14 December 2013

Jonathan Edwards, Calvinist Neuroscientist

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:21 pm

Despite the best of intentions, I keep finding myself drawn back into the ongoing kerfuffle surrounding novelist-blogger Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory. The core premise — that humans are unable through introspection to understand their own thinking — is undeniable, though I’d regard human self-reflexivity as correctably presbyopic rather than blind. I’m also okay with regarding mind as coextensive with neural activities centered in the brain and distributed throughout the body. And while I believe that people do formulate intentions and act on them, I’m also in agreement that intents, like other natural processes, are the effects of causes. (Of course, just because I give intellectual assent doesn’t mean that I renounce my self-image as fully autonomous free agent.]

While Bakker frames and buttresses his contentions primarily with his interpretation of contemporary neuroscience, the controversy has a long history. When I was back there in seminary school, most of my profs were Calvinists, and so was I. Predicated largely on the Pauline New Testament writings, the core contention of Calvinism can be stated succinctly: the person doesn’t choose God; God chooses the person. And yet isn’t it true that the sinner who comes to God acknowledges his depravity, repents, accepts the salvation freely offered through Christ’s death and resurrection? In other words, doesn’t salvation hinge on the sinner’s intention as an autonomous agent to choose good over evil? Sure, said Calvin, but that intention is the result of God’s grace working in the sinner, causing him to form the necessary intentions leading to his salvation. And that grace is irresistible: he whom God chooses to save will invariably and inevitably make the intentional act of choosing God.

Most Americans know Jonathan Edwards as the author of the fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But Edwards wasn’t just a motivational speaker; he was also a theologian, and a great one. In his multivolume Freedom of the Will (1754), Edwards set out to explain that human intentions and the will to act on them are, like other natural events, the effects of causes and therefore not free. In particular, intentions are shaped by motives, which may conflict with each other. Motives jostle for preference outside of the person’s awareness, with the winner “exciting” volition and shaping the will. Though he doesn’t use the term “unconscious” to describe this internal conflict among motives, that’s what Edwards is talking about.

Educated at Yale and an enthusiastic student of Enlightenment science, Edwards traces a trajectory that leads into contemporary neuroscience. I suppose you could say that, when it comes to intentionality, I’m still a Calvinist but without the overriding determinations of the Prime Intender.

Here are some particularly telling excerpts:


Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 1754


The activity of the soul may enable it to be the cause of effects; but it don’t at all enable or help it to be the subject of effects which have no cause… Activity of nature will no more enable a being to produce effects, and determine the manner of their existence, within itself, without a cause, than out of itself, in some other being. But if an active being should, through its activity, produce and determine an effect in some external object, how absurd would it be to say, that the effect was produced without a cause!

…The mind’s being a designing cause, only enables it to produce effects in consequence of its design; it will not enable it to be the designing cause of all its own designs. The mind’s being an elective cause, will only enable it to produce effects in consequence of its elections, and according to them; but can’t enable it to be the elective cause of all its own elections; because that supposes an election before the first election. So the mind’s being an active cause enables it to produce effects in consequence of its own acts, but can’t enable it to be the determining cause of all its own acts; for that is still in the same manner a contradiction; as it supposes a determining act conversant about the first act, and prior to it, having a causal influence on its existence, and manner of existence.


Tis a thing chiefly insisted on by Arminians, in this controversy, as a thing most important and essential in human liberty, that volitions, or the acts of the will, are contingent events; understanding contingence as opposite, not only to constraint, but to all necessity. Therefore I would particularly consider this matter…

To suppose there are some events which have a cause and ground of their existence, that yet are not necessarily connected with their cause, is to suppose that they have a cause which is not their cause. Thus, if the effect be not necessarily connected with the cause, with its influence, and influential circumstances; then, as I observed before, ’tis a thing possible and supposable, that the cause may sometimes exert the same influence, under the same circumstances, and yet the effect not follow. And if this actually happens in any instance, this instance is a proof, in fact, that the influence of the cause is not sufficient to produce the effect. For if it had been sufficient, it would have done it. And yet, by the supposition, in another instance, the same cause, with perfectly the same influence, and when all circumstances which have any influence, are the same, it was followed with the effect. By which it is manifest, that the effect in this last instance was not owing to the influence of the cause, but must come to pass some other way. For it was proved before, that the influence of the cause was not sufficient to produce the effect. And if it was not sufficient to produce it, then the production of it could not be owing to that influence, but must be owing to something else, or owing to nothing. And if the effect be not owing to the influence of the cause, then it is not the cause. Which brings us to the contradiction, of a cause, and no cause, that which is the ground and reason of the existence of a thing, and at the same time is not the ground and reason of its existence, nor is sufficient to be so.


[E]very act of the will is some way connected with the understanding, and is as the greatest apparent good is, in the manner which has already been explained; namely, that the soul always wills or chooses that which, in the present view of the mind, considered in the whole of that view, and all that belongs to it, appears most agreeable…

I am sensible, the Doctor’s [Daniel Whitby, an Arminian] aim in these assertions is against the Calvinists; to show, in opposition to them, that there is no need of any physical operation of the Spirit of God on the will, to change and determine that to a good choice, but that God’s operation and assistance is only moral, suggesting ideas to the understanding; which he supposes to be enough, if those ideas are attended to, infallibly to obtain the end. But whatever his design was, nothing can more directly and fully prove, that every determination of the will, in choosing and refusing, is necessary; directly contrary to his own notion of the liberty of the will. For if the determination of the will, evermore, in this manner, follows the light, conviction and view of the understanding, concerning the greatest good and evil, and this be that alone which moves the will, and it be a contradiction to suppose otherwise; then it is necessarily so, the will necessarily follows this light or view of the understanding, not only in some of its acts, but in every act of choosing and refusing. So that the will don’t determine itself in any one of its own acts; but all its acts, every act of choice and refusal, depends on, and is necessarily connected with some antecedent cause; which cause is not the will itself, nor any act of its own, nor anything pertaining to that faculty, but something belonging to another faculty, whose acts go before the will, in all its acts, and govern and determine them every one…

And let us suppose as many acts of the will, one preceding another, as we please, yet they are everyone of them necessarily determined by a certain degree of light in the understanding, concerning the greatest and most eligible good in that case; and so, not one of them free according to Dr. Whitby’s notion of freedom…

If liberty consists in that which Arminians suppose, viz. in the will’s determining its own acts, having free opportunity, and being without all necessity; this is the same as to say, that liberty consists in the soul’s having power and opportunity to have what determinations of the will it pleases or chooses. And if the determinations of the will, and the last dictates of the understanding be the same thing, then liberty consists in the mind’s having power to have what dictates of the understanding it pleases, having opportunity to choose its own dictates of understanding. But this is absurd; for it is to make the determination of choice prior to the dictate of understanding, and the ground of it; which can’t consist with the dictate of understanding’s being the determination of choice itself.


That every act of the will has some cause, and consequently (by what has been already proved) has a necessary connection with its cause, and so is necessary by a necessity of connection and consequence, is evident by this, that every act of the will whatsoever, is excited by some motive: which is manifest, because, if the will or mind, in willing and choosing after the manner that it does, is excited so to do by no motive or inducement, then it has no end which it proposes to itself, or pursues in so doing; it aims at nothing, and seeks nothing. And if it seeks nothing, then it don’t go after anything, or exert any inclination or preference towards anything. Which brings the matter to a contradiction; because for the mind to will something, and for it to go after something by an act of preference and inclination, are the same thing.

But if every act of the will is excited by a motive, then that motive is the cause of the act of the will. If the acts of the will are excited by motives, then motives are the causes of their being excited; or, which is the same thing, the cause of their being put forth into act and existence. And if so, the existence of the acts of the will is properly the effect of their motives. Motives do nothing as motives or inducements, but by their influence; and so much as is done by their influence, is the effect of them. For that is the notion of an effect, something that is brought to pass by the influence of another thing.

And if volitions are properly the effects of their motives, then they are necessarily connected with their motives. Every effect and event being, as was proved before, necessarily connected with that which is the proper ground and reason of its existence. Thus it is manifest, that volition is necessary, and is not from any self-determining power in the will: the volition which is caused by previous motive and inducement, is not caused by the will exercising a sovereign power over itself, to determine, cause and excite volitions in itself…

There is such a thing as a diversity of strength in motives to choice, previous to the choice itself. Mr. Chubb himself  [Thomas Chubb, a deist] supposes, that they do “previously invite,” “induce,” “excite” and “dispose the mind to action.” This implies, that they have something in themselves that is inviting, some tendency to induce and dispose to volition, previous to volition itself. And if they have in themselves this nature and tendency, doubtless they have it in certain limited degrees, which are capable of diversity; and some have it in greater degrees, others in less; and they that have most of this tendency, considered with all their nature and circumstances, previous to volition, they are the strongest motives; and those that have least, are the weakest motives…

[N]ow if motives excite the will, they move it… And again (if language is of any significance at all) if motives excite volition, then they are the cause of its being excited; and to cause volition to be excited, is to cause it to be put forth or exerted… To excite, is positively to do something; and certainly that which does something, is the cause of the thing done by it. To create, is to cause to be created; to make, is to cause to be made; to kill, is to cause to be killed; to quicken, is to cause to be quickened; and to excite, is to cause to be excited. To excite, is to be a cause, in the most proper sense, not merely a negative occasion, but a ground of existence by positive influence. The notion of exciting, is exerting influence to cause the effect to arise or come forth into existence.

12 November 2013

Way Out

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:08 pm

Truth be told, Stephen had been looking for a way out for quite some time. His friends, seeing him apparently mired in the sort of midlife crisis they could comprehend, eagerly and repeatedly shared with him the self-help tips they’d latched onto for getting themselves on track toward a more desirable future. Invariably these tips converged on the same basic scheme. Listen to your True Self. Discover your Passion. Become childlike. Believe in yourself. Be present and live in the moment. Visualize the future you want, make a plan, and relentlessly pursue your plan until you arrive at the desired destination. These were not the sort of tips that inspired Stephen.

“What if my True Self turns out to be an asshole?”

“Well in your case…”

“What if it turns out my Passion is to be the object of worship for everyone around me?”

“Well that’s pretty shallow, Stephen. You need to look deeper.”

“How do you know that’s not the deepest, truest me? Maybe if you looked deeper you’d realize that you really want to be a serial killer.”

“Look, nobody’s forcing you to read the damn book.”

 “No really. The inner voice that’s telling you it wants six million dollars and a nice vacation villa in Tuscany – how do you know it’s really your True Self, and not just another imposter taking his turn at the microphone? Besides, aren’t you a little suspicious that everyone’s True Self wants pretty much the same things: chronic happiness, lots of money, good weather, universal admiration? Maybe everyone’s gone too deep. Maybe we’re all delving somewhere down below unique individuality into the universal unconscious, where everything is pure narcissism, will to power, and the longing for fabulousness.”

 “Okay fine. So what are you offering up that’s better? Not to get too critical here, Stephen, but what I see is a guy who hasn’t made a dime in I don’t know how long, who’s probably going to have to sell his house, who if anything seems even less happy than the rest of us. Man, sign me up for what you’re selling.”

After awhile Stephen started avoiding these conversations. It was true: he had a fairly strong sense of what was wrong with the good life, but not much to offer by way of an alternative. That he was expected to elaborate some optimistic new game plan of his own he regarded as symptomatic of the cultural tyranny he was trying to resist. What’s wrong with a little pessimistic fatalism as the basis for a friendly chat among neighbors?

He wanted to perpetrate his own escape. Not only that: he wanted a language for describing the way out. He wanted something else to do, something else to think about. And so it was that Stephen Hanley became the new Proprietor of the Salon Postisme.


Stephen Hanley is one of my fictional alter-egos. I wanted what he wanted. Making-of: I wanted to write my own escape, the act of writing being the means of escape. Made: I wanted that which I wrote to constitute a language describing the way out, for myself and for my “clients.” Twelve years later, I’m not sure whether Stephen and I have tunneled our way under the wall or dug ourselves into a hole.


Stephen’s wife? She was fine about it.

“What have you been up to? You look like you just had about four espressos.”

“Yeah, well.” Stephen took his shoes off and set them on the mat by the door. “I got a job.”

“A job? I didn’t know you were looking.”

“I wasn’t. As of today I’m the Proprietor of the Salon Postisme.”

“You cut hair now?”

“No, it’s not that. There’s no pay, and I didn’t have to quit any other job, so I figured what the hell?”

“I’ll open the champagne.”


Thus ends chapter 1 of book 1. We try always to have a bottle a champagne in the fridge. There’s one in there now.

7 November 2013

Novel Zero

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:42 pm

This morning at four I woke up from a dream. I was getting ready to defend my dissertation but, as often happens in dreams, I was running late and I couldn’t find the room. I hadn’t really prepared for the defense, mostly because I had already become bored of the topic and the work I had done on it. Do I know my stuff well enough to do the defense without reviewing and rehearsing? I thought that I did. For the first time I realized that it was actually conceivable that I might fail the defense. I found myself walking along the corridor on the third floor of the psych building at the University of Virginia, where I did my doctorate. My old advisor was looking for a different stairway down to the ground floor because the main stairways were impassible, being completely clogged with countless loose sheets of paper.

So I figure: this dream is a reminder from the unconscious that, even before the first novel in the seven-piece ensemble, I’d written another book for which I might want to revisit the making-of.


If we take in our hands any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and evidence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.  – David Hume

Good to do this to Puccini. Relaxing. I wish I were paid… I guess I am paid to do this. What a way to go.  – Subject 36

This is the frontispiece of my dissertation, Expert-Novice Differences in Scientific Journal Scanning. Unlike my dream-self, I was well-prepared for the defense, fully engaged in the process, interested in my work and in the committee members’ responses to it. The defense was great fun. I had reserved a room in the historic Rotunda building, wore my tuxedo, recruited a fellow grad student to serve refreshments before the event. Following a lively discussion all of the committee members signed off. I had attained my merit badge, the Ph.D.

Here is another way of looking at physics: the physicists are men looking for new interpretations of the Book of Nature. After each pedestrian period of normal science, they dream up a new model, a new picture, a new vocabulary, and then announce that the true meaning of the Book had been discovered. But of course, it never is, any more than is the true meaning of Coriolanus or the Dunciad or the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Philosophical Investigations. What makes them physicists is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are somehow “talking about the same thing,” the invisibilia Dei sive naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge.  – Richard Rorty

Rorty was a Professor in the English Department at UVA while I was a grad student there. I went across campus to hear him deliver a lecture on Freud — the only Freud I heard during my years pursuing doctoral work in psychology. I attended Rorty’s colloquium in the Psych Department, a presentation met mostly by the blank-stared indifference of my profs and colleagues. But I had read his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; I was aware that Rorty regarded science not as an “accumulation of truths about the world” but as a kind of writing, a collection of artifacts made of words, not so different from fiction.

Subsequently I discovered that Rorty’s view is snugly embedded in  “normal” continental philosophy of science, but as a science student I deemed his ideas about science worthy of empirical investigation. I gravitated toward the scientific study of scientific writing, conducting a series of studies investigating citation patterns in scientific journal articles. And of scientific reading. I had read Fish and Culler and Iser on “the reader in the text,” I subscribed to social  studies of science journals, I even read some Derrida. My dissertation chronicled observations of and interviews with doctoral students and professors in Ecology, Physiology, and Microbiology as they read new research articles in their fields. While there might be good reasons to consign the volume to the flames, my diss would pass Hume’s test: the Results and Appendix sections contain precisely 148 pages of instruments and measures, data tables and inferential statistics,  eigenvalues and eigenvectors, Monte Carlo simulations and multivariate canonical predictive models.

But let’s skip the quantities and numbers and jump straight to the sophistry, consigned per long tradition to the concluding Discussion section of the research report. Here’s the last inference from the empirical findings recorded in my Discussion, before it moves on to implications for future work:

In the discussion of Hypothesis 9 it was proposed that moderately experienced subjects would be more interested than the most experienced subjects in working on and reading about the “hot” topics in their fields. Perhaps scientists from the softer disciplines are likewise more oriented toward hot topics than their hard science colleagues. Hagstrom (1964), in his article on “anomy” in science, proposed a thesis which could explain why this might be the case. According to Hagstrom, the continuing growth of hard sciences is threatened from within primarily because of a tendency to restrict attention to only a few heavily-researched topics. Soft sciences, on the other hand, are more prone to the threat of anomy, or normless alienation, among their practitioners. Anomy occurs when the legitimate topics for scientific exploration become so diffuse that no one’s work is relevant to anyone else’s.

The solutions, said Hagstrom, are clear. Hard scientists must branch out into new topics, while soft scientists must concentrate their efforts on relatively fewer topics. Perhaps the subjects in the present study were implicitly following Hagstrom’s advice. Hot topics, shunned as growth-inhibiting by the hard scientists, were being sought out as growth-enhancing by the soft scientists.

The Hagstrom thesis may also be applicable to the expert-novice differences in reference list characteristics discussed in Hypothesis 9. Less experienced subjects, overwhelmed by the endless diversity of legitimate avenues of inquiry open to them, may become engulfed in scientific anomy. The cure: find a topic that many of one’s colleagues agree is important and get involved. Experienced scientists, having worked for years on the same old topics, may be expected to become bored with their work. The antidote: find a new topic that nobody else is working on and take a shot at it.

And here are the concluding two sentences of the text:

It has been argued here that scientific creativity is contingent upon scientific tradition. Those most likely to generate creative science may be those best able to recognize the traditions of science as they evolve in the scientific literature.


It’s been many years since I last looked at my dissertation. Certainly I hadn’t consulted it while envisioning my practice of différance or my cluster of novels. But now, after giving it a quick scan, I find that my dream-double was more bored with it than is my waking self. A number of themes integral to the research program are woven into the later novels. The relationships between external reality and imagination, between truth and text, between science and fiction. The interactions between writer and reader, between individual and collective, between innovation and tradition, between creative passion and group popularity. Anomy and its cure; boredom and its antidote.

If I listen to Rorty then I can regard my dissertation as a kind of fiction. If I listen to myself then I regard my novels as a kind of science, a series of thought experiments conducted on imaginary subjects. For present purposes I’ll call my dissertation Novel Zero in the ongoing series.

8 May 2013

Nobel-Level Self-Assurance

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:17 pm

“This is not the place to go into detail about how the brain gives rise to consciousness. I have done that in several books, which may be consulted.”

– Gerald Edelman, Second Nature (2006)

25 April 2013

Zizek’s Post-Traumatic Speculative Fiction

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:08 am

The past two days I’ve participated in a lively thread about post-traumatic subjectivity at the Attempts at Living blog. In the course of the discussion I became aware of an essay by Slavoj Zizek entitled “Descartes and the Post-Traumatic Subject.” [The Abstract and a link to the PDF of the paper  can be found here.] Having read Zizek’s essay, I’m not sure what value there is in writing a post about it. I once did a lot of PTSD counseling and might do so again in the future. Does Zizek offer practical therapeutic advice? No. Does he reframe post-trauma in a way that has psychoanalytic value? That question might be worth considering, although I regard Zizek’s frame as a constraint to break rather than a context to step into. Does he reposition post-trauma politically? He does, and that’s what I find most objectionable about the essay. Is Zizek claiming that what he writes is true? If so, I don’t see any evidence supporting his truth claims. Alternatively, is Zizek telling a story, writing a kind of fiction, an alternative reality in which characters can act and events can be staged? Previously I’ve concluded that I get the most personal value out of metaphysical speculation if I regard it as a fictional genre. Do I find value in Zizek’s speculative “short story” about the post-traumatic subject? I do. In fact, I think I can adapt it for a chapter in my own fiction that I expect to write next week. So I’ll write this post about Zizek not as a critique but as a kind of summary description of a fictional world, an oppressive apocalyptic vision.

In some realities, what the subject fears is the inability to attain desires. In that sort of reality, trauma is the definitive obstacle to the fulfillment of desire. Trauma maims or kills you so that you cannot pursue your desire. Trauma removes that which you desire from the field of possibility, making further pursuit pointless — learned helplessness. The post-traumatic subject becomes passive, psychically numb, alienated, zombified, reduced to brain and body without a heart and soul. Trauma permanently severs the link between desire and fulfillment. Post-trauma, desire dies because it cannot possibly be fulfilled.

But that’s not how Zizek’s alternate reality works. Zizek begins his story by rehearsing (his version of) the Freudian-Lacanian fiction about trauma: that the victim actually wants to be traumatized.

For Freud (and Lacan), every external trauma is “sublated,” internalized, owing its impact to the way a pre-existing Real of the “psychic reality” is aroused through it. Even the most violent intrusions of the external real — say, the shocking effect on the victims of bomb-explosions of war — owe their traumatic effect to the resonance they find in perverse masochism, the death-drive, in unconscious guilt-feeling, etc.

In ZizekWorld, what one fears is what one desires. And what one desires is to be hurt, to be victimized by the sadist, to be punished, to be dead. I desire what I fear: some might regard this construction as a delusional phantasm, a subjective fiction. Trauma, when it comes, could be regarded as the irruption of the Real, destroying the fantasy, clearing the way for the individual who was previously immersed in a fictional delusion to get a little more real, to start becoming a real subject. But that’s not Zizek’s story. In ZizekWorld, not only does the subjectively Real incorporate the phantasm of imagined trauma: the image of the trauma is central to the subject’s reality.

Why? In Zizek’s fictional universe, as in many other parallel universes, the human subject is activated by desire. But here’s the twist in ZizekWorld: if the subject’s desire is ever fulfilled, then the subject loses the prime motivation to do anything. The object that someone desires is never really the cause of desire; if the object is attained, then desire must shift to some other object, some other potential source of fulfillment that must be pursued. At some unconscious level the person occupying Zizek’s fictional world understands this to be the case: if ever my desire is truly fulfilled, then I have nothing left to motivate me, no emotional engagement in the world.

In ZizekWorld, then, it’s not the permanent impossibility of fulfillment that kills desire. What kills desire is the fulfillment of desire. And so in effect the subject desires that which would kill desire, which would in effect kill the subject. The subjects in ZizekWorld are animated not by libido versus death drive, but by libido intertwined with death drive. And it is trauma that, catastrophically, fulfills the subject’s desire. In trauma, the phantasmatic image of desire held at a distance by the subject suddenly and uncontrollably closes the gap — between subject and object, between desire and fulfillment, between libido and death. Trauma destroys the object of desire because the object was always just a stand-in for death. And now death has come upon the subject, killing the object of desire. And trauma kills the subject of desire too, because the subject is intrinsically organized around desire.

But in ZizekWorld, killing the subject of desire doesn’t kill the subject altogether.

All different forms of traumatic encounters, independently of their specific nature (social, natural, biological, symbolic…), lead to the same result — a new subject emerges which survives its own death, the death (erasure) of its symbolic identity: after the shock, literally, a new subject emerges. Its features are well-known from numerous descriptions: lack of emotional engagement, profound indifference and detachment — it is a subject who is no longer “in-the-world” in the Heideggerian sense of engaged embodied existence. This subject lives death as a new form of life — his life is death-drive embodied, a life deprived of erotic engagement; and this holds for henchmen no less than for his victims.

The resurrected undead zombie subject is born again, its desire fulfilled. Should we feel sorry for the post-traumatic subject, and angry at the perpetrator of the trauma? Not in ZizekWorld.

What if we surmise that the cold indifferent disengaged subjects are NOT suffering at all, that, once their old persona is erased, they enter a blessed state of indifference, that they only appear to us caught in unbearable suffering?

The post-traumatic subject feels no pain because pain, like all feeling, is a product of a subjectivity fueled by desire, and the desiring-subject is dead. What then do trauma and its consequences mean in ZizekWorld? They mean nothing, since meaning is another product of the desiring-subject, a story that the subject tells itself about what it desires and why, how it goes about pursing its desires, why it is thwarted, etc.

In ZizekWorld the post-traumatic subject lives on, without desire, continually repeating the same meaningless sequences of actions again and again, the death drive decoupled from libidinal investment. And who are these “degree zero” subjects, these shells without substance, these “autistic monsters” that populate ZizekWorld? They are the “new proletariat”:

the exploited worker whose product is taken away from him, so that he is reduced to subjectivity without substance, to the void of pure subjective potentiality whose actualization in work process equals its de-realization.

Presumably in ZizekWorld the new proletarian masochistically wants to be exploited, feels he deserves it as punishment for his guilt, wants to be reduced to performing repetitive meaningless tasks. Who else are the post-traumatic subjects occupying ZizekWorld? Those cold-blooded killers, terrorists, and suicide bombers, those mindless followers of orders dictated by their authoritarian leaders, the Muslims:

When one looks an autistic subject (or a “Muslim”) into the eye, one also has the feeling that “there is nobody home.”

I could go on to discuss Zizek’s negate-the-negation shtick, whereby trauma ironically doubles the original primal trauma of symbolic castration from the Mother by the Father, a trauma that creates the subject in the first place. But this is enough I think: I’ve got my own fiction to write. We can certainly envision a Leader in ZizekWorld who organizes the zombified new proletariat in order to accomplish a violent revolution. Even if they’re killed or maimed in the battle it doesn’t mean anything, because they’re already dead, beyond meaning, beyond suffering. Or the ruling class can simply continue to exploit their undead workers, who don’t feel it anymore, who don’t care about anything anymore. Or the Muslims can be bombed into oblivion, since they’re already undead zombies. I can use these fantastic totalitarian speculations of Zizek’s for my own sinister fictional insurgencies…

10 April 2013

Undead Text

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, First Lines, Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:54 am

“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”

That’s the first line of The Shadow of the Wind, a 2004 novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón that I’ve been reading. Yesterday I was searching my document files — my private cemetery of forgotten texts — for a fragment I remember having written, thinking that I might be able to splice it into the fiction I’m presently writing. I never did find what I was looking for, but I did come across a document from 2004 that read like a Ktismatics blog post before Ktismatics even existed. Better late than never, I figured, so I reformatted the document as a post. I titled it “Wallace Stevens, Bond Man.” While proofing it I was remembering a couple of other posts I’d previously written about Wallace Stevens. So I googled myself: it turns out that I had already turned this same text into a Ktismatics post. It’s called On Keeping Your Day Job, posted in August 2007. So it was three years after having written the text that I turned it into a blog post, but that post is nearly six years old now and I’d forgotten all about it. Sometimes even the resurrected texts find their way back into the crypt.

24 March 2013

Wherein I Recall My Prior Life as a Mad Scientist

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:10 am

If the glass is half full, that means it’s also half empty.

After finishing my doctorate I did a postdoc in an AI lab. These were the early, heady days of expert systems, a technology predicated on making explicit the tacit knowledge of human experts, converting the heuristics of human decision-making into conceptual objects and rules for manipulating them that could be run on computers. Our core group consisted of cognitive psychologists and computer scientists, and in building systems we would collaborate with “domain experts” in medicine, business, law, engineering, and other practical disciplines. A standard division of labor was established: the domain experts provided the expertise; the psychologists did the “knowledge engineering,” which consisted of making explicit what the experts knew and how they used that knowledge; the computer scientists designed and built the computer systems encoding the engineered expert knowledge.

Early on I came to a sobering realization: human experts aren’t nearly as good as computers at using knowledge. Humans have limited processing capacity, and so they can’t remember very many things at once, can’t pay attention to very many features of the task in front of them, can’t deal with very many variables at the same time. To compensate for their limitations, humans take various short-cuts and work-arounds in solving complex problems. Computers have limitations too, especially in their ability to acquire new knowledge, but in their ability to process lots of information they vastly outperform humans. Equipped with knowledge already learned by human experts, computers can manipulate this knowledge more efficiently, and more accurately, than can the human experts.

I remember giving a talk in DC to a gathering of all the AI postdocs funded under the same national grant program, working in labs at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, U. of Minnesota, UC San Diego, maybe others (my memory has degraded since then). Most of the talks were about AI work in progress. I talked about the differences between human and computer decision-making. Instead of fancy slides I drew overheads by hand with a black marker. I drew out a simple binary decision tree that went maybe 7 layers deep, pointing out ways in which knowledge and logic interact in actual decision-making tasks, describing how computers are not vulnerable to the same sorts of biases as humans in working through even a fairly simple decision. I remember one of the colleagues at my university telling me afterward that he thought my talk sucked. But I also remember discussing the implications of my presentation with the overall head of the grant program nationwide and one of the pioneering figures in expert systems. It turned out that his group was moving away from having computers imitate human heuristic knowledge toward more reliance on what computers are best at: manipulating numerical information via quantitative algorithms.

While I did some work on a pediatric cardiology expert system, I spent most of my time as a postdoc doing knowledge engineering on two other projects. One was a system for designing so-called fractional factorial experiments, where the domain expert was a statistics professor in the business school. The other was a system for making credit decisions, the domain expert being a professional credit analyst in the insurance industry. In both cases, through conversation and observation, I was gradually able to identify the information the experts looked for in the “task domain” and the ways in which they used this information to render decisions. As had been the case in other domains, these experts used short-cuts and rules of thumb to compensate for human processing limitations. I put together alternative “inference engines” for both of these task domains, with decision-making processes predicated on the heavy number-crunching capacity of computers. I also went ahead and did the programming on both of these systems.

The results should have been predictable. Both the experimental design system and the credit rating system were excellent at performing their respective tasks. Where it was possible to evaluate their decisions in comparison with the “right” answers, the computer systems outperformed the human experts. The human experts acknowledged their machinic doubles’ excellence, even at times conceding their superiority. But they didn’t trust these hybrid expert systems, using their own human knowledge but processing it algorithmically rather than heuristically. They couldn’t understand how these systems thought, how they arrived at their decisions. The systems’ reasoning procedures, more efficient, more consistent, and arguably more accurate than their own, were too opaque, too alien for the human experts to grasp. I concluded that the only way systems like the ones I built would ever be used in real-world decision-making would be if the human experts weren’t sitting around looking over the expert systems’ shoulders second-guessing their decisions. You would need lower-level human technicians to feed the computer systems with data, to read the output, and to enact the systems’ decisions without constantly grousing about robots ruling the world and all the rest of the tedious all-too-human resentment my systems seemed to provoke.

16 March 2013

The Brain’s Glass is Half Full

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:06 am

My brain doesn’t have to understand its own workings in order to work. Even a frog can see a fly, hop toward it, and catch it mid-flight with its tongue, all without knowing how its neuromuscular apparatus accomplishes these feats. I don’t know through introspection how I see and run and catch a ball, how I feel warmth or hunger or sexual arousal, how I understand spoken language or remember the name of my elementary school. Why should I expect my ability to decide and to take intentional action to be any more accessible to introspection than any of these other neurological functions?

Humans are at least partially aware of their own limitations. I don’t have much body fur, but if I turn on the heat inside and put on a coat when I go out I can survive in a cold climate. I can’t outrun a zebra, but if I get in my Jeep and drive after it I can overtake the zebra. I have a hard time remembering a 9-digit number, and even then my memory degrades rapidly, but if I write the 9 digits down I can retrieve them when I need them. Humans build and use tools largely to compensate for their mental and physical limitations: this ability is paradigmatic of human intentionality.

Cognitive psychology as an empirical subdiscipline emerged in the late 60s not from philosophical idealism but from behaviorism, which regarded all behavior as an automatic stimulus-response mechanism unmediated by thought. Cognitive psychology presented empirical evidence supporting the alternative contention that there is a black box intervening between S and R, processing inputs and preparing outputs. Neurologists are exploring more directly how the black box works. But explanation won’t change functionality. When Copernicus figured out that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, and when Galileo confirmed the heliocentric system observationally, people didn’t suddenly spin off the surface of the world and float into space, nor did they suddenly stop seeing the sun rise in the east and set in the west. If a satisfactory empirical explanation of intentionality is achieved, that won’t mean that people will suddenly stop intending or realize that they’d never in their lives actually intended anything.

13 March 2013

Intentionality as Adaptive Mutation

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:18 pm

[This post follows my prior posts on Terrence Deacon’s 2012 Incomplete Nature entitled Why Life? and Reducing the Intentionality Problem.]

I don’t know why or how life evolved from nonlife. Other self-organizing systems, like heat convection or atmospheric currents, are dissipative structures that accelerate the production of entropy in far-from-equilibrium conditions. Organisms do it too, maintaining their negentropic functions by using free energy from their environment, thereby accelerating overall entropy. Maybe that’s what organisms are for: to accelerate the inevitable heat death of the universe. Certainly humans are highly efficient entropy production systems, using not just their own bodily metabolisms but the artifacts they create to suck free energy out of the universe, replacing it with waste, exhaust, and other entropic byproducts.

Regardless of how and why they came into existence, organisms do maintain and reproduce themselves. Organisms that through random mutations achieve incrementally better abilities to obtain access to free energy and to metabolize that energy are more likely to survive and to reproduce. A bacterium doesn’t have to have intentions motivating it to waggle its flagella in search of sunlight and nourishment. A bacterium is a self-organizing system: it spontaneously perpetuates its own equilibrium by means of genetically encoded drives that are sensitive to indicators of environmental energy sources. Presumably it’s cause-effect all the way down.

Suppose the environmental sources of metabolic energy — food — available to an organism are uncertain, quantities are limited, and access is difficult. If following its genetic program the organism pursues an unfruitful path toward food, it will die. Suppose this organism carries a set of mutations that permits it to evaluate the relative likelihood of finding food by pursuing different uncertain trajectories. Suppose the organism is further mutated such that it is able to identify and work around obstacles standing between itself and the food source. These mutations would be adaptive, enhancing the organism’s survival odds, if the extra energy expended in the exercise of its mutated food-finding abilities are more than offset by increased access to sources of energy replenishment.

This whole mutated apparatus is still following straight cause-effect, motivated by genetic instincts attuned to environmental affordances. There is still no need to invoke intentionality. Even if through more mutations this organism became aware of its own enhanced food-finding capabilities, the self-awareness does not imply or require intentionality. I’m aware that I’m presently digesting my supper, but that doesn’t imply that digestion is the result of my intentions.

What if some further mutation occurred in which the organism does achieve intentionality? This mutant creature plans for its next meal even when it has no immediate need to replenish its energy stores, even when there are no signs of food being present in the organism’s immediate environment. Would this mutation prove adaptive? The same conditions are in effect: if intentionality works, and if the exercise of intentionality more than replaces the calories it burns up, then it should enhance the organism’s survival. Is intentionality a straight-ahead cause-effect mechanism? I think it would be better to regard it as a mechanism that anticipates cause-effect based on prior experience — a temporal feed-forward loop. Intentionality is predicated on the anticipated desirable future effects of causal mechanisms that the organism itself puts into operation: if I cause myself to go to the watering hole, this action will probably result in my finding some food there; if my speed covering the distance to the watering hole causes two hours to elapse, then as a result I will probably be hungry by the time I arrive there.

Another mutation: the organism becomes aware of other organisms’ techniques for finding food, whether those techniques are intentional or not. This organism observes a creature locomoting in some direction and infers that the creature is on the trail of some food source; it then follows the creature in search of its own food. It observes a creature evading complicated obstacles to obtain food; it imitates the other creature’s behaviors and secures its own food. This organism would need the sort of intentionality that enables it to infer that the other creature’s motivated behavior is relevant to its own motivations and therefore worth imitating as a cause that will likely generate a desired effect. Adaptive? Same rules apply. Cause-effect? The feed-forward loop of intentionality is augmented by a feedback loop of observing and imitating others’ behaviors.

In short, intentionality can be built incrementally on unintentional survival mechanisms without transcending cause-effect, and intentionality offers survival benefits if it isn’t too much of an energy drain to operate.

7 March 2013

Limitations to the Cleverness of Squirrels

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:21 pm

Recently we replaced the old bird feeder, which had been gnawed beyond functionality by the squirrels, with a new supposedly squirrel-proof model. The design is fairly ingenious. Like ordinary feeders, the cylindrical tube containing the seeds has holes drilled into its sides with pegs mounted under the holes, allowing birds to perch while extracting seeds through the holes with their beaks. This feeder has a separate shell surrounding the cylinder, spring-mounted so that when a creature heavier than a bird climbs onto the feeder the shell sags down under the creature’s weight, closing the holes and thus denying access to the seeds within.

But squirrels are nothing if not persistent: if there is a design flaw they will eventually discover it. The base of this feeder is attached not to the outer shell but to the inner cylinder. Consequently, a squirrel standing with its back feet on the base puts no weight on the spring-loaded shell and thus the holes remain open. A squirrel figuring out this trick can stand there as long as it likes gorging on seeds.

Two squirrels live in our back yard. One of them has figured out how to outwit the squirrel-proof feeder; so far the other one has not. It took several days for the successful one to zero in on the invariants of the trick. After a few days of frustration it began to bounce up and down on the feeder, causing the gravity-activated shell to bounce too. When in the low-gravity “up” position the shell would slide up and the holes would re-open momentarily. During this brief interval of low relative gravity the squirrel would stick its paw into one of the holes and try to pull out a seed before the gravity of the downward bounce closed the aperture again. Eventually the squirrel discovered that crawling down onto the feeder, spinning 180 degrees vertically so that its head is facing up, and then resting its weight on the feeder’s base is a successful behavior sequence for keeping the holes open and the food accessible. It isn’t necessary for the successful squirrel to acquire explicit understanding of the cause-effect relationships involved; the squirrel need only recognize that its behavior has achieved the desired result. The other squirrel, the one that hasn’t yet succeeded, seems equally motivated, repeatedly climbing onto the feeder, gnawing at the lid and the wire mesh with which the gravity-activated shell is surrounded. I suspect that eventually the failing squirrel too will succeed.

Squirrels are clever. They’re good at figuring out complicated behavior sequences that give them access to food. Once they figure out the trick they remember it, performing the maneuver more quickly and efficiently over repeated sessions. What squirrels aren’t very good at is learning by imitation. You’d think that the failing squirrel would learn the trick by watching the successful one. But this requires the failing squirrel to realize that: (1) the successful squirrel’s behavior is motivated, even if that motivation is unconscious to the squirrel; (2) the failing squirrel shares the same motivation as the successful squirrel; and so (3) it would be a good idea to imitate the successful squirrel’s motivated behavior.

Squirrels are independent experiential learners. However, squirrels do not occupy joint attentional scenes with their fellow squirrels, and so they’re poor imitative learners. Humans are very good imitators. I can imagine two seed-loving humans living in the back yard. One of them struggles to figure out how to outwit the feeder, the other sits under the tree and waits. Once the experimental innovator succeeds, the observer watches, imitates, and succeeds too, without all the fuss and frustration of learning the trick by trial and error. I once took an MBA course in organizational innovation at the university where I got my doctorate. “Be a quick second,” was the key advice proffered by the professor.

26 February 2013

The Tables

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:17 pm

Bud and Gerald entered another room in which four people were seated around a wooden table.

“According to Eddington there are two tables,” asserted the physicist. “The first table is the one at which we are seated – a piece of furniture made of hardwood, its patina darkened by the layers of polish that have accumulated over the years. It is oval in shape, with claw feet and intricate swirls carved just here, where the legs meet the tabletop. An antique perhaps, possibly a bit too delicate for the hard labor to which we put it here at the Scriptorium. But there is also a second table, beneath this one so to speak yet invisible to us. It consists primarily of empty space, sparsely populated by elemental particles swirling through charged space at incredible speed, indistinguishable from tiny quanta of electromagnetic energy, moving from one point to another without ever being anywhere in between.”

“Superb,” the politician commended the physicist, “but is there not also a third table? It is a diplomatic table. Your words carry more force than mine, are weightier, have more gravity, because you sit in a position of authority, at one end of the diplomatic table. Whereas I, seated at your left hand along one of the longer sides of the table, am in a subordinate position to you. In comparison to yours my pronouncements ring indistinct and hollow. Now if we were to trade places at this third table…”

“There is a fourth table,” said the painter, seated across from the politician. “It is made not of electrons, nor of power differentials, but of shapes and colors and angles. If I were to describe this table I would use not words but images. My description would depend on whether oils or pastels were made available to me, and whether the surface on which I present my image is canvas or paper or the wall behind me. It would depend too on whether the light fixture above the table could be dimmed just a bit, whether our conversation around the table as I paint is convivial or combative, whether someone proves kind enough to fill my wine glass again.”

“But none of these is the real table,” the fourth member of the conclave averred. “The spinning particles and energy fields? That’s what the table is made of. So too are the walls of this room, the floor, each one of us. Are we all part of the table? Certainly not. The table is made of wood while we are flesh. But again, we speak only of building materials and not of the finished artifact. The diplomatic table, the painterly table – these aren’t the table either. You” – turning to his left to address the politician – “are describing ways in which people interact around the table, ways in which the table contributes to these interactions, lending and withholding its architectonic power to your rhetorical power. Whereas you” – turning to his right now, where the artist was seated – “would depict the ways in which the table interacts with your senses, your sensibilities, your sensitivities. Presently the table serves all of us as a flat surface on which we can place our drinks without spilling them. It serves as a locus around which the four of us can gather to engage in conversation, while also providing a physical and visual barrier, making it more difficult to engage in a brawl if our disagreements become too heated. Again, these are interactive properties of the table. But what of the real table, the essential table? It cannot be reduced to elements and materials, it cannot be expanded to utilities. What is it, this essence of the table? Even if we could know it, we would not know it, for knowledge too is a utilitarian function, an interaction of our minds with the table. Knowledge of a thing can never be the thing itself. The graven image is not the same as that which it represents. And where is it located, the table’s essence, if it is neither in the materials nor in the interfaces? It must be somewhere that cannot be touched by interactions with other material bodies and forces, or even with minds. It floats in deep space perhaps, or it crouches at the bottom of the sea. Or is Sheol the place where essences reside, each stored in its own vacuum-packed sarcophagus, all essences stacked in the infinite tunnels extending deep beneath the earth awaiting some post-apocryphal resurrection when the essences of all things converge and diverge, creating new heavens and new earths, not just in appearances but in reality? Is it not toward Sheol that we Pilgrims strive in search of the essences of all things, including the essences of ourselves?”

“I bought it for thirty-five dollars.” The four Pilgrims seated around the table, Bud and Gerald standing inside the doorway: all turned toward the figure slumped in a well-worn burgundy sofa on the other side of the room, notebook and pen in hand. “I bought it from a neighbor at a yard sale just after I’d returned from France, maybe five years before I moved here to the Scriptorium. It was her mother’s table, I presume she came into possession of it when her mother died. The table wasn’t even on display out in the driveway. It was wedged against the inside wall of her garage, covered with boxes, not easily accessible because of all the other junk packed in around it. Was she glad for me to get the table out of her way so she could park her car more easily? Had she been feeling guilty in not using her mother’s table, perhaps not liking it as much as the newer table that she had selected herself, according to her own tastes? By giving her mother’s table a new opportunity to serve its function did I help assuage my neighbor’s guilt? Or does she now worry daily about whether I’m taking good care of the table, always her mother’s table of course in her mind, honoring the table as I would her mother herself, even though she may have harbored, as most of us do, ambivalent feelings about her mother? Would my neighbor have suspected that I don’t much like the table because the legs along the sides are positioned so closely together that it’s hard to avoid barking your shins when you pull up to it? Through the walls could she hear my shouts the day my knee bumped one of those legs, toppling over my glass of wine onto the newly-cleaned carpet?”

In Sheol the writer’s essence was seated much like his material self – as above so below – on the mutable and increasingly threadbare essence of the sofa he had bought at some other yard sale, the essence of notebook and of pen in hand. He looked across the room toward the essential table, understanding fully that his visitors had essentially left. Is what I write about the table here and now, he wrote in his essential notebook, different from what I might have written were all of you seated across from me at this table, engaging me in further conversation about tables? Did you leave because you were offended by certain remarks I might have made, because they left you tongue-tied and embarrassed about your inability to respond fluently? Did you wish to encourage my engagement in the sort of one-sided dialogue I had been commending earlier in the week? Or were you just bored? And me: am I still going on and on because my interest in the tables is not yet exhausted, because like so many self-absorbed hosts I am essentially indifferent to my guests’ presence and can’t take a hint that it’s time for me too to put away my pen and notebook and take a walk in the open air? Do I write out of spite, in an effort to force you to return and respond to what I have written? Or is it a simple matter of horror vacui? Tomorrow when I take my customary seat at one end of the fictional table, facing out the back window onto the eruption of dusty greens and pollen-saturated yellows and purples that are the sure result of the rare midsummer rain that even now is coming down up above, will I incorporate into my novel (or is it nonfiction after all?) these speculations about the motivations of people who evaporate as quickly as rain in the desert (or were they mirages after all?), a host talking to the empty chairs of guests who are elsewhere – a text that is likely to remain unread and unremarked, forever positioned at one end of the table speaking silently but insistently into the void, sinking through the floor, through soil and sand and stone, into the profundity of its insular essence?

[…adapted from Sunday’s thread on the Agent Swarm blog. I like my original ramblings better — more spontaneous, nicely contextualized — but this version works too I hope for the novel.]

20 February 2013

Pep Stick

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:22 pm

This is the actual size of the Pep Stick, or at least it is on my computer screen.


Dosage: administer a few gentle taps on the head, arm, or other body part of the unpeppy person. Repeat as needed.

18 February 2013

Reflections: Percept and Perceived

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:50 am

[This post was stimulated by Levi Bryant’s recent post entitled I Guess My Ontology Ain’t So Flat. I wrote a series of preliminary responses to that thread on a related 4-year-old Ktismatics post called Eclipse as Object, beginning with comment 15. Now I’m summarizing more generally my views on the subject.]

The reality of a rainbow is effectively the same as anything else that can be perceived visually. Light reflects off the surfaces — raindrops suspended in air, the fur of the cat, the mountain range, the branches and needles of a pine tree — onto the surface of the eye. There are cells in the retina that respond to light within specific frequency bands; there are other cells that respond to the contours of contrast demarcating edges between differences in luminance; others detect changes in light intensity over very short time intervals. The light causes chemical changes to occur in the retinal cells; these chemical changes are passed synaptically along to other cells in the eye, the raw sensory information being sequentially pre-processed before being sent on for final processing in the brain. A lot of signal consolidation occurs in each eye, the signal being reinforced by redundant information while noise is eliminated, so that the information from 100 million retinal cells can be channeled through the 1.7 million cells of the optic nerve to the visual cortex. In the brain the discrete chemical signals of visual information from both eyes are assembled into larger perceptual units that combine information about the light detected in the environment: edges and expanses, colors and intensities. A 3-D perceptual array is assembled that constitutes the brain’s best guess about how this information maps onto the ambient 3-D environmental array of objects, spaces, and motion.

Direct or Indirect Perception? The details of how all this works at the level of cells, synapses, and neural networks are still being worked out. Still, visual perception has been the subject of scientific study for more than a hundred years, with the general contours being well established by data. Among neuroscientists who generally agree about the findings there is an ongoing debate about whether visual perception is “direct.” This debate hinges on two broad questions:

(1) Bottom-Up or Top-Down? Does the brain operate bottom-up, automatically and instinctively, in assembling optical signals into a perceived environment; or does the brain make top-down inferences about how to reassemble the optic information based on experiential knowledge and memory and expectation? There is no longer any doubt that vision involves both bottom-up and top-down processing of information. I look at the smear of dark green mottled with black on the mountainside and I see a forest. I could walk up the incline to confirm my visual hypothesis, watching as I approach the patterns of color articulate themselves into discrete trees. Still, when I look from a distance at a mountainside I’ve never observed before I can still immediately see the forest without even seeing the trees or consciously thinking about forests. It’s possible that my neural system is hard-wired via evolution to detect forests with no top-down inferences required. There is also no question that even bottom-up vision entails the extraction, transmission, processing, and assembly of light frequencies and intensities, re-presenting the invariants of the ambient optic array into percepts of the environment. In other words, even if I perceive directly I never see anything as itself; I always see only the light reflected from surfaces. Even a bottom-up percept entails a series of transformations or re-presentations of the raw light input, though the representation is constructed neurochemically rather than conceptually or linguistically.

(2) The World Itself or a Simulation? Does the brain assemble a visual simulation of the optical environmental array, a simulation that is “watched” by the observer inside the head; or does the observer watch the environment itself by means of the elaborate on-board neurochemical and electrical apparatus of the visual perception system? Certainly the environment doesn’t “look like” what we see: light within a certain bandwidth isn’t intrinsically green. The tree also reflects light at many frequencies undetectable by the retinal cells, so the perceived tree is a stripped-down version of the optical information afforded by the tree itself.

But if the visual system preserves environmental information about light frequency and intensity and edges such that an observer’s perception maps reliably onto that environmental information, isn’t it plausible to contend that the observer sees the thing that’s reflecting the light — a pine tree, say — rather than just a simulation of that tree? It’s a tricky problem, not easily decided by data. If I look through a telescope at a pine tree on the mountainside, am I still looking at the tree? If I attach a telescopic lens to my videocamera, feed the video image into my computer, and watch the video of the tree on my computer screen, am I still looking at the tree? The organic and the mechanical re-presentations both preserve light and edge information generated by the tree itself. There is a short but measurable delay in watching the video of the tree compared to looking directly at the mountainside — but there is also a short but measurable delay in the neural system’s processing of light information that hits the retina. And what about sound: even if we could process auditory information instantaneously (which we cannot), there is a delay in the world between the sound of the buzz-saw cutting down the tree we’re watching and the sound waves generated by the saw finally propagating themselves to where our ears can pick up the signal. Does this sound delay mean that we’re hearing not the saw but only the sound waves in the air immediately surrounding our ears?

Percept as Object. Is the visual percept of a pine tree the same thing as the pine tree? No: the percept is the result of a series of neurochemical and electrical transformations of light reflected off the surfaces of the tree. But is the visual percept of a tree a discrete object, distinct from the tree? I don’t know; it depends on what an “object” is. A visual percept is the continually-updated processing of light information generated by a structured array of neural cells. So does that make the percept an energy flow rather than a material thing? But the living tree is itself the continually-updated processing of cellular activity, and most of us are prepared to regard a tree as an object. It’s theoretically possible to capture the perceptual output at a specific point in time, following a discrete refreshing of the signal — sort of like a freeze-frame from a movie, or a chopped-down tree. Is that frozen percept, an output extracted from the process that generated it, an object? Sure: its properties and structure, the informational array it embodies, exists in its own right.

But a percept of the tree is a percept of the tree. Perception preserves specific invariant properties of the environment — the light reflected from surfaces. From this optical information the perceptual system reconstructs a 3-D assemblage of the environment — things and their positions relative to each other, their movements and the spaces between them — that generated the patterns of light detected by the retina. Vision is for navigating safely through the environment. From the perceiver’s point of view, the more accurate the visual reconstruction of the environment the better, especially when it comes to identifying environmental affordances that are particularly salient to the organism: sources of danger, sources of food, places to hide or to find shelter, mating opportunities. To objectify the percept in isolation from the thing perceived and from the perceiver is to isolate the percept from its function, from the processes that generate it, from the informational invariants it preserves through these processes, and from its internal and external relations. This sort of objectification can be done, but it demands that the observer perform an intentional work of abstraction.

16 February 2013

On Human Opacity

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:01 am

Here’s an email I sent to a friend on Monday. You can invent whatever context you like.

Thinking about your perspective on the situation… Somebody told you that they never thought they really knew X, but does anybody really know anybody? You made a conscious effort to empathize with her situation, but since she wasn’t communicating you had to imagine her perspective, perhaps trying on varying points of view to see which made the most sense. Isn’t it a kind of invention, with no sure way of knowing whether what you’ve imagined corresponds to the reality? Somebody told me that the characters in my fictions are opaque, that the reader doesn’t know what they’re thinking, but in my view that’s more realistic than the novelist — or the psychologist for that matter — with purportedly probing and infallible insight into the inner workings of the human mind and soul. And then there’s X, who seemed so sure of her direction and intent, but at the same time you experience her as being under some sort of spell or cult influence. I imagine her in these long fraught silences listening for some voice to tell her what to say, what to do next, and hearing either a cacophony of conflicting voices or just silence. You have to wonder: does she know her own mind any better than you know it? Does anybody know themselves any better than others know them?

I sent this on Monday; as yet I’ve received no reply. I don’t expect to receive one, not ever.

14 February 2013

Dreaming Inside Fiction

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:37 am

Last night I had a series of dreams that unfolded inside the main imaginary setting of the novel I’m currently writing. While dreaming I experienced intervals of lucidity, aware that I was living inside a fictional realm that I was inventing while awake — like circling around a Möbius loop. I awoke presuming that the dreams were a good omen. Recently while awake and trying to write I’d been seeing that fictional world from a distance, as if it were five feet below the floor and I was looking down at it through a thick barrier of cloudy glass.

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