Thursday, 30 June 2016

Taking Advantage Of Our Mistakes

‘Just to see what happens…’ is the sense of the word ‘experiment’ with which we are able to conceive of an experimenter who is lurching forward through more or less random behaviours in a limbo of ignorance, but with some (usually unjustified) air of optimism. It is also the sense in which, in the course of doing something that the experimenters do know how to do (such as boiling flasks of urine), they unexpectedly discover how to do something that they did not know how to do and thereafter—if an unexpected but desirably efficacious outcome has emerged—are able to do ‘the same thing’ again, although now in a differently purposeful way. (Donald Brook 2015)

My 5 year old son recently mistook a photograph behind a shop counter for an actual person. After a brief moment of surprise, he remarked: “That could scare other children.” I had noticed the picture too, but hadn’t been fooled by it, partly I think because my vantage point made me less prone to the illusion. My son’s comment seemed to be fairly trivial at the time, but it left me wondering about the nature of mistakes. Most especially it left me thinking about how discoveries and insights are often the unexpected offspring of mistakes.

“A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.” -Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Invariably when we make discoveries, they arise unexpectedly. You cannot get up in the morning and decide to have a discovery, an epiphany, a revelation or an insight. It is in the nature of these concepts, that their treasures are stumbled upon “in the limbo of ignorance”, even when our anticipatory bags are diligently packed in preparation. No matter how well prepared we might be, no matter how well equipped, we can only fully anticipate what we already know or can imagine. There would be nothing to discover, no insights to be had and no revelations to befall us if we were already acquainted with our discoveries in advance.

During a tutorial a few years ago, I found myself saying: “A mistake is a discovery never to be repeated.” I made a point of committing this phrase to memory for future use, but I’m beginning to realise that it isn’t the pithy truism that I had assumed. Sometimes there is potential in our tendency to make mistakes, especially mistakes of a commonly occurring and therefore exploitable sort. Indeed, there are times when our mistakes become what James Joyce called: “portals of discovery”.

When my son mistook the shop image for an actual person, he made a fairly commonplace mistake. But when he remarked that the image could scare other children, he had already transformed his mistake into an insightful observation: other people like him would have a similar response in similar circumstances. In essence he had discovered, or at least he was noting the fact, that in certain circumstances images can be mistaken for the things they represent.

In my investigations of the theories of Donald Brook, I have often been struck by the emphasis he places upon the notion of “sensory discrimination failure”. It has often seemed to me that he places too much emphasis on what we fail to perceive and not enough on what we succeed in perceiving. In my attempts to explore and exploit his insights I have frequently avoided the notion of failure, preferring instead to draw attention to the “characteristics” of our sensory system or our sensory “limitations”. But if it is true that our perceptual mistakes can be the source of insight—of discoveries of how we and others like us are susceptible in the same purposefully exploitable ways—then perhaps my uneasiness has been unwarranted. To be fair to Brook, on several occasions he has mentioned that sensory discrimination failure is a great “felicity”. After all, amongst other things, it enables us to successfully simulate three-dimensional objects with the flat things we call “pictures” or—by a completely different method of substitution—to imitate (with various levels of success of course) the sounds of innumerable different creatures or to replicate, copy, mimic and emulate all manner of things.

Non-verbal matching and non-verbal simulating are two significantly different ways of exploiting the useful substitutability of one thing for another thing under certain circumstances, for certain communities of perceivers, for certain purposes, by virtue of the fact that all sensory systems are systematically unreliable in certain ways. Science is the most orderly and progressive way of finding out what we might be expected to say about the world if our sensory systems were not unreliable. (In spite of this--and not paradoxically--we could never have got language, and hence science, going at all if our sensory systems hadn't been unreliable in the felicitous way they are, enabling us to substitute one thing for another thing in ways that have an evolutionary pay-off). (Brook, in personal communication 27/12/12)

That perception is usually successful is obvious. No doubt this is why Brook’s primary concern has always been to elucidate the contrasting importance of perceptual mistakes in our account of representation and perception. Unlike mistakes of a more procedural sort, perceptual mistakes cannot be overcome by careful practice or training. We can be more or less vigilant of course, but illustrators, photographers and even perceptual psychologists are no less susceptible to well presented illusions than the rest of us. There is no sense in which my son could have avoided his mistake by trying a little harder or by being better informed. Such illusions do not result from a lack of knowledge or expertise, they result from our creaturely fallibilities. Where our skills come to the fore is in the dawning realisation that we have made a mistake, not in the mistaking. And by the time we have figured out what is going on, the mistake has already been made.

Some people take the view that we would have language even if we had no inability to discriminate between certain things in certain circumstances. But what would this entail? To be able to discriminate between everything and anything under all circumstances and in all respects would be to exist in a universe with no regularities and patterns whatsoever. Nothing would be the same as anything else and even similarity would be out of the question because there would be no end to our discriminations. In such a universe there would be no possibility of substituting or exchanging one thing for another equivalent thing because no two things would be equivalent. Language simply couldn’t get the slightest foothold in such a universe because nothing would be like anything else at all. It is hard to imagine a more alien universe or one more unsuited to communication. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton’s rendition of Wittgenstein: “It makes no sense to speak of perceiving something in a context where we could not possibly make mistakes."


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