Monday, 10 July 2017

Toomas Karmo: Part G: 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.

  •  20170717T2059Z/version 2.1.0: Kmo noticed to his surprise, a week or so late in his revision process, an unfortunate slip: he had written rather obscurely "electrochemical disturbance Q, available in principle (not indeed to Kepler but) to the neurophysiology laboratories of the early 20th century", where what was for clarity required was  "electrochemical disturbance Q in the optic nerve, available in principle (not indeed to Kepler but) to the neurophysiology laboratories of the early 20th century".  Having made this small-and-yet-substantive revision, Kmo reserved the right to upload nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 2.1.1, 2.1.2, 2.1.3, ... .
  • 20170711T0156Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo finished converting his outline into coherent full-sentences prose. He now started a process of polishing. He reserved the right to upload nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 2.0.1, 2.0.2, 2.0.3, .. . 
  • 20170711T0003Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded a moderately polished point-form outline. He hoped over the coming 2 hours to convert this into coherent full-sentences prose.

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past weeks 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 to generate HTML that gets formatted in different ways on different client-side browsers, perhaps with some browsers not correctly reading 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. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via]

In the last few installments of this multi-part essay, I have tried to articulate, as well as I can, my underlying assumptions (1)  regarding causing (regarding "making-happen") and (2) regarding Other Minds (regarding the existence of "an awareness which is not my own awareness"). 

It is now time to summarize that exposition of underlying assumptions: 

  • For good or ill (for better or worse), I shall here be presupposing a position on causation at variance with an actual, long-dead, rightly respected Scottish authority, to whom we may here refer -  I introduced the reference in "Part C", from 2017-05-29 or 2017-05-30  - as "Darren Gloom" or "Dagwood Spume" or "DEFGH". 
  • For good or ill (for better or worse) I shall here be presupposing a position on Other Minds at variance with an imaginary analogue of DEFGH, the imaginary analyst "Havid Dume", or "HGFED". - Well, in fact "Havid Dume", although imaginary, does have some affinities (as I pointed out in "Part C") with the actual intellectual world. One dimly recalls, from one's reading in that world, the "Curing Test", or the "Luring Test", or something - proposed by some distinguished mathematical logician, soon after the Hitler war. 
Spelling out my divergence from the imagined HGFED proved troublesome. I found in the event that I needed more than just one week's worth of blogging, in my fumbling attempt to take care of a worrisome Philosophy-of-Other-Minds point involving counterfactual conditionals. To summarize that long story: I think that when confronted with radically intelligent, even counterfactually intelligent, verbal behaviour - behaviour that would, counterfactually, even continue seeming intelligent were we, counterfactually, to have administered conversational probes other than the ones we did in fact administer - it remains an open question whether our interlocutor is or is not a possessor of awareness. Are the so-eloquent verbal and facial gyrations, actual and counterfactual, of that fellow member of Homo sapiens (or, again, of that MIT vinyl-and-silicon assemblage) the expressions of a mind other than my own? Or is the so-eloquent fellow human a mere somnanbulist, and the so-eloquent robot a mere unthinking gearbox? It seems to me that the question is open in the sense that both an affirmative and a negative answer are logically coherent. The question seems to me just as much open as the question whether the cosmos is a mere two seconds old, and again just as open as the question whether the parlour furniture continues to exist when not inspected.

I do not say in any of this that the two competing answers in the case of the past, or the two competing answers in the case of the furniture, are equally reasonable. I say only that the question is open in that both competing answers make sense. Neither of them seems incoherent, in the sense in which the notion of a four-sided triangle, or of a married bachelor, is incoherent.

I do realize (here I recapitulate from the "Part F" posting of 2017-06-26 or 2017-06-27) that more needs to be said on DEFGH and HGFED. In particular, I do concede that in arguing, as I have argued over past weeks, that the common speech of humanity embodies reality-of-Causation and reality-of-Other-Minds views at variance with the reductionist DEFGH and the reductionist HGFED, I am dodging deep questions. The deep questions are these: is humanity entitled to embody my two favoured forms of "Realism" in its linguistic practices? I finished my most recent posting in this series (the just-mentioned "Part F") by formally declaring the inadequacy of my (painfully provisional) work, formally raising a "superficiality flag".


Having finished exhibiting my underlying assumptions (and having therein, I reiterate, raised my humiliating Flag), I can now at long last return to the main thread of the discussion - following now, with moderate closeness, the outline I published in "Part B", back on 2017-05-22 or 2017-05-23, under the subheading "2. General Project Preview, Through Three Quick-and-Sloppy Fragments".

It is helpful tonight to reproduce, verbatim, the beginning that I made in "Part C" (from 2017-05-29 or 2017-05-30) in converting the outline into a formal exposition:

/.../ Imagine that when walking in town one day, you feel a throbbing pain when you are at the intersection of First Avenue and A Street. Imagine further that as you proceed up First Avenue, the throbbing pain subsides, only to be replaced by a steady nausea when you reach First Avenue and B Street - with this nausea itself subsiding as you leave the intersection behind, on your way up First Avenue to C Street.  Imagine, further, that everyone with whom you discuss the topography of First Avenue reports a pain and a nausea similar to yours, localized to that same pair of intersections.

Maybe everyone's reports are consilient as a matter of sheer coincidence - as when fifty tossed dimes all, astonishingly, land heads-up. (Person A, as it were, had an attack of indigestion from bad pickles upon approaching First and B, and Person B coincidentally had an attack of indigestion at this same intersection from a bout of flu, and so on.) But it would be reasonable to suspect that, far from coincidences being in play, there is something at that pair of intersections which is making everyone feel pain in the one place and nausea at the other. If (if, I stress) the suspicion of common causes is true, then it would be a reasonable use of language to say, "There is a throbbing Pain at the intersection of First Avenue and A Street, and a steady Sick at the intersection of First Avenue and B Street." Although such a use of language would depart from English idiom, it would be coherent: i.e., would possess a well-grasped meaning.

Later on, inquiries could be mounted, to determine what the Pain and the Sick are. Two broad kinds of outcome are possible.

(I) The inquiries may have an outcome favourable from the standpoint of existing natural science. It might turn out that, e.g., everyone is made to be in pain by some concealed loudspeakers, vibrating powerfully at some subsonic frequencies cunningly selected for resonance with the bones of the
Homo sapiens  middle ear, and that the nausea  is induced in everyone by the same colourless gas, venting from some cunningly concealed nozzle. In that case, people would say, "Well, the Pain is a subsonic atmospheric vibration, and the Sick is a gas possessing such-and-such a molecular formula."

(II) The inquiries may lead to no outcome favourable from the standpoint of existing natural science. In that case, people will be like astrophysicists grappling with Dark Matter and Dark Energy: they will aver that there are some easily human-perceptible things on First Avenue (assemblages of non-baryonic matter, perhaps?) whose nature is as yet mysterious. 

Two possible sub-cases now present themselves.

(II.a) Perhaps the Pain and the Sick will prove frustratingly thin in their phenomenology - never moving around, for instance, and never in other ways changing, and so not lending themselves to any very pleasing mathematics.

(II.b) Perhaps, on the other hand, close observation will disclose a more or less rich phenomenology - with the Pain, perhaps, migrating up First Avenue at certain times of the month, and upon reaching B Street either passing unimpeded through the Sick or else pushing the Sick along with it. - In this "II.b" sub-case, people will be able to write out "laws" regarding the behaviour of the Sick and the Pain, and these "laws" might ultimately prove to be just as detailed, and just as amenable to exact mathematical formulation, as the laws governing the movements of electrons and protons in electric and magnetic fields. With laws to hand, it will eventually be suggested that the Sick and the Pain are as well understood as the electron and proton themselves, even while in a sense belonging, perhaps, "to a different Kingdom of Matter, with which ordinary baryonic matter has few points of contact outside the physiology of
Homo sapiens observers". 

Tonight I have to carry on from where I left off, with the "Part C" passage just quoted. 


Whichever of the various possibilities "I", "II.a", or "II.b" obtains, people will in any case admit the likelihood that there is something out there on First Avenue - something which is "likely making people be (causing people to be) in pain and sick". (They will, in making this admission, be using the language of "making" and "causing" in a sense I have urged in opposition to the reductionist-minded DEFGH.) 

Tonight I note that the imagined situation with First Avenue differs at most in degree, and not in kind, from humanity's real-world sensory dealings. You sit, Gentle Reader, outdoors, momentarily lifting your gaze from laptop computer to (let us suppose) a sunlit lawn. In the imagined First Avenue scenario, people undergo one kind of thing at the intersection of First Avenue and A Street, and a different kind of thing at the intersection of First Avenue and B Street. For what they undergo at the former intersection, there is a ready idiom, in English and Estonian alike: "We are hurting"/"Me valutame." For what they undergo at the latter intersection, there is no ready idiom, whether in English or in Estonian. French fares a little better - "J'ai mal ici" - "I am sicking here," or literally "I have-sick here" (by analogy with "J'ai soif"/"I am thirsting", or literally "I have-thirst"; "J'ai faim"/"I am hungering", or literally "I have-hunger" - as also with the German "Ich habe Hunger"). 

But these are superficial points of idiom. It would be easy enough to neologize, saying "Everyone who walks through First Avenue and B Street starts sicking."

Consider now the experience of gazing upon sunlit lawn. With the eyes open, and with the afternoon light good, one is undergoing something, for which it is again appropriate to neologize: one is "greening". Such language would indeed become natural and commonplace if we became habitual visitors to neurophysiology labs. As the technicians gradually dial up the voltage applied to electrodes in our cranial cortex, they could appropriately ask us not "Are you hurting now?" but "Are you greening now?" (One possible answer: "Yes, now I am starting to green, just a little, amid all my greying, as when I am out on the lawn under the last light of an evening sky - and now I am greening pretty strongly, almost as strongly as I green when I am out on the lawn in mid-afternoon.") 

I dimly recall some eminent Oxford Catholic philosopher from the 1950s onward, with some such name as Prof. Elizabeth Honeycombe, writing in an illuminating way on action and intention. I seem to recall others - in the USA, a Prof. Arthur C. Dante, or Prof. Arthur C. Dango, or something of the kind - developing related ideas.

"Prof. Honeycombe" and "Prof. Dango" and others, at least as I recall them, used to point out that one thing can get done "in" doing another. An example: in moving one's hand, one can be moving one's pen; and in moving one's pen, one can be signing one's name. A second example: in moving one's hand, one can be transferring a little wooden horse from one region on a chequered wooden panel to a different region; and in moving the little wooden horse, one can be putting a King into checkmate.

I presume the formal structure of doing-in has been explored by "Prof. Honeycombe", or by "Prof. Dango", or by related writers. Without bothering to ponder this carefully tonight, I merely put on record my own impression that doing-in is transitive. If, e.g., one is moving a little wooden horse in moving one's hand, and is putting a King into checkmate in moving the little wooden horse, then one is putting a King into checkmate in moving one's hand.

Whether doing-in is or is not symmetrical, I am not at this instant sure. But I am inclined to write "not symmetrical" - and even more boldly, to write "asymmetrical". If, e.g., one is signing a lease in moving one's pen, then I think it does not follow that one is moving one's pen in signing a lease. And I think it even follows (here we move from mere failure-of-symmetry to outright success-of-asymmetry) that one is not moving one's pen in signing a lease.

Fortunately, so far as I can see tonight, nothing in my work here, as tentatively planned for all the upcoming weeks, is going to require me to explore this formal question of asymmetry, or the further formal question of "connectedness" - to take a stance, in other words, either for or against the proposition that for all x, A, V, and W, if x is V-ing in A-ing, and is W-ing in A-ing, then either x is V-ing in W-ing or x is W-ing in V-ing.

As for "Prof. Honeycombe" and "Prof. Dango" and other such authorities on action, so too, I note tonight, for the philosophy of perception. (Has someone, somewhere, since I left the Departments of Philosophy in 1991, actually developed the "Honeycombe"/"Dango" philosophy-of-action ideas in the direction of perception? If so, then perhaps some kind reader could send me an e-mail, telling me what publications to read? As always, the appropriate address is In greening, you, the Gentle Reader currently sitting by your lawn, are seeing sunlit grass. Further, in seeing sunlit grass, you are seeing a garden (of which the lawn is one part), and are seeing a neighbourhood (of which the garden is one part).


I next note that this chain of seeing-in has not only the evident outward links just mentioned, but also links of a more recondite kind - not evident to common sense, and yet evident enough to anatomists. Not only is it the case that in greening you are seeing the lawn: it is also the case that in greening you are seeing a small patch of greenish light on the surface of a Homo sapiens retina. It is a patch of light at most a few millimetres across. Its upper edge (the part closes to your hairline) corresponds to that part of the lawn which is closest to your chair. Its lower edge (the part closest to your teeth) corresponds to that part of the lawn which is farthest from your chair. (The correspondence has this rather awkward inverting twist because, rather awkwardly, the patch of light is formed by a convex, and therefore inverting, crystalline lens, just inside your cornea.) So a fuller description of the perceptual situation is the following: In greening, you see a patch of light on a Homo sapiens retina; and in seeing that patch of light, you see the lawn; and in seeing the lawn, you see the garden; and in seeing the garden, you see the neighbourhood. 

If the "patch of light" link in this asserted chain seems odd, it is helpful to recall that we can on any adequate account of perception be on occasion seeing something without realizing what it is we see. The prosecuting barrister asks you, as you stand in the witness box at the Old Bailey, "Did you see Prof. Plum in the conservatory, on the night Colonel Mustard was found dead beside that lead pipe which you have just affirmed for the Court to be Exhibit Q?" A properly careful answer to this will be something like the following: Well, I did, although I did not realize it at the time. I saw a flash of something purple, and I thought it might have been one of the observatory peacocks. But an hour later, when guests came down to dinner, I realized that what I had glimpsed in the conservatory was likely to have been Prof. Plum. For at dinner Prof. Plum was in his loudly iridescent purple blazer, which I believe to be the item entered by the Crown as Exhibit R in this Court [and so on, and so on].

(There is a tight parallel here with the formalities of action. It is possible to be (a) Y-ing in X-ing, and aware that one is X-ing without being aware that one is Y-ing, and (b) to be Y-ing in X-ing, and aware that one is Y-ing without being aware that one is X-ing. One might be, in practicing the bagpipes, traumatizing the neighbours. It is easy to do the former without realizing that one is doing the latter. Conversely, one might, in closing Relay 17 behind the motorcar dashboard, be signalling a left turn - aware enough that one is doing the latter, and yet (being untrained in motor mechanics) unaware that one is doing the former.)

The seen patch of green light is in no sense a "sense datum" or "sense impression", being fully public. It can in principle be inspected with an ophthalmoscope. That it is in seeing it that the lawn is seen is a fact which, while not obvious, was nevertheless already available in principle to the Renaissance anatomists (and, I gather from, was grasped by, or was on the verge of being grasped by, Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler).

In moving from lawn to retinal surface, we are moving inward in the Homo sapiens body. This exploration can be taken a little farther. Not only is the lawn seen in seeing the green patch; the green patch is itself seen in seeing some electrochemical disturbance Q in the optic nerve, available in principle (not indeed to Kepler but) to the neurophysiology laboratories of the early 20th century. Finally, Q itself is seen in seeing something P, for all I know a thing not yet fully mapped by the anatomists - a pattern of electrochemical activity not proceeding along the optic nerve, but instead occurring deeper within the human body, in the visual cortex.

In all of this, I note, the fact that we can be blissfully unaware of seeing the patch of retinal light - or unaware of seeing it in seeing Q, or unaware of seeing Q in seeing P - is no different in principle from the banal courtroom witness-stand fact that we can be seeing Prof. Plum without being aware of seeing him.


I now come to a fundamental thesis, which I shall have to defend in the next installment of this essay, one or two or three or so weeks from tonight: there is no sense in which the greening either "matches" or "mismatches" the grass.

Suppose that, having resolved to improve your lifestyle, you embark on the celebrated Paleolithic Diet. No sooner have you begun the Diet, so rich in nuts and meats, than your colour vision is disturbed. Grass suddenly assumes for you the colour aspect of tomato ketchup, and ketchup the aspect of grass (and so on for all other red and green things - the world seems to you to flip in the way a colour-television scene would flip if a technician were to interchange the R and G links between video amplifier and display screen). As you discontinue the Diet, your vision snaps back to its previous condition. As you resume the Diet, the disturbance recurs.

What has happened? Was your colour vision accurate when you were not on the Diet, only to be perturbed when you went Paleolithic? Or was it, rather, the case that your colour vision had been systematically distorted by the malign industrial foods on ordinary grocery shelves - the salt, the sugar, the wheat, the beans - to be rendered veracious by the austere régime of our virtuous Paleolithic ancestors? ("Wretches!" proclaims a Pythagorean fragment, in what I picture as an authentically Paleolithic, Google-searchable diet-fad, spirit: "Utter wretches! Keep your hands from beans!")

I leave it to the reader to anticipate, as relatively easy homework, how I shall have to develop this theme in the next installment. (I shall have to draw parallels with Einsteinean, or indeed with Galilean-Newtonian, mechanics, in which "All motion is frame-relative", and "There is no one privileged inertial frame of reference": how will these parallels go?)

As a further, less easy, piece of homework, the reader can consider whether the point I have just started developing for colour vision 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, orientations. 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 is right - those who affirm, or those who deny?

[This is the end of the present blog posting. It is hoped that the next installment, "Part H", of the multi-part perception-and-action essay will be uploaded one or two or three or so weeks from today.]

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are moderated. For comment-moderation rules, see initial posting on this blog (2016-04-14).