Monday, 24 July 2017

Toomas Karmo: Part I: 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 Coordon√©,  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.

  • 20170725T1446Z/version 3.0.0: Kmo finished converting his polished outline into full-sentences prose. He now started a minor process of inspection and revision. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, revisions over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.0.1, 3.0.2, 3.0.3, ... . 
  • 20170725T0333Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo managed to upload a polished outline. He now intended to get to bed, and after breakfast to start converting his outline into complete-sentences prose. He continued to think that it would be possible to finish the conversion by UTC=20170725T2000Z.
  • 20170725T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Running a full half-day behind schedule, Kmo had time only to upload a rough outline. He hoped by UTC=20170725T0401Z to have converted this into a polished outline, and by UTC=20170725T2000Z to have finished converting the rough outline into complete-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]

I have been considering how you (the "Gentle Reader") see one thing in seeing another - seeing, for instance, the municipal neighbourhood in seeing the sunlit grass, and seeing the sunlit grass in seeing a visual-cortex event (an event with a subtle microstructure, perhaps not yet too well mapped by physiology). I have noted that the so-to-speak "sequence of seeings" - seeing something in seeing another thing, seeing that other thing in seeing yet another - has a rather distinctive ultimate term. I have indulged in a neologism, calling this ultimate term your "greening" (by analogy with your "hurting" or your "thirsting"). 

This week I note that the ultimate term could be described differently, and less neologistically. Questions of neologism aside, this week's alternative description is neither superior nor inferior to my description from the two previous installments. 

For you to be greening, I note this week, is for something to be "appearing (specifically, looking) a certain way to you" (looking, in fact, "grassy", or again "green" - there is more than one natural-sounding adjective here). 

Two weeks ago, I suggested, in the neologistic parlance of "greening", that there is no sense in which your "greening" either colour-matches or colour-mismatches the grass. Last week I ended with the suggestion that there is nothing special about colour - that there is nothing here which does not equally apply to left-handed and right-handed shapes, and to spatial orientation. (There is no sense in which - to recall last week's example - as you behold the top-dimpled wooden R and the top-dimpled wooden Cyrillic Ya (the letter —Ź), on their respective squares of wool and linen on the lawn, your "R-ing" shape-matches or shape-mismatches either the R or the Ya, or in which your "Ya-ing" either shape-matches or shape-mismatches either the R or the Ya.) These suggestions can be developed also for this week's alternative language, of "looking" or "appearing", as follows:

  • There is no one way green grass ought to look. The imagined Paleolithic diet from two weeks ago changes the look of grass to you, and yet cannot be said either to make the grass "now look the way it is supposed to look" or to make the grass "now look other than the way it is supposed to look". 
  • There is no one pair of ways in which the R and the Ya are respectively supposed to look. The imagined intonation, from last week, of the mystic words "Minu-isa-oli-pottsepp-ja-kandis-valge-hobusega-LIIIva" changes the look of the R and the Ya, and yet cannot be said to make either of these two wooden letters "now look the way they ought to look", or to make them "now look the reverse of the way they ought to look".
If it is granted that we see the grass in seeing each of the various terms in a sequence of events within the human body, it may still be asked, "Does some special epistemic status attach to the seeing of the grass? Could it be that the seeing of the grass is in some sense a 'Direct Seeing', or a 'Basic Seeing', or something of this kind, with the seeing of the retinal patch-of-light and the seeing of the optic-nerve event and the seeing of the cortical event in some contrasting sense instances of 'Non-Basic Seeing'?" The (substantial?) minority of my readership who have a training in university-campus philosophy will recall that in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s analytical philosophy of action, stress was placed on "Basic Actions". Perhaps - for all that I can now recall of that philosophical literature, as I read in it some decades ago - there was a specially direct connection with an agent's intention in the case of those of his actions which qualified as "Basic". 

But I suggest this week - admittedly with hesitation and unease - that any sense in which the seeing of the grass is "Basic" or "Fundamental" or "Specially Privileged" is contingent, lacking philosophical significance. It seems to me to be a mere sociological or medical matter, and not a philosophical matter, that we present-day humans have a propensity to conceptualize ourselves as seeing grass, and on the other hand have difficulty in conceptualizing ourselves as seeing retinal, optic-nerve, and cerebral-cortex events. Our identifications of the various things we are seeing depend in a merely banal way on our upbringing and our present practical needs. There is not much present practical advantage, for the ordinary human in the present ordinary social world, in conceptualizing the various things that are occurring at the level of the retina, optic nerve, and visual cortex. It is, on the other hand, presently of eminent practical advantage for humans to know that they are a few metres away from a patch of living grass, as opposed to an expanse of red-hot coals. 

Consider a dystopian science-fiction scenario in which humans get farmed on this planet by extraterrestrial invaders, rather as certain aphids are farmed by certain ants. No longer do humans run around under the open skies, rejoicing in expanses of sunlit lawn: no, they are fastened to harnesses in the depths of great anthills, serving the malign purposes of their eerie new masters. Human survival priorities are now such as to make humans quickly learn what events are happening on their retinal surfaces or in their neurons, as they strive to placate their alien overlords. Some few humans, fortunate enough to be accorded scientific educations and be conducted in their harnesses out of the anthill on "field trips", do eventually take an informed interest in the botany of sunlit landscapes, on the far side of their corneas. 

It is, to be sure, hard to imagine how such humans would speak, whether with each other or with their alien overlords. I suppose they would have a vocabulary different from our own - describing, somehow, in rich and detailed terms hard for us to envision at all, events in the visual cortex, and finding the language of external-to-cortex "sunlight" and "grass" to be as recondite and technical as we ourselves find the language of behind-the-cornea synapses and dendra. With hesitancy and trepidation, I do suggest that this inversion of what might be thought the natural order of language - the only order we, in our rather happy present unfettered condition, know - is coherent. 

A second, related, point seems again to be a matter of mere medical contingencies. 

It might, for all I know, be that humans have some kind of special hard-wired, instinctual propensity for taking the "thing most evidently seen" to be grass in front of the cornea, as distinct from a neuronal event behind the cornea. It would be a little like the instinctual propensity to take a certain feeling of dryness in the throat as a signal that the body would now benefit from drinking water. Even this, for all I can see this week (I write hesitantly, subject to correction), is a mere medical matter, lacking philosophical significance. I look at it as follows: What is a matter of instinct could in most cases in principle be learned; and conversely, what is learned could in principle be a matter of instinct; and so the difference between what "comes instinctually" and what "has to be learned" is philosophically irrelevant. Can we not imagine someone being born with even an instinctual understanding of a language? Or with even an instinctual grasp of a complex practical matter, such as the way to buy groceries on a bank's debit card (with even knowledge of the password being happily innate)? Why could humans not be born in the way birds are hatched, with most or all of our practical routines - with even such elaborate human accomplishments as language use, and the use of money - already in place? It is at any rate striking how the infant bird seems to know, without instruction, how to hold its beak open and vertical for the incoming, parentally supplied, meal, and how adult birds seem to know how to emit their territorial and mating calls - I presume as instinctively as they know how to catch insects, or how to dry-bathe themselves in a patch of roadside dust.


The various points I have developed for visual perception apply also to the other perceptual modalities.

The hearing of a bell proceeds as follows:

  • one hears the bell in hearing air vibrate
  • one hears the air vibrate in hearing an eardrum vibrate
  • one hears the eardrum vibrate in hearing the three middle-ear bones vibrate
  • one hears those bones vibrate in hearing the cochlear fluid vibrate
  • one hears the cochlear fluid vibrate in hearing electrical activity in an auditory nerve
  • one hears the auditory-nerve activity in hearing activity in the auditory cortex
  • one hears activity in the auditory cortex (not in hearing oneself ringing, but more simply) in so-to-speak "ringing" (where "I am ringing" is a neologism parallel to "I am thirsting", "I am hurting", and the neologistic "I am greening": to say "I am hearing the ringing", in this present sense of "ringing", is a category-mistake, parallel to "I am seeing the greening")
To the objection that nerve activity is not in normal parlance heard, the reply is simply, "Well, I for my part don't hear your nerve activity. But I do hear mine. The situation parallels fullness of stomach. I do not feel the fullness of your stomach, after we have shared a heavy breakfast, and yet I do feel the fullness of my stomach." We might also reply to this objection that talk of hearing cortical events would become natural enough in, e.g., a world in which the aurora borealis triggered resonances in the cortex: "We got a bright aurora over the farm last night; my brain was ringing so loudly that I could hardly finish evening chores."

Similarly, the feeling of a pig-wrapped-in-a-blanket proceeds as follows:

  • one feels the pig in feeling the blanket
  • one feels the blanket in feeling pressure on one's skin 
  • one feels pressure on one's skin in feeling events in nerves, running from hand out to spinal cord and up into skull
  • one feels the nerve events in feeling a cortical event
  • one feels the cortical event (not in feeling "pressured", but) in being-pressured - where "I am pressured" is once again a neologism analogous to "I am thirsting", "I am hurting", and the neologistic "I am greening" 

I leave it as an assignment to predict what will have to be said in the next installment - one or two or three or so weeks from now - regarding the Kaila-Strawson "sound universe". Although I must on the whole respect my Igominy and Humiligation Precept, as laid out in Part B (2017-05-22 or 2017-05-23), nevertheless it will in this present instance help people to get a couple of serious citations from me. So be aware of some literature, folks: a Finnish philosopher, Eino Kaila (1890-1958) developed, I think a few years before the Hitler war - in more locally Finnish terms, a few years before the 1939-1940 Winter War - the idea of a conscious subject in a universe which in some sense "consisted merely of sounds". Prof. Kaila's idea was later picked up in Britain by Peter (in due course Prof. Sir Peter) Strawson (1919-2006), in his 1959 book Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. I know of Prof. Kaila because not Prof. Strawson alone, but Strawson-plus-Kaila, got examined in a lecture which I heard in Oxford, perhaps around 1976 or 1977, from University College philosopher Gareth Evans (1946-1980).

Without having Kaila or Strawson immediately to hand, I this week simply sketch their idea. You (the "Gentle Reader") see nothing, feel nothing, and smell and taste nothing. And yet you hear a great deal. You hear sounds in various suggestive crescendos and dimuendos, with also suggestively systematic changes in pitch and timbre, both in plainsong and in polyphony. You hear sounds that might tempt you to map out a spatial world of sounds. (Has space a real meaning in the Kaila-Strawson setting? This is a question to be examined.) There are even persistent sounds that might be "revisited", as one might revisit the same sunlit lawn from one afternoon to the next. (To what extent, however, are we entitled to speak of "revisiting", and of "sounds existing, or occurring, where I do not hear them", and the like? Again, these are questions to be examined.) There are even specially persistent sounds that you might be tempted to identify as "my body, or me myself, moving through the sound universe, first visiting Sound X, then departing from Sound X, then returning to Sound X". (Again, these are questions here to be examined: is it the case that I have a body - in this secnario, perhaps "a sound" - or, rather, that I am a body?)

How, in terms of the framework being developed here, is such a Kaila-Strawson sound universe to be regarded? How do we fit into the present framework the absence from this universe of anything very evidently corresponding to atmosphere, eardrum, middle-ear bones, cochlear fluid, and auditory cortex?

In working the assignment, readers might want to review my remarks on the Pain and the Sick, from Part G (2017-07-10 or 2017-07-11), asking themselves to what extent the scenarios which I there label "I", "IIa", and "IIb" have parallels in the Kaila-Strawson setting.

[This is the end of the current blog posting.]

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