but there was still enough time to set things to rights.

“Son?” Henry Petrie asked softly. “Are you awake?”

“I guess so,” Mark answered sleepily.

“Did you have a bad dream?”

“I… think so. I don’t remember.”

“You called out in your sleep.”


“No, don’t be sorry.” He hesitated and then spoke from earlier memories of his son, a small child in a blue blanket-suit that had been much more trouble but infinitely more explicable. “Do you want a drink of water?”

“No thanks, Dad.”

Henry Petrie surveyed the room briefly, unable to understand the trembling feeling of dread he had wakened with, and which lingered still — a feeling of disaster averted by cold inches. Yes, everything seemed all right. The window was shut. Nothing was knocked over.

“Mark, is anything wrong?”

“No, Dad.”

“Well… g’night then.”


“The door shut softly and his father’s slippered feet descended the stairs. Mark let himself go limp with relief and delayed reaction.  An adult might have had hysterics at this point, as a slightly younger or older or child might also have done. But Mark felt the terror slip from him in almost imperceptible degrees, and the sensation reminded him of letting the wind dry you after you had been swimming on a cool day. And as the terror left, drowsiness began to come in its place.

Before drifting away entirely, he found himself reflecting — not for the first time — on the peculiarity of adults. They took laxatives, liquor, or sleeping pills to drive away their terrors so that sleep would come, and their terrors were tame and domestic: the job, the money, what the teacher will think if I can’t get Jennie nicer clothes, does my wife still love me, who are my friends. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hopes of perfect understanding but another child. There is no group therapy or psychiatry or social services for the child who must cope with the thing under the bed or in the cellar every night, the thing which leers and capers and threatens just beyond the point where vision will reach. The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.

In some shorter, simpler mental shorthand, these thoughts passed through his brain. The night before, Matt Burke had faced such a dark thing and been stricken by a heart seizure brought on by fright; tonight Mark Petrie had faced one, and ten minutes later lay in the lap of sleep, the plastic cross still clasped loosely in his right hand like a child’s rattle. Such is the difference between men and boys.

11 June 2011

The Land at the End of the World by Antunes, 1979

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 3:01 pm

Do you fancy another Drambuie? Talking about elixirs always makes me long for syrupy, amber-yellow liquids in the vain hope that, through them and the gentle, cheerful dizziness they provoke, I might discover the secret life of people, an emotional squaring of the circle. Sometimes, by the sixth or seventh glass, I feel that I’m almost there, that I’m about to grasp it, that the clumsy tweezers of my understanding are about to pick up, with surgical caution, the delicate nucleus of the mystery, but then I immediately sink into the formless glee of inarticulate idiocy from which I only extricate myself the following day, by dint of aspirin and antacids, stumbling over my slippers on the way to work, carrying with me the hopeless opacity of my existence, as thick with the mud of enigmas as the half-dissolved sugar in my morning cup of coffee.

. . .

Whenever you examine people closely, they begin, imperceptibly, to take on not so much a familiar aspect but a kind of posthumous profile, which we dignify with our fantasy about their future disappearance. Fondness, friendship, even a degree of tenderness all become easier, being pleasant becomes effortless, idiocy takes on the amiably seductive quality of ingenuousness.

. . .

Like this bar and its Art Nouveau lamps in dubious taste, its customers, heads together, whispering delicious banalities, caught up in the sweet euphoria of alcohol, the background music lending to our smiles the mysterious depth of feelings we have never had: another half bottle of wine and we’ll think ourselves Vermeer, as skilled as he was at translating, through the domestic simplicity of a gesture, the touching, inexpressible bitterness of our condition.

. . .

I had become a man: a kind of sad, cynical greed made up of lascivious despair, egotism, and an eagerness to hide from myself had replaced forever the fragile pleasure of childish joy, of open, unreserved laughter, embalmed in purity, and which at night, when I’m walking home down a deserted street, I still seem to hear echoing at my back like a mocking cascade.

. . .

Why the hell doesn’t anyone talk about this? I’m beginning to think that the one million five hundred thousand men who went to Africa never existed and that I’m just giving you some spiel, the ludicrous plot of a novel, a story I invented to touch your heart — one-third bullshit, one-third booze, one-third genuine tenderness, you know the kind of thing — just so that we can cut to the chase more quickly and end up watching the dawn together in the pale blue light that seeps through the shutters and rises up from the sheets, revealing the sleeping curve of a buttock, the profile of someone facedown on the mattress, our bodies fused in an entirely unenigmatic torpor.

. . .

Sitting on the back seat of the taxi, with the sound of the ticking meter pulsing like suppressed throbs in my throat, I was trying desperately to recognize my city through the windows covered in pimples of water that slid down the glass, slow as glycerin, but all I could see, in the precarious tremor of the headlights, were the swift profiles of trees and houses that seemed to me swathed in the atmosphere of devout, solitary widowhood that I associate with certain provincial towns when the parish hall isn’t showing some pious film bemoaning the lack of candidates for the priesthood.


8 June 2011

The Bad and the Beautiful by Minnelli, 1952

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:41 pm

7 June 2011

Raging Bull by Scorsese, 1980

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:19 am

2 June 2011

On Bullshit by Frankfurt, 2005

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Language — ktismatics @ 2:56 pm

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.

[. . .]

Undoubtedly, much humbug is pretentious. So far as concerns bullshit, moreover, “pretentious bullshit” is close to being a stock phrase. But I am inclined to think that when bullshit is pretentious, this happens because pretentiousness is its motive rather than a constitutive element of its essence. The fact that a person is behaving pretentiously is not, it seems to me, part of what is required to make his utterance an instance of bullshit. It is often, to be sure, what accounts for his making that utterance. However, it must not be assumed that bullshit always and necessarily has pretentiousness as its motive.

[. . .]

It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who — with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth — dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.

[. . .]

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

[. . .]

The alternative to telling a lie is “bullshitting one’s way through.” This involves not merely producing one instance of bullshit; it involves a program of producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require. Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.

On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. but the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberate than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”

[. . .]

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

[. . .]

For most people, the fact that a statement is false constitutes in itself a reason, however weak and easily overridden, not to make the statement. For the bullshitter it is in itself neither a reason in favor nor a reason against. Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits oneself to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

[. . .]

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “antirealist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.

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