Thursday, 26 September 2013

Imagining Itself (part XVIII: objectivity and subjectivity)

There are few better ways to engage the imagination than learning a new language. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Germany in the last 25 years and in the 1990’s I attended evening classes in German at the Goethe Institute in Glasgow. With my background in fine art photography it was perhaps inevitable that I would be intrigued to discover that the German word for lens is “objectiv”. It shares its etymology with the English words "object" and "objective" but what I have always found curious about this word is the fact that lenses are by no means objective. Lenses possess unique properties that allow them to be used in various ways to alter the path of light, to focus it and, most notably, to produce images. We’ve come to think of images – especially photographic images - as highly realistic depictions; as truthful representations of the world, as unmediated representations even. But the only reason we might be led to this mistaken conclusion is because we have lenses in our heads which obey the very same laws of optical distortion.

We have become so familiar with photographs and the ways photographic images represent the world that it might be argued that they have become the very yardstick of perception; a standard by which we judge the veracity of our sensations. Nonetheless, for an organism lacking a functioning lens-based perceptual system – a bat for instance - photographic representations are of no use whatsoever.

If you wanted to produce a viable representation for a bat (or for an echolocating alien for that matter) you would probably have to provide some kind of headphone device and play echolocation recordings at a frequency they recognise. Of course a bat would probably find the headphones uncomfortable and the experience would, no doubt,  be extremely alarming in the absence of bodily control. Nonetheless the principle is workable. Some blind people have developed the skill of echolocation and research shows that it is possible to simulate the necessary sensory input through stereo playback of audio recordings.

Lens-based images and echolocation headphone devices are examples of a profoundly interesting form of representation that depends entirely upon the characteristics of the perceptual system which it exploits. If we carefully control the system of presentation then it is possible to produce these simulating representations in such a way that they are extremely difficult to differentiate from ordinary sensations. Virtual Reality, holograms, 3D film, TV and stereograms as well as numerous optical illusions – the Ames room being a prototypical example – all exploit the characteristics of the visual system in this way.

But it would be wrong to assume that simulating representations are objective. For a representation to be objective, it must be perceiver-independent. In other words, it must not rely on any form of distortion, foible or idiosyncrasy - no matter how consistent or mathematically specifiable - in any particular perceptual system. The only form of objective representation therefore is one in which the represented object and the representation itself match one another precisely. The reason this is the case is because only matching representations are likely to be acceptable to all conceivable perceivers – bats and bat-like aliens included.

In defining objectivity, dictionary definitions frequently refer to the notion of “mind independence”. This term serves to make an important distinction between objectivity on the one hand and all forms of personal opinion, emotional colouring or subjective bias on the other. However, it would be easy to loose sight of an important fact about objectivity when adopting the concept of mind-independence. Objectivity is a way of representing the world. It is a way of describing material things, actions and states of affairs such that any perceiver, no matter how intelligent or perceptually well endowed, would accept the description – the representation - as factually accurate. The only way we can go about identifying, selecting and creating such representations is through our capacities as representation-makers and this would be impossible without the contribution of our minds. So, in this limited, but vitally important sense, objectivity turns out to be inextricably mind-dependent.

Unlike objectivity, subjectivity is by no means perceiver-dependent nor is it species-dependent or even language-dependent. Subjectivity is a rich interweaving of representational capacities, some of which have been genetically acquired, others that have developed through culture over millennia and perhaps even some that are unique to the experience of the individual. But whatever distinctions we might wish to draw between objectivity and subjectivity there will always be a significant overlap, because both are a product of our capacities to make and to use representations. Both require minds and both involve the capacity to identify, select and produce matching representations.

These thoughts originally emerged from a consideration of prevalent attitudes towards childhood development, imagination and fantasy. In the previous accompanying post we saw how these attitudes, especially towards fantasy, often expose a certain disdain regarding the assumed lack of “reality” or “fact” in fantasy preoccupations. Perhaps the anxiety underlying such disdain pits the subjective against the objective on a checkerboard that turns out to be little more than a puritanical invention.

The reason that imagination and fantasy (which is simply a variety of imagination in which the improbable plays a more prominent role) are so vitally important for human beings is because we are prodigious representation users and even when we find ourselves wholly immersed in the most subjective of pursuits we are nonetheless sharpening skills of representation which, despite all claims to the contrary, are fundamentally social in nature and are directed towards a richer, more varied and more intelligible understanding of the world.

Inevitably there are instances in which individuals lives as so monotonous, harsh or unbearable that they feel forced to retreat into what we might call the solace of the subjective; of thoughts and imaginings of how things might be otherwise. We all do this on occasion – perhaps more than we are willing to admit. But how other than through this capacity to daydream, to fantasise and to imagine could we ever form hopes or ideals or even conceive of the very notion of objectivity in the first place?

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Evaluative Perception Conference at Glasgow University

As a slight digression from my series of posts on the subject of imagination - having just attended a conference at Glasgow University on the subject of Evaluative Perception - some thoughts:

Throughout the conference there was much discussion of "cognitive penetration" (i.e. the degree to which - or whether - cognition penetrates perceptual experience, and at what point) and there was also significant discussion of the perception (or the possibility of perception) of evaluative properties: i.e. do we perceive cruelty or do we infer it.

Perhaps it is understandable that a conference on the subject of perception should place a lot of emphasis on misperception yet an alien listening-in might well be led to the conclusion that human perceptions are enormously fickle and malleable things. There is no doubt at all that the reports people give of their perceptions are often at significant variance. I spend much of my working life doing what could be called “perceptual report comparisons” with groups of students (AKA artschool crits) but I can't ever recall feeling as though we were all describing substantively different sensory perceptions. Different degrees of attention to different areas of an object, different associations, different intuitions about what might improve the image, yes. But if our perceptions are so readily influenced by ongoing affective states and cognition, then we have to explain how it can be the case that the hundreds of students I have taught are each able to print an analogue colour image to a very high degree of accuracy despite all the many different emotions and all the many 'levels' and kinds of cognising supposedly 'penetrating' their perceptions.

Strictly speaking, which is surely what all philosophy aspires towards, I'm not convinced that there is anything other than sensory perception, which means to say that evaluative perception, or aesthetic perception or whatever perception you wish to invoke is nothing but the invention of philosophers with – dare I say - too much imagination. I'm being facetious of course, and they are right to explore all the available avenues, I just wasn’t left feeling like evaluative perception has much to offer in terms of explanatory potential – far from it.

Let’s return to my claim about the stability of perception (sticking with the visual for obvious reasons). I can print an analogue colour image whilst wearing mildly coloured glasses without there being any adverse influence on my perceptual accuracy. Our perceptual systems are remarkably good at recalibrating themselves in adverse but regular circumstances. Obviously there are instances where an influence or deficit (colour blindness for instance) is so great as to be impossible to compensate for. But these exceptions are evidence of just how stable and regular our perceptual systems really are.

Dominic McIver Lopez, whose mother studied at the same art school that employs me - bizarrely - sails extremely close to phenomenalism with his theorisation of how conceptual artworks and works of literature elicit aesthetic responses. He proposes that "sensory experience is one of a species of a broader genus of experiential states" and these are mentally "encoded" in the same way as conceptual art and literature. He constructs his theory upon an intricate network of representational states, data structures and analogue to digital encoding. All of this sounds to me like a hi-tech version of Descartes mechanical model of the brain and I couldn’t help asking the impossible to answer question of how all of this could have evolved. From the several rudimentary models that I have researched there remains no compelling evidence at all that digital encoding could ever evolve naturally. How, for instance, could an encoding module evolve without an encoding module to initiate it (not to mention the far more daunting question of the decoding module)?
"There is no way within encodingism per se for those representational contents to ever arise in the first place. There is no account and - we argue - no account possible, of the emergence of representation." - Bickhard and Terveen (1995)
The question of how a haiku poem might lead someone to aesthetic reverie would be much more easily explained through a dispositional account of mind. And the evolutionary story would be a great deal more straightforward to sketch out too I think.

Dustin Stokes, of the University of Utah, makes what I felt to be a deeply contentious claim: that “perceptual experiences vary with artistic expertise.” He puts forward the “hypothesis that the expert better judges art because she better perceives art. And she better perceives art because she better knows art.”

I should be flattered but I’m not. I found this claim to be an all too familiar conceit frequently promulgated in notions of connoisseurship that I’m extremely averse to - not that this necessarily invalidates Stokes’ hypothesis nor do I mean to suggest that he was in any way conceited as a person. But let me say how I think his argument falls down via a simple analogy. To say that an expert better perceives an artwork than a novice is like saying that an art teacher sat at the back of a room looking at the same artwork as a student closely attending the work, perceives more of the artwork than the student. I don’t see how Stokes’ hypothesis can get off the ground.

When I was a student I worked as a darkroom assistant for a photographer who was producing work for a retrospective. She asked me to match-print some of her images which involved some very subtle darkroom manipulation. I soon demonstrated that I was able to print matching copies and moreover I was able to suggest some improvements. I didn’t for one moment think that I was more of an expert perceiver than she was. I suspect our perceptual abilities were largely on a par – apart perhaps from the fact that she wore glasses.

The significances that are claimed to be “seen in” artworks are not like conjurors rabbits just waiting for experts to draw them out. What defines an expert is how she is disposed to respond to what everybody else sees perfectly well. The art expert is no better at the game of Spot the Difference than anyone else despite whatever unique saccades their eyes are reputed to perform. In fact most kids will notice differences much more swiftly. An expert’s expertise is something she is disposed to do (i.e. to speak relevantly), not some ‘potential’ she “sees-in” the artwork and skilfully teases out.

The point, that may need to be stressed here, is that it doesn’t make sense to use one form of representation (other than Matching, which is often difficult to arrange) to evaluate a perception of another representational form. This is vitally important and may help explain why I don’t take a student’s verbal report about their work as a indication of their perceptual abilities. I take their ability to match a print as proof of their perceptual abilities.

Another presentation brought up a related issue. Paul Noordhof, of York University, mentioned how chicken sexers are reputedly able to determine the sex of chickens on sight but they cannot explain how. Noordhof claims that this indicates that the chicken sexers do not perceive the cues but pick them up unconsciously. I spoke to Noordhof after his talk and suggested how this claim might be tested. If the chicken sexers were able to do their job on the basis of a painting then he could no longer say that the cues could not be perceived because the painter would clearly have rendered them. Noordhof agrees. Now, it may be the case that the cues are motion orientated in which case a painting wouldn’t work. But the point is academic, and again we can easily exemplify why. My son can’t tell me how he knows girls from boys but should we conclude therefore that he doesn’t perceive the difference? And if so, why is it the case that he became so deeply curious  the other day when we saw a child of uncertain gender playing in the street? Matching representations are the only true measure of perceptual ability: i.e. the ability to accept or reject a duplicate or non duplicate of the thing sensed, not what someone is disposed - or not disposed - to tell you.

Anya Farennikova of ANU, made the claim that we “perceive absence” when our desires, expectations or beliefs are thwarted. It’s a compelling idea and would, I'm sure, be very popular indeed amongst many artists for whom the concept of absence is an important source of inspiration. Sadly though, I don’t think it explains what actually goes on very well at all. Absence is an abstract concept like justice or goodness and to treat it as a perceptible entity is to reify it - in other words to endow it with concrete properties. Furthermore, if any one (non)thing were a candidate for lacking perceptible properties, absence has to be the primary contender. It gets worse though. If we have a mental representation of this absence as Farennikova claims, then it is required - by the logic of her argument - that the mental representation of absence must be the result of a thwarted expectation, otherwise it cannot be represented as an absence. If so, then this mental representation must have another antecedent expectation and so on. I fear Farrenikova's project is unsalvagable due to the presence of the greatest philosophical presence of them all: infinite regress.

And just in case you are thinking that this criticism only applies to Farrenkova's thesis, it doesn't. Farrenkova is quite right to observe that the concept of absence is conditional upon prior expectation. The problem then, for anyone who claims that the brain functions through the use of representational states, is to explain how these states could ever represent absence. It's simply not possible without an infinite regress of prior expectations and representations. Lamentably, too few philosophers are prepared to accept this primary point of logic as the proof of the unworkability of their theoretical foundations.

Of all the presentations, Kathleen Stock’s was probably the least expected in the context. It was nonetheless excellent. Her paper: “Objectification and Perception” contends that the decisive feature at issue in debates over body objectification is the treatment of the subject - not as non-minded - but as fungible-minded; as having a mind that is imaginatively replaced by the preferred identity of the viewer. Kathleen Stock contrasts this view with the by now familiar, and generally accepted throughout much academia, post-Kantian instrumentalisation-type arguments put forward by Catherine McKinnon, Andrea Dworkin or Martha Nussbaum etc. This paper reignited an important debate for me that I had simply assumed was settled. Exactly what good philosophy should do.

Lastly was Jack Lyons of the University of Arkansas. Lyons proposed that perception is an intuitive process, a kind of knowing in which we do not know how we know what we know. I agree - but perhaps not in the way that he intended. To perceive is to intuitively know how to represent the thing perceived in one or more respects and in one or more ways. If this was what Lyon's meant he certainly didn't claim as much. In his presentation he brought up the example of medieval artists' depictions of babies and claimed that they “obviously didn’t know the cues for what babies are.” Now, this is a ridiculous suggestion, as I said to him afterwards. His response was to reel-off the Ruskinian story of how naive artists draw what they know, not what they see. I won’t repeat my criticism of this flawed notion - prejudice even - here since I’ve written about it at length elsewhere. In fact it’s the reason I went to the conference in the first place, because I hoped to encounter some conceptual tools and perhaps even some theorists who's work might help me better explain the problem and to elucidate the solution. Insofar as our antagonists are our helpers I think this conference did just that.

The organisers of the conference should be thoroughly commended on bringing together an extremely stimulating group of thinkers. It is clear that there is still an enormous amount that isn't known about perception but the pursuit is an extremely valid one. If I had the opportunity of presenting a paper at the conference I would have argued for the importance of an explanatory theory of representation as being foundational to a definition and understanding of perception. Perhaps when philosophers finally begin to accept (in much larger numbers than is currently the case) that representational states cannot possibly explain the way the brain functions, we may well see a sea change in insights into the workings of perception and no doubt much more besides. At present, the steps are very small and very uncertain and sometimes they stray into limitless voids from which they never return. Such is the nature of cultural evolution.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Imagining Itself (part XVII: A False Dichotomy)

“'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'”
So begin the opening lines of “Hard Times”, voiced by Thomas Gradgrind - one of Charles Dickens’ most opinionated and repugnant pedants. The history of people’s love affair with fact, objectivity and reality is a long one and abounds with countless rejections of the assumed trivialities and useless indulgences of fictions, imagination and fantasy in particular. It is as if these things are the very antitheses of all that is worthwhile and meaningful in the world. My intention here is not to take sides in this longstanding and often tedious debate over the relative merits of objectivity on the one hand and subjectivity on the other. Instead my aim is to show that the opposition is largely misconceived and is the product of a inadequate understanding of the nature of subjectivity in particular. In order to address this issue it might be useful first to give an overview of some of the more prominent attitudes that have emerged out of this misunderstanding, especially as it pertains to child development, during the last century (and no doubt much longer). 

A significantly influential figure in 20th Century conceptions of childhood development was Sigmund Freud who was of the opinion that children’s fascination with fantasy was simply a “wish fulfilment”: a means of securing in the mind what in reality is denied them. According to Freud, such thinking is gradually replaced by a secondary more realistic or objective thinking process as the child matures toward an adult rational understanding of the world. However, as is often the case with Freud, his actual scientific observations were surprisingly scant considering the complexity of the theories developed and this frequently led to assertions of fact where there was little more than his own home-grown version of imaginative wish fulfilment.

It should be quite obvious to anyone carefully observing the development of a child that the imaginative phase is in fact secondary to an initial phase of exploration and testing during infancy. Indeed Josef Perner (1991) identifies 3 stages of child cognitive development that concur with this observation precisely. How otherwise could children play at make believe if they have no understanding the basic principles that govern what they seek to manipulate? You cannot pretend to feed a toy panda unless you already have a basic grasp of the nature of food, the representation of animals and the purpose of mouths. Paul L. Harris makes a similar point at the beginning of his book (“The Work of the Imagination (Understanding Children's Worlds)” 2000) on the development of childhood imagination. He describes how both Freud and later the influential developmental psychologist Jean Piaget mistook childhood fantasy as a maladaptive process that is gradually suppressed as the child approaches adulthood. Harris continues by pointing out how even in the most seemingly implausible games of make believe, children nonetheless apply rational understandings of cause and effect and when these are questioned or violated they can become surprisingly doctrinaire in pointing out how spilled pretend tea makes a teddy bear wet.
“Children draw to a remarkable extent on the causal understanding of the physical and mental world that they have already built up during infancy. Thus, in pretence, young children may step back from current reality, or go beyond it, but that does not necessarily entail any cognitive distortion of the general principles by which reality operates.”- Paul L. Harris
Like Freud and Piaget, Maria Montessori, who’s teachings continue to be practiced in schools around the world carrying her name, also believed that too great an emphasis on fantasy play was detrimental to the development of children. Montessori advocated an education that emphasized “reality” and replaced make-believe activities like pretending to be a farmer with real-world equivalents like gardening. Many of Montessori’s ideas about education were close in kind to those of Friedrich Froebel, the German founder of kindergarten education, but unlike Froebel, Montessori was unconvinced that imaginary play and fantasy had any real value or purpose for the developing child:
“Just as adults find pleasure in tragic drama and literature, these tales of goblins and monsters give pleasure and stir the child’s imagination, but they have no connection with reality.” -Montessori
Interestingly in an interview, Montessori’s own grandson, Mario, mentions that his grandmother read him fantasy stories when he was younger than the age at which she insisted that they should be read to other children. (J. Kirkpatrick, “Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism”).

What becomes apparent in these attitudes towards subjectivity – and many like them - is the repeated assumption that fantasy-play and subjectivity in general are superficial, unreliable and potentially corrupting influences upon the young, the impressionable and the mentally infirm. For many people there is something deeply wrong with this attitude but it can be very difficult to counteract it without reinforcing the very terms that we are seeking to call into question. The key to resolving this issue, as we will find out in the next post, is to consider both subjectivity and objectivity in representational terms: as ways of understanding the world and most especially of describing it to others.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Imagining Itself (Part XVI: Premeditation and Impulse)

In his 2011 brick of a book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” Steven Pinker makes the astonishing case that society has become progressively less violent throughout recorded history. Despite the many vicious atrocities of the 20th Century, the number of global per capita deaths due to violence were actually relatively few when compared with the savagery of previous centuries. He lays out the evidence in a whopping 840+ pages of historical detail and closely argued commentary leaving little room for serious disagreement in what is about as close to an offensive weapon as a paperback could possibly get.

Pinker attributes the gradual civilising process to a variety of factors including the rise of reason, prudence, empathy, human rights and self-control. What struck me especially through his discussion of our inner demons and better angels was the degree to which imagination is profoundly implicated in the slow ascendency of civilisation and enlightenment.

As is to be expected, Pinker is quick to quash any notion that there might be an evolutionary basis to the progressive decline in violence - the timescale is simply too short. Nonetheless, there are numerous points throughout the book where it is clear that evolution - of the cultural kind – has provided important ways to reimagine, reconceive, anticipate and avoid many of the more fraught interactions with our fellow human beings. It should also be noted that without the capacity for imagination it is inconceivable that any such humanisation process could have been possible.

In a chapter on the subject of self-control, Pinker mentions a study conducted by psychologists Douglas Kenrick and David Buss in which 70 – 90% of men and between 50 – 80% of women admitted to having at least one homicidal fantasy in the preceding year. If these figures are in any way accurate then Pinker is right to remark: “The small number of premeditated murders that are actually carried out must be the cusp of a colossal iceberg of homicidal desires submerged in sea of inhibitions.” Moreover, whatever laws, morals, taboos or other forms of deterrent or self-control serve to inhibit these murderous intentions, they would be meaningless if we had no means to contemplate their consequences. Instead we would be little more than ungovernable bundles of urges with no possibility of premeditation or self restraint. Furthermore, while we may be uncertain whether the tendency to imagine violent acts (not to mention consuming representations of them) either increases or diminishes our propensity to carry them out, it is nonetheless true that the ability to anticipate situations in which one is likely to be the victim of violence have a significant influence on our behaviour; on the places we are likely go and the kinds of confrontations we are prepared to let ourselves in for. Discretion truly is the better part of valour.

Pinker also discusses the research of Richard Tremblay, a psychologist who studied levels of violence across various age groups. His work shows that it is not the testosterone driven years of late adolescence in which humans are at their most violent, as one might expect, but in fact during the terrible twos.

A few days ago my soon-to-be-3-year-old son accidentally clipped my forehead with a sturdy cardboard roll. It barely deserved to be acknowledged so I laughed it off. But just as I did so I detected the faint glimmerings of a realisation dawn upon his face as he contemplated – with a chuckle - the ramifications of what had just happened. As far as he was concerned he had been the direct cause of the “event” for which there had been no penalty. With no intuitive understanding the difference between intentional acts and accidental events, his response was far more predictable for me than it was for him. I tried to pre-empt it with a “Don’t you dare!” But his self taught lesson wasn’t yet complete and within a moment he had shoved the roll painfully into my cheek which was met with an angry reprimand and a scowl. There is no such thing as unintended malice and every parent will mete out this lesson instinctively, just as I did.

As children become increasingly capable of controlling their actions (literally of premeditation) we begin to expect more of them in terms of self-control and the more likely we are to judge them on the consequences of their actions. What further proof do we need that consciousness, imagination and morality develop throughout childhood and are to a significant degree formed and informed by culture?
 “To contemplate a horrible possibility, especially while smiling, is already to do something bad. The thinking may be morally bad even if it is never voiced and has no effect on anyone else.” -Derek Melser
Whilst I would agree with Melser that there is definitely something morally wrong about the person who gloats at another’s suffering, I’m not at all sure that we can generalise about all forms of imagined horror. The Health and Safety officer who takes pleasure in omitting a real and present danger from a Risk Assessment is doing something genuinely reprehensible, but their taking pleasure at contemplating likely causes of injury or death and bringing them to people’s attention is by no means morally bad, quite the reverse. When my son chuckled at his dawning epiphany I didn’t reprimand him for his thought, in fact I smiled along knowingly in the hope that he would manage to avert his impulse. Such moments of self-restraint are a vital part of the humanising process and there is genuine pleasure to be had in successfully overcoming the demons of our nature.

As Tremblay’s research shows, children of my son’s age are particularly poor at inhibiting their behaviour. They are impulsive because they haven’t yet learnt the knack of contemplating in imagination what they can only do in deed. Encouraging imagination undoubtedly brings with it the possibility that some people will use it to attempt to deceive the rest of us. But the solution is not for the rest of us to simply inhibit our darker acts of imagination. Perhaps one of the principal reasons we are so fascinated with crime - and why we consume representations of it in such vast quantities - is not because we take pleasure in the suffering of others but because crime provides insights into the possible deceptions that others might try to perpetrate against us. After all, the most vulnerable angels are those who can't imagine what it takes be a demon.