Monday, 17 July 2017

Toomas Karmo: Part H: Perception, Action, and "Subjectivity"

Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his  grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3/5 is "mediocre pass", 4/5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to write out the  necessary points to reasonable length.

Revision history:

All times in these blog "revision histories" are stated in UTC (Universal Coordinated Time/ Temps Universel Coordoné,  a precisification of the old GMT, or "Greenwich Mean Time"), in the ISO-prescribed YYYYMMDDThhmmZ timestamping format. UTC currently leads Toronto civil time by 4 hours and currently lags Tallinn civil time by 3 hours.

  • 20170718T0251Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo finished converting his point-form outline into coherent full-sentences prose. He started a process of polishing. He reserved the right to upload tiny, nonsubsantive, purely cosmetic tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 2.0.1, 2.0.2, 2.0.3, ... . 
  • 20170718T0002Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded a moderately polished point-form outline. He hoped over the coming 3 hours to convert this into coherent full-sentences prose.

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past months shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears. - The blogger software has also shown a propensity, at any rate when coupled with my erstwhile, out-of-date, Web-authoring uploading browser, to generate HTML that gets formatted in different ways on different downloading browsers. Some downloading browsers have sometimes perhaps not correctly read in the entirety of the "Cascading Style Sheets"  (CSS) which on all ordinary Web servers control the browser placement of margins, sidebars, and the like. If you suspect CSS problems in your particular browser, be patient: it is probable that while some content has been shoved into some odd place (for instance, down to the bottom of your browser, where it ought to appear in the right-hand margin), all the server content has been pushed down into your browser in some place or other. - Finally, there may be blogger vagaries, outside my control, in font sizing or interlinear spacing or right-margin justification. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via]

My various "Precepts" from Part B of this multi-installment essay, back on 2017-05-22 or 2017-05-23, were driven in large part by the desire to avoid miscommunication. In writing philosophy, as in writing software documentation, one is mindful of a goal which I understand to have been urged already in classical antiquity, by Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (A.D. 35 - A.D. 100):  Do not seek to communicate so as to be understood. Seek, rather, to communicate in such a way as to be incapable of being misunderstood.

I return to last week's example of seeing green grass, in the joint spirit of the Precepts and of Quintillian spelling everything out again. In doing so, I make 100-percent explicit a few things that were in my previous attempt at exposition, a week ago, just 90-percent or 95-percent explicit. I reiterate, and amplify a little, in two stages, which I number herewith.

(1) As you (the "Gentle Reader") gaze upon sunlit lawn, various things are happening:

  • You are seeing the municipal neighbourhood in seeing the garden.
  • You are seeing the garden in seeing the lawn. 
  • You are seeing the lawn in seeing the grass.
  • You are seeing the grass in seeing a small patch of light upon your retina, cast on the retinal surface by a natural (a ray-converging, and consequently an inverting) lens, situated just inside your cornea. (You might, to be sure, be seeing that patch of light without recognizing that it is among the various things you see. Analogously, Prof. Plum, when striking Colonel Mustard dead with the lead wrench in the conservatory, might get seen without getting recognized.) 
  • You are seeing the small patch of light in seeing a certain event in your optic nerve. (This is an event of a kind not known to the Renaissance anatomist-physiologists, whose inquiries pretty much ended with the retina. The event was, on the other hand, surely known to the physiologists of the early 20th century,  equipped as they surely were with equipment for investigating the electrical behaviour of nerves, including nerves within mammalian heads. Again, this is an event that might get seen without getting recognized.) 
  • You are seeing the event in your optic nerve in seeing a certain event in your visual cortex. (This is an event perhaps not fully mapped even by 21st-century physiology, and therefore an event still more liable to get seen without getting recognized.) 
  • You are seeing the event in your visual cortex in greening. 
(2) Seeing-in is transitive, in the sense that for all lambda, mu, and nu, if you see mu in seeing lambda and see nu in seeing mu, then you see nu in seeing lambda. So, in particular, all the following things, and many others like them, are happening:

  • You are seeing the municipal neighbourhood in seeing the grass.
  • You are seeing the garden in seeing the patch of light on the retina.
  • You are seeing the grass in seeing the event in the visual cortex.
  • You are seeing the garden in greening. 
  • You are seeing the grass in greening. 
  • You are seeing the patch of light on the retina in greening. 
  • You are seeing the event in the optic nerve in greening. 

In some later installment or installments of this essay, I shall have to comment in one or more ways on the special character of the ultimate, and clearly rather special, term I have identified in the perceptual sequence, namely the greening (where "greening" is something we undergo, as we undergo hurting, hungering, thirsting, or being-nauseous ("sicking")). Already tonight, one small supplementary comment, of a cautionary character, has to be made. The greening is not a thing seen in the sense in which all the other various things - the neuronal events, the light on the retina, the grass, the garden, the municipal neighbourhood - are seen. One sees the grass (and so on) in greening, and yet does not see the grass in seeing the greening. To speak of seeing the greening, in the sense in which one sees public objects like grass and retinal illuminations and neuronal events, is to commit what postwar school-of-Austin-and-Ryle British philosophers used to call a "category mistake" - as when one speaks of buying a price, as opposed to paying a price, or when one speaks of a "high rate of speed" as opposed to a "high rate of change of position" or a "high rate of change of speed".

Lack of due attention to this point is one of the things which tutors in my imagined, and yet only too lifelike,  Tallahassee Swampwater Junior Training College use to help them distinguish an essay deserving a high grade from an essay deserving a lesser grade. (I might remark here that if - as was my own lot, between leaving Britain for Australia in 1978 and having in the Ontario of 1991 the good fortune to get kicked out of academic philosophy - one assigns grades to some tens or hundreds of essays on perception, then students' terminological slides become predictable. I used to write up boilerplate corrections, mindful of the several, or even of the several tens, of students destined all to slip up in the same way, in any one given academic semester. So, late in the evening, grading the thirty-fourth essay from the Dispiriting Pile, I would say in a jaded and world-weary way,  "Ah, now we get the ninth one who is writing of 'seeing sense impressions [or of seeing sense data, or whatever]' in the same way as she or he is writing of 'seeing grass'." And then I would direct my nasty little Cold-War-era computer to print out Boilerplate Corrective Note  G (or H, or whatever - if G was for "seeing sense-impressions", then H was for some different, and yet equally recurrent, problem), for eventual stapling to the essay. When finally handed back to its author, a typical essay would have three or four boilerplate comments from the computer, over and above the necessary red-ink handwritten comments. Working on a university campus gets to be like grading peaches on a packing-house conveyor belt.)


For clarity tonight, I also amplify a little last week's story regarding the Paleolithic Diet. For most of the perceptual sequence, questions of match and mismatch are meaningless. (That is the sequence in which - if I might be pardoned for now even reiterating a reiteration - we see nu in seeing mu, and see mu in seeing lambda, and so on and so on - ultimately seeing each of the logically later terms in the sequence (not in seeing the greening, but, I stress) in greening.)

There is no sense in which the grass "colour-matches" or "colour-mismatches" the optic-nerve event, or in which either of these "colour-matches" or "colour-mismatches" the greening. Admittedly, there is one rather banal term in the sequence for which question of colour-match and colour-mismatch do arise. It is perhaps a subliminal awareness of this banal term that might be tempting some people - students of philosophy in their wonted clumsiness, and perhaps even some philosophical authors, down through the decades and centuries- to raise contentless questions of match and mismatch. We can in a banal way ask, "Does the retinal patch of light match or mismatch the grass in colour?" The answer is in a banal way in the affirmative: "Yes, unless the eye is burdened with some pathology, such as a discolouration in the normally clear cornea, or normally clear lens, or normally clear eyeball fluids, the colour of the grass does closely match the colour of that publicly viewable, ophthalmoscope-inspectable, green thing which is the retinal patch-of-light."

Even this, however, is a contingent feature of Homo sapiens vision. Imagine a species of visually aware exotic animals, Ophthalmosaurus kodakii, with a pigmented membrane separating the innermost eyeball fluid from the retina. The chameleon-like, or Kodak-like, membrane changes its tints rapidly,  in a chemical-photography tracking of changes in the viewed scene. One could imagine the membrane assuming something like the colour and light-or-dark aspect of a Kodacolor negative. Placing the animal in front of sunlit grass triggers, perhaps, the formation of reddish pigment in the membrane, while placing it in front of a sunlit tomato-ketchup puddle triggers the formation of greenish pigment. In such a case, one could say, "The image formed by the crystalline lens on the surface of the preretinal membrane matches in colour the various sunlit objects forming the image, and yet the image formed within the membrane systematically mismatches those same objects."

With Homo sapiens, as with the imagined Ophthalmosaurus kodakii, most members of the perceptual sequence still cannot be said either to "match" or to "mismatch" the sunlit object in front of the visually aware anaimal. In particular, the greening of the visually aware Ophthalmosaurus kodakii observer, like the greening of a (visually aware) Homo sapiens observer, cannot be said either to "colour-match" or to "colour-mismatch" the sunlit grass.


In "Part G" of this essay, on 2017-07-10 or 2017-07-11, I brought out the impossibility of querying colour-matching and colour-mismatching by telling a story regarding a "Paleolithic Diet". This same story could be developed in other ways. Here is one: you, as the "Gentle Reader", are presented not with the Paleolithic Diet but with shamanic incantations. To your surprise, you find that whenever you intone, in an appropriately scary Uralic manner, "minu-isa-oli-pottsep-ja-kandis-valge-hobusega-LIIIII-va", grass starts looking like ketchup, and ketchup like grass - with things getting back to normal as soon as you stop the intoning. Does the So-Powerful Incantation clear your vision, so that you at last start seeing things "in their true colours", or does it distort your vision? The question lacks content.

Further, this same story can be developed, with the same no-content-to-the-question moral, in terms of intersubjective comparisons. (To be sure, I will have to return to the vast, difficult topic of intersubjectivity in some later installment. Tonight's observation is only a tiny first take, almost a throw-away remark.)

You (the Gentle Reader) and I, as two fellow specimens of Homo sapiens, are together seated at the edge of a sunlit lawn. You have no way of knowing whether my greening is the same as your greening, or on the contrary is the same as your, so to speak, "redding". But suppose (I write tonight briefly, almost as a throw-away) that your greening is indeed like my redding, and your redding indeed like my greening. Then there is no content to the question which of us has "accurate colour vision", and which of us has "systematically distorted colour vision".

The situation parallels a situation with motion duly stressed by Einstein, but treated already by Newton and Galileo. Suppose the cosmos presently, at 12.00 noon, to comprise just two particles, A and B, of negligible mass and negligible electric charge, presently one kilometre apart. Let the two particles move in such a way that their separation diminishes at a steady rate over the next hour, so that by 13.00 they are just one metre apart, with neither particle "subject to a constant-speed acceleration, such as might occur in constant-speed curvilinear motion". (I will take it, without having thought carefully through this perhaps potentially deep question - eventually we do have to ponder at least the scary topic of spinning frames - that we can somehow make rigorous the demand that none of the constant-speed motion be constant-speed curvilinear.) Then for Einstein, Newton, and Galileo alike, there is no content to the question "Which particle was it that really moved?" The only cognitively contentful assessment is a frame-relative assessment: in each rest frame of Particle A, it was Particle B that moved, and in each rest frame of Particle B, it was Particle A that moved.

A similar situation obtains for the Paleolithic Diet (and also, mutatis mutandis, for the shamanic incantation, and for the scenario in which you and I are together on the lawn). With respect to the Post-Paleolithic Diet, it is the Paleolithic Diet that inverts colour vision; and with respect to the Paleolithic Diet, it is the Post-Paleolithic Diet that inverts it; and there is no content to the question, "Which Diet delivers accurate colour vision?"


Seven nights ago, I asked whether this frame-relativization principle for colour vision (I quote verbatim) possesses parallels, or on the contrary lacks parallels, in a more basic aspect of human sensory functioning - in the visual perception of mere shapes, and of mere right-left, up-down, orientation. My answer is, "It possesses parallels." (I went on last week to note that - again I quote verbatim -  Some in Departments of Philosophy affirm, following John Locke (1632-1704), that there is a deep logical difference between perception of colour and perception of shape and orientation. Others in Departments of Philosophy deny this. Who, I asked, is right - those who affirm, or those who deny? So tonight I answer, "Those who deny." 

For consider not the difference between sunlit grass and sunlit ketchup, but the difference between the Roman letter R and the final letter of the Russian alphabet, the "Ya" (the я, a "backward R"). Imagine us to have a woollen square and a linen square spread out on the lawn. On the wool is placed a wooden R. On the linen is placed a wooden Ya. To forestall irrelevant complications, let us further imagine that the intended top surface of each wooden letter is marked with a dimple, at the point where the bowl of the letter meets its oblique stroke. (Without the top-surface dimple marker, someone might start quibbling in some way, perhaps, on the basis that a Russian Ya is "merely a Roman R flipped over". With the dimple marker, by contrast, the two wooden letters are three-dimensional mirror reversals of each other, not capable of being brought into superposition by any combination of 3-space (xyz-space) translations and 3-space rotations.)

Suppose now that upon your starting the Paleolothic Diet, or upon your intoning "minu-isa-oli-pottsep-ja-kandis-valge-hobusega-LIIIII-va" (or whatever), the top-dimpled R starts looking to you the way the top-dimpled Ya used to look, and the top-dimpled Ya the way the top-dimpled R used to look. Under which diet (or which vocal régime) were you "seeing shapes accurately"? If no meaningful answer is possible in the case of seeing colour, then equally is no meaningful answer possible in the case of seeing shape.

In terms of some physics and molecular-chemistry literature, the top-dimpled R/top-dimpled Ya difference is one of chirality, or "handedness". This "handedness" example of R and Ya could be developed in various other ways - for instance, by winding two coils from stiff wire, in opposite senses, or indeed by simply laying down on wool and linen, respectively, a bolt with right-handed thread and a bolt with left-handed thread. (In a normal machine shop, bolts tend to have the right-hand thread, as indeed also do normal jars and their normal lids. But left-hand-bolts can be procured.) 

It will be evident how to develop this point also for up-down orientation. The Paleolithic Diet, perhaps, makes the sky suddenly look "down here", the earth suddenly look "up there". This is a different kind of perceptual flip from a chirality-flip.

As far as I can see, the point holds even for visual length comparisons: if the Paleolithic Diet makes circles start looking the way moderately eccentric ellipses used to look, and the moderately eccentric ellipses start looking - depending, I do have to admit, on the orientation of their foci! - either the way circles used to look or the way highly eccentric ellipses used to look , there is no content to the question which dietary régime "makes us see objects in their true shapes". 

[This is the end of the present blog posting. It is hoped that the next installment, "Part I", will appear one or two or three weeks from now.]


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