Monday, 31 July 2017

Toomas Karmo: Part J: 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.

  • 20170801T1623Z/version 3.1.0: Kmo added two amplificatory paragraphs, starting with the words "It will help some readers if I add that my remark about X possibly-occurring-without-a-cause has a parallel in". He reserved the right to upload minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, revisions over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.1.1, 3.1.2, 3.1.3, ... . 
  • 20170801T2347Z/version 3.0.0: Kmo finished converting his finegrained outline into full-sentences prose. He now embarked on a minor process of checking and polishing. He reserved the right to upload minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, revisions over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.0.1, 3.0.2, 3.0.3, ... . 
  • 20170801T2041Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo finished converted his coarsegrained outline into a duly polished finegrained outline. He hoped in the coming 3 hours to finish converting this, in turn, into full-sentences prose.
  • 20170801T1728Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo, now doing better in his difficulties, managed to upload a duly polished coarsegrained outline. He hoped to convert this over the coming 3 hours into a duly polished finegrained outline, and then still later on 2017-08-01 to convert the finegrained outline into full-sentences prose.
  • 20170801T0256Z: Sorry, ill with depression. Will try to get the material up in next couple of days.

[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]

It is necessary to begin by recapitulating, and expanding, the Kaila-Strawson "sound universe" scenario with which my last installment ended. 

Imagine it this week, Gentle Reader, in terms of a sudden, radical, change in what you are undergoing. In the minutes leading up to 4:00 pm today, you have been "greening", and have been seeing a chain of ordinary physical things, among them a sunlit lawn, in greening. In your right hand has been a glass with some ice-chilled drink. This glass, at a temperature only a little above 0oC, is one of a chain of ordinary physical things - among them are also events in your nerves, starting with nerves in some correspondingly cold finger flesh, and continuing with neurons within the right arm, the spinal cord, and ultimately the skull - which you have been feeling in "being-chilled". Now, at 4:00 p.m., comes the Great Change. 

Suddenly you see nothing at all. You do not experience even an expanse of neutral black, as when you clap a hand over closed eyelids. Your visual life becomes suddenly a Nothing, even as the visual life "behind your head" is in your present circumstances a Nothing. (It is not that the human visual field is bounded by an expanse of neutral white or neutral black. No: outside the limited visual field, with its angular width of maybe just 170 or 190 degrees, nothing at all appears.) 

Gone also is the "right-handed being-chilled". Now you have no awareness of cold, or for that matter of warmth, or for that matter of wetness, dryness, or pressure. You likewise have now no feeling of falling, rising, or spinning. Further, you now cease to have sensation-within-the-human-body, such as nausea, or thirst, or the pins-and-needles prickling in some injudiciously immobilized foot.

What you do have is auditory experience, and this you have in astonishing abundance. In your altered state, you note an ensemble of sounds - ringings, buzzings, whistlings, ululations, rumblings, in a variety of pitches and timbres - at times in either soloes or choral plainsong, at other times in harmonies and dissonances, and often with many a diminuendo or crescendo. 

To begin with, I develop this Kaila-Strawson scenario in the starker of its two principal possible forms, in monaural terms. It will later be helpful to consider also a binaural, i.e., a stereophonic, version. Readers with access to an old-fashioned 1960s-through-1990s sitting-room stereo set, equipped with headphones, can appreciate the difference readily. Let the equipment be playing into headphones, whether from CD or from gramophone disk or from FM broadcast, some stereophonic orchestral work. Those old amplifiers or tuner-amplifiers would in at least some instances have a front-panel switch (in the possibly-1967 equipment I myself have inherited from my dear parents, a rocker switch), marked "MONO-STEREO". With headphones on, one can appreciate the difference between the two settings. At "STEREO", the orchestral piece sounds spread out, with the horns perhaps "way over there on the left", the kettledrums perhaps "somewhat over toward the right", the flutes perhaps "immediately in front". At "MONO", by contrast, all the instruments seem to be together in one spot, somewhere inside the skull and equidistant from the ears.


The key question facing you, Gentle Reader, from 4:00 p.m. onward, is this: Is something making me ring, buzz, whistle (and so on)? It is impossible to establish either the affirmative answer or the negative answer rigorously, just as you cannot establish rigorously before 4:00 p.m. that there is something (sunlight on grass, or at any rate green light on retina, or at any rate electrochemical disturbance in visual cortex) making you undergo the greening. One recalls from previous weeks the suppositions of Intermittent Furniture and Young Cosmos. Those wicker parlour chairs can coherently, if perhaps perversely and in some sense unreasonably, be envisaged as existing only when inspected. The cosmos - our own human records and human brain memory-traces included - can coherently, if perhaps perversely and in some sense unreasonably, be envisaged as having sprung into existence just two seconds ago.

Analogously, in this week's discussion, then, we have to face the possibility of a perceptual event's occurring without a cause - specifically, the event of your greening, in the scenario prevailing up to 4:00 p.m., and the event of your ringing or booming (or whatever) in the scenario prevailing after 4:00 p.m.

The supposition of an event occurring without a cause would, to be sure, have seemed odd to the Victorian physicists, steeped as they were in Laplacean-Newtonian determinism. Nowadays, however, it must seem less odd. Thanks to popularizing books on quantum mechanics, we are nowadays familiar with the notion of an atomic nucleus's decaying at random:

Here is a rather sinister little thing, a nucleus of polonium-211. It has in some deep and philosophically troubling sense (can some Department of Philosophy specialist in Thomism someday take this further?) a propensity or "potentiality" for radioactive decay. In the particular case of polonium-211, the propensity is stronger than it is for, e.g., the only mildly radioactive uranium-238. For polonium-211, the statistical half-life is short, running to about a half second. We look at this particular nucleus at midnight, and nothing happens. Seven hundred milliseconds elapse. Now the time is 00:00:00.700, and to our mild surprise still nothing has happened. But two hundred milliseconds later, at 00:00:00.900, the looked-for event does happen: the polonium nucleus now emits an alpha particle, decaying "spontaneously" (as the popularizing books say) into a nucleus of the stable isotope lead-207. 

On at any rate the presentations of the popularizing books, which are from considerations of reader-friendliness constrained to gloss over the "hidden variables" (or similar) worries raised by David Bohm (1917-1992), or by similar quantum theorists (I gather that Einstein, opposing Bohr, was in their camp), there is nothing at all causing the nucleus to decay at 00:00:00.900 rather than at 00:00:00.700 or (e.g.) 00:00:00.300. In general, so far as I can see - and the popularizing books on quantum mechanics do help make this palatable - for any event X, it is coherent to suppose that something made X happen, and also coherent to suppose that nothing made X happen. (It is not necessarily, I stress, that the two suppositions are equally reasonable. I insist only that both suppositions are coherent.) We shall embrace the latter supposition if we affirm the counterfactual conditional, "X would have happened no matter what the prior history of the cosmos had been, at least insofar as the supposed prior history is logically consilient with the occurrence of X." (That little caveat about logical consilience is needed to forestall niggling, verbal, quibbles such as this: if X is the final coming-to-rest, at exactly noon, of a soccer ball, then X could not have occurred if the soccer ball had not been moving just before noon. In a trivial, verbal, sense, coming-to-rest, as distinct from being-at-rest, logically requires some previous being-in-motion.) Once we reject the DEFGH analysis of causation (Part C, 2017-05-29/2017-05-30), we must, so far as I can see, accept this counterfactual supposition as coherent - regarding it as unlike the (incoherent) supposition that we have drawn a four-sided triangle or have met a married bachelor.

It will help some readers if I add that my remark about X possibly-occurring-without-a-cause has a parallel in propositions of the form "Every P-event is accompanied by a Q-event." The cosmos abounds in such "P-Q" regularities. (Here is one: whenever two massive spherical bodies are placed in proximity to each other, then - in the absence of special restraining forces, such as would be exerted by restraining harnesses or other mechanical supports - the bodies accelerate toward each other, with this acceleration directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the separation of their centres.) Once we reject the DEFGH analysis of causation, we must regard "P-Q" regularities as subject not to one possible interpretation, but to two equally coherent (albeit not necessarily equally reasonable) interpretations: perhaps (i) the "P-Q" regularity is a law; perhaps, on the other hand, (ii) the regularity is a mere accidental coincidence, a so-to-speak astonishing run of luck in the cosmic casino. Where the regularity is a matter of law, there is something underlying which, if only we were to become privy to it, would explain the observed "P-Q" coincidences; where, on the other hand, the regularity is a mere accidental coincidence, there is nothing underlying (so to speak, nothing more to be known). - For more than two centuries after Newton, the gravitational regularity which I have cited as my example was presumed non-accidental, and yet nobody had any idea what underlay it. (Newton, in particular, prudently wrote that he was himself calculating the direction and magnitude of the empirically manifest gravitational accelerations without "forming any hypotheses" regarding their underlying nature -  Hypotheses non fingo.) Then, in the time of World War 1, a possible explanation was put forward in the Theory of General Relativity.  (General Relativity considers gravitation to be a manifestation of curvature in spacetime. The theory makes some predictions in observational astronomy, and these have so far been borne out).

Further, dark, philosophical questions loom here, in my weasel-word "underlying": are, for instance, P-Q regularities underlain (as I, weasel-like, say) by mere further regularities, or (as I rather guess we should affirm in the case of General Relativity) by something in some subtle way possessing more explanatory power than mere further regularities? Much though I would like to be able to write further on the dark questions, I have not studied enough physics to be able to launch the project. 

I now recapitulate: upon rejecting, as I do urge we reject, the DEFGH analysis of causation, we can for any event X coherently both (a) say "Maybe nothing made X happen" and (b) say "Maybe something made X happen". We can say this pair of things no matter how disparate the two competing sayings may be in their respective intrinsic plausibility or reasonableness.

In particular, then, I am today, as a corollary of my underlying, nonreductionist, "realist", anti-DEFGH, philosophy-of-causation, insisting that you can entertain, as a coherent supposition in the case of the after-4:00-p.m. Kaila-Strawson auditory scenario, the supposition that something is making you ring (buzz, warble, boom, whistle, rumble, ululate, ... ). On this coherently entertainable supposition, it is inevitably the case that you are hearing something in ringing, are hearing something in buzzing, and so on. Once given this so-coherent supposition, it ineluctably follows that you are hearing a thing which is making you ring (or buzz, or whatever) - just as you were before 4:00 p.m. seeing a sunlit lawn (and a municipal neighbourhood, and an optic-nerve event, and so on) that was making you "do some greening", and were before 4:00 p.m. feeling some cold glass (and cold finger flesh, and sequence of neuronal events) that was making you "be-chilled".

To make these ideas more clear, it will help to explore, for a moment, the connection between causation and counterfactuals.

If something is after 4:00 p.m. making you "do some rumbling", as the illumination of the lawn by sunlight is before 4:00 p.m. making you "do some greening", then the following counterfactuals are true:

  • There is before 4:00 p.m. something x, logically distinct from the event of your "greening", such that were x not to exist-or-occur, you would not be "greening". 
  • There is after 4:00 p.m. something x, logically distinct from the event of your "rumbling", such that were x not to exist-or-occur, you would not be "rumbling". 
So much, then, for counterfactuals.  Continuing now with my main theme, I note the arising of two sub-possibilities, both of them again inevitably coherent:

- (b.a) The various things you hear in ringing (roaring, warbling, ululating, etc) - the thing, or the various things, that are making you undergo what you are undergoing - exist only when you are roaring (warbling, ululating, etc).

- (b.b) Some of the various things you hear in ringing (roaring, warbling, ululating, etc) exist even at one or more times at which you happen not to be roaring (warbling, ululating, etc).

Here, as with the competing suppositions of Persistent and Intermittent Furniture (Part C, 2017-05-29/2017-05-30, with also a small clarification and expansion in Part E, 2017-06-19/2017-06-20), I do not assert my competing choices to be equally reasonable. - For the rest of this week's discussion, I fix on supposition (b.b), without troubling to consider what conceivable embellishments of the scenario would render (b.b) more reasonable than (b.a).

Under (b.b) are three possible cases: 

(1) After 4:00 p.m., you continue to reside in the familiar-physics cosmos of baryonic matter, arranged in space. This is now, however, a cosmos whose appearance to you is altered. No longer does a sunlit lawn appear to you a certain way through looking to you a certain way: rather, it appears to you in a certain (novel) way through sounding to you in a certain way. (Perhaps you are hearing the sunlit lawn in so steadily and gently rumbling, and are hearing some other things - a nearby red tablecloth, for example - in at the same time keening. It will be a little like the scenario under heading "I" from Part G (2017-07-10/2017-07-11), in which people are feeling a straightforwardly baryonic-physics thing, the nozzle-released gas, in Sicking at First Avenue and B Street.)

(2) After 4:00 p.m., you reside in some altogether new cosmos.

Possibility (2) divides into two subpossibilities, thereby yielding the just-mentioned total of three cases:

(2.1) Perhaps, as you hearken carefully, all your efforts at discerning a systematic phenomenology are in vain. Try as you will to discern patterns in your warblings, your ululations, and the like, your efforts bear scant fruit. Here you could, admittedly, stubbornly regard yourself as inhabiting a cosmos of baryonic, or perhaps nonbaryonic, matter, arranged in space - and yet it might now be equally, or more, reasonable to start regarding yourself as inhabiting a novel cosmos of things-in-time-without-space.

(2.2) Perhaps, as you hearken carefully over the hours, days, weeks, and years, a rich systematic phenomenology does come to your notice. Here it might, depending on the details of the systematization, be specially reasonable for you to posit not only that you are in a now-exotic, probably non-baryonic, cosmos of things capable of persisting-even-when-unheard, but that your cosmos has even a spatial structure. Diligent hearkening might eventually make it possible to say something about the probable nature of the space - as comprising, perhaps, some finite number of dimensions; and as being either (A) finite with (say) the topology of a sphere, or again the topology of a torus, or (B) infinite; and as possessing some definite geometry (as being everywhere of finite constant positive curvature, perhaps; or as being everyone classically Euclidean, i.e., as being everywhere of zero curvature; or as varying in curvature, with the curvature of space perhaps even zero in some localities, and positive in others, and negative in yet others).

We have so far considered only monaural "soundings" (monaural "auditory undergoings", or - to switch for a moment to a language a little different from, and yet neither superior to nor inferior to our language so far - "acoustic appearances"). Let us now, however, briefly move that so-to-speak front-panel rocker switch to its "STEREO" setting. The "STEREO" effect is one way, although not the only way, of developing a phenomenology so rich as to support option (2.2), or even the particularly consoling option (1):

Just before the 4:00 p.m. Great Transformation in how you were living, there was a table to your left, with a bright red cloth. On the sunlit lawn in front of you a crow was slowly approaching, at that moment striding rather than flying. Now, immediately after 4:00 p.m., you note to your so-to-speak-stereo-headphones left a shrill, steady keening, and in front of you a low, equally steady, rumble. Superimposed on these is a rather pleasant bassoon sound, with a melodic line suggesting dignified strolling. The line is a bit like the gallery-strolling theme which punctuates Mussorgsky's piano suite "Pictures at an Exhibition". This melodic line gets gradually louder, as though some orchestra bassoonist was approaching you. You might well take the keening to be "the way the tablecloth now appears",  the rumble to be "the way the grass now appears", and the agreeable  modestpetrovitshmussorgskilik melody to be "the way the striding, approaching crow now appears". (This is how one class of adjectives gets formed in Estonian: "effessbeelik" for "of or pertaining to the FSB" - here of course the "ee" is as in German "Jena", not as in English "jeep" - "essveeärrlik" for "of or pertaining to the SVR", "tsaristlik" for "Czarist (of or pertaining to the Tsar)", and "modestpetrovitshmussorgskilik" for "of or pertaining to Модест Петрович Мусоргский".)


Now I must depart in a mild way from my generally-to-be-respected Igominy and Humiligation Precept, as promulgated in Part B (2017-05-22/2017-05-23). I must do this so as to maximize the probability of some blogspot reader's linking my own ideas up, in some eventually fruitful way, with the ideas of the current, 2017-era, Department of Philosophy professionals. (I have at all points in this year's philosophy-writing project to manoeuvre between competing desiderata. In this present instance, the Precept, insistent though it is, needs to be subordinated to still more insistent considerations regarding probable benefits to readers in one or another Department of Philosophy.)

In his 1970s lectures, the Oxford philosopher Gareth Evans foreshadowed an important, I think then-upcoming, project of his, his "General Theory of Objects". I rather think it was in the course of this foreshadowing that he made his commendatory remark on "transcendental investigations, such as those conducted by Mr [or perhaps by then already Prof.?] Strawson". Prof. Strawson had of course in his 1959 book Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics and his 1966 book The Bounds of Sense been drawing on some Prussian or other, working over in Kaliningrad some five generations before the Red Army totally smashed Kaliningrad up - Prof. Immanuel Tank, or something, in some kind of celebrated Kritik der Reinen Etwas. One gleaned from the youngish Mr Evans's reference to "trascendental investigations" (and still more of transcendental investigations being "conducted") a delicious vision of silver-haired Principal Investigator Prof. Sir Peter Strawon, chevrons on dark sleeve, behind a row of desk telephones: "Yes, do let me assure you, Madam - our investigations here at the Yard are well in hand."

Somebody, in some Department of Philosophy somewhere or other, might some day be reading not only these present cringe-worthy blogspot materials, but also the Nachlass of the eminent, universally mourned, Gareth Evans. I do think that some posthumously published work of Mr Evans, on the specific Kaila-Strawson theme, does exist, somewhere. I at any rate recall Mr Evans, gesticulating in his lecture, I imagine under the theatrical influence of Wittgenstein. (A philosophical friend and I called Mr Evans "Gazzers" behind his back. "Gazzers" for his part rightly admired, as my friend and I were perhaps occasionally liable to put it, "Witters".) Mr Evans emitted what to my untutored ear sounded like Wittgensteinean, or any any rate Teutonic, phonemes, mixing his metaphors deftly amid the gesticulations:

Phenomenalism ACHHHHHH ... phenomenalism AKHHHHHH! ... PHENOMENALISM! - is a horse ... that is often flogged ... but seldom understood. 

Without digging in libraries, I cannot myself say what the official "Gazzers" line on phenomenalism was, though I am sure it was something deep. I do commend such library work to my readers. The normal crude Tallahassee Swampwater Junior Training College line, which I think Mr Evans was deprecating, runs as follows, for what little it is worth:

Confronted with my purely auditory undergoings - my auditory sense data, my auditory Vorstellungen - I deploy semantic manoeuvres to assemble my auditory undergoings into a language of physical objects. The physical objects are not fundamental realities, but mere "logical constructions" out of those truly fundamental things which are my sense-data. 

What my blog postings are herewith offering, or are at least herewith groping toward, is an alternative:

Confronted with my purely auditory undergoings (the "acoustic appearances") - for instance with my soft-and-steady roaring, with my equally steady keening, with my bassoon-like crescendo modestpetrovitschmussorgskilik melody line - I recognize the logically coherent possibility that in roaring, keening, and the like I am hearing a cosmos of physical objects - perhaps a nonspatial cosmos; perhaps a fully spatial cosmos; perhaps even a spatial cosmos of familiar-physics baryonic matter, arranged into such familiar things as a lawn, a tablecloth, and a crow. 

This alternative, namely that you (as "Gentle Reader") are hearing physical objects in buzzing, keening, warbling (etc), is forced on us as soon as

  • we accept a realist, as opposed to a reductionist "DEFG" (Part C, 2017-05-29/2017-05-30) semantic analysis of causation;
  • we note that just as in the philosophy of action, so too in the philosophy of perception there is, for many an X and Y, "X-ing in Y-ing"; 
  • we note the conceptual legitimacy of projections, as sketched in the 1950s or earlier by Wittgenstein, in some celebrated passage of his on pain - for Wittgenstein, "pain-patches on a leaf", and for us here at blogspot in the similarly projective locution "I feel a Pain at First Avenue and A Street in hurting" (and, although the actual historic 1920s-through-1950s Prof. Wittgenstein did not write this, "I am feeling the Sick at First Avenue and B Street in sicking," and again "I am seeing the lawn in 'greening'," and again "I am feeling the ice-chilled beverage glass in being-chilled").
Is any alternative - any duly articulable philosophical "phenomenalism", going beyond the level of sloganeering Tallahassee Swampwater sciolism - possible at all, once we do the three just-listed things? I do not see it. But perhaps Mr Evans's published Nachlass, somewhere, achieves some deep appraisal of phenomenalism more favourable than what I have myself been able to produce in this year's blogging.

[This pretty much concludes what has proved to be a surprisingly protracted discussion of perception. In at least the latter part of my next installment, I hope to embark on a discussion - I hope less protracted - of action. I hope to be still sticking rather closely to the project outline I offered in three "fragments" toward the end of Part B, back on 2017-05-22/2017-05-23. That upcoming installment probably cannot be uploaded next week, when blogging will have to touch on other themes altogether (and to be perhaps unusually brief). I do, however, hope to be uploading it at some point in the next two or three weeks.]

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