Tag Archives: representation

The Other Senses

We humans have a visual bias. Experiments have demonstrated our preference for sight, but there is no need for experiments. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” not the tasting, but “Seeing is believing,” they say. Whenever we want to illustrate something, well, we illustrate it. Our language and culture reify vision. Even our metaphysical discussions are rife with visual references: consider Mary the color scientist, spectrum inversions, and Gettier problems.

Our belief in seeing privileges our sense of sight relative to our other senses, and we are likely to take its instruction more seriously. We wave off any perceptual conundrums arising from our other senses as foibles of inferior organs. But we should take our nonvisual phenomena more seriously, for they have lessons for us if we do.

Those lessons start at the bottom, with our sense of smell. Though it is our crudest sense, and arguably the one sensory modality that we could most do without, the structure of smell has weighty implications. Olfactory neurons each bear a single kind of receptor. The odors we experience are mediated by activation of a set of receptors entirely. The number and distribution of that activation determines everything about a smell: its intensity, favorability, and motivational power. An odor is something which can be described, but not named. There is no equivalent to “red” in our odor palette. However, there are good and bad smells, and as with moral qualities (supposedly), smells are intrinsically motivating on the basis of their goodness and badness.

That motivational power lies in the smell itself. A chemical in a test tube which smells like a steaming pile, produces the same revulsion as the smell of a steaming pile itself. It is tempting to say that the odor of the chemical in the test tube is just an olfactory misrepresentation of crap. The common scent is supposed to smell just as it does, though. The smell is a conjunction linking an aversive mood, and things to be avoided. The smell and the mood are about a broad landscape, stretching over memory, history coded in our genetics and cultural instruction, all mediated by a particular pattern of receptor activation.

A similar sort of two-directional representation occurs in our auditory experience. The organ which generates auditory nerve signals, the cochlea, is tuned to the range of the human voice. The structures at the auditory end of the line are primed to respond directly to voices and music, and indirectly, to stimulate an emotional response to voices and music. As with smell, when hearing evokes a mood, it builds a memory of itself and its circumstances on a broad and sturdy base. A good framework improves the recollection’s relevance, and therefore its odds of survival. Here is another temptation. Fans of evolutionary psychology and divine teleology may see the beginnings of a good story in this structure. But those sorts of stories are unnecessary, and far beyond the point, which is: our hearing shapes the map of our experience in terms of words and music, as much as it recognizes musical and linguistic experiences.

The other senses break down the uni-directionality of representation, but even further, they blur the internal/external division itself. Taste receptors give us the sensations of sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami. Our conscious experience of taste locates those sensations on the tongue. But there are taste receptors for bitter and sweet in the pharynx, and sweet taste receptors throughout the intestinal tract. Those sweet receptors attach to neurons which do not reside in the central nervous system, but instead, lie in the intestinal tract itself, and the pancreas. Though these sense organs have no direct connections to the central nervous system, they still contribute to conscious experience. They simply do so via the adjacent somatosensory system.

Our somatic senses are a bit of a jumble. As a whole, they are the thing that represents our status. Though there are a few specialized sense organs in the system, it mostly relies on bare nerve endings and chemical signals built in to the tissues surrounding the nerve endings. This sense tells us where our limbs are, and what each appendage is doing. The somatosensory system lets us know when our gallbladder is on the fritz, and, indirectly, when we are hungry or full..

Though they are rarely the center of our conscious attention, our somatosensory experiences are always present in our conscious states. If I interrupt Dr. Penrose’s visualization of a 5 dimensional object, he will immediately be able to tell me whether he is standing or sitting, feeling hungry, feeling warm or cold, fit or tired. Somatosensory experience serves as the shade tree, grass, and sky in the painting of our phenomenal picnic.

Of all the senses, our somatic sense most effectively dissolves the boundary between what is internal and what is external. Because, our hunger is apparently our hunger. Our cold is our cold. These are things that seem to incorrigibly belong to us, just like our thoughts or our moods.

The thought that any of these things belong to us is a bit off anyway. Words and music, hunger, thought, and mood are constituents, but there is no separable “us” to which they may belong. We come by this error regarding identity via our most favored sense. Because we rely so heavily on vision, we confer an unmerited degree of independence to our visual experiences. We conceive of sight as purely received information, which given the limitations of the medium, na├»vely represents an unconditioned reality. The plain truth gets transmitted through our optic nerves, into the dark room behind our eyes for the viewing pleasure of a little man in front of his little screen – the real us. Visual realism leads to other mistakes in its turn, regarding what is real and what is not. We begin to believe that numbers may be real because our eyes see objects as very discrete. Geometric shapes may seem real because we are able to depict them visually. A separate observer made up a separate stuff must sit behind our eyes to validate the reality of our visions. Our other senses beg to differ. They give as good as they get. Their contributions to our experience only make sense in reference to our global experience itself and do not rest on some outer, hard surface. Our world may be a ship sustained by the tension of its own spars, but it works for us – better than a brittle realism would.

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Taking Pictures

Wyoming is a Banana Republic. That is, very few of its residents craft any products, or add value to pre-existing items. Instead, they survive by selling off the state bit by bit. The major industries are mineral extraction and tourism. Reliance on those commodities creates a vicious cycle, because the state’s fortunes rise and fall with mineral prices and popular whimsy. To live through the fluctuations, politicians skimp on the state budget so that they can put enough money in the bank to survive the next economic lull. A few lonely prophets call for investing those funds in economic diversification, in the interest of breaking free from the cycle of feast and famine. The politicians repeatedly acknowledge that diversification is a good idea, but can never bring themselves to actually commit to it. It is just too risky.

So, the state carries on in its bumpy ruts, booming and busting. Decades on this road have had socioeconomic consequences. The path has led to a land of Manors and mobile homes, housing those who own the mines and the lovely land and their servants respectively.

No place in the state epitomizes this case study in Marxist historical analysis better than the town of Jackson. A ring of expensive houses surrounds a ring of expensive condominiums which surrounds a cluster of expensive restaurants, galleries, and boutiques. And that is Jackson. Though Jackson is fancy enough in any season, its exclusivity shines brightest in winter. In summer, the dirtier class of tourist drives through town on its way to Yellowstone. In winter, the only reason to be in Jackson is to patronize one of the ski resorts or to serve the patrons.

Although, there is one other, statistically insignificant reason to be in Jackson in the winter. For several years, that reason compelled me. I wanted to climb the grand Teton in full conditions. There is no reasonable explanation for that compulsion. I just feel a perverse attraction to isolated, windswept places. For instance, when I topped out on California Ice in the Bighorns, I sat on a rock and looked across from Hell Roaring plateau to Froze to Death plateau and was filled with a rare sensation, a feeling of fearsome loneliness, and profound contentment along with it. I can’t offer any better excuse.

When the idea first came to me, I sought out a friend who had done a lot of climbing in the Teton range. Sure enough, he had attempted a winter ascent. He got close, but after a day of skiing through waist deep powder, he and his partner had to bivouac short of their goal. They were well prepared, but the night was so brutally cold, that they were beaten by the next morning and decided to ski down. They fell into chest deep powder on each turn. My friend’s partner lost his mind. He took his skis off and tossed them, javelin style, down the snowfield. He then swam after them over the loaded slope, cursing and spluttering, until he could get his hands on the traitorous bastards and chuck them again. Though he came back to his senses eventually, the trip marked an end to their partnership..

Despite that tale, and others warning of frostbite and avalanche, I still thought I could pull it off, and I still wanted to pull it off, maybe even more than before. It wasn’t a solo adventure though, and to my surprise and frustration, I had difficulty convincing anyone else to come along.

Finally, I persuaded my friend Jim that it would be a good adventure. I’m not sure if he ever really believed that we would climb, but he believed in the adventure part and that was good enough for him. We set up base camp at the Motel 6 down the road from the main town.

Over the next week, we made a few forays up past the tree line, but the avalanche forecasts were always bad, and the peak was socked in with clouds and blowing snow besides. Nobody said anything; we just gave up one day. We got up late, and Jim suggested that we might go up to Teton Pass and do some tele skiing.

Now it was my turn to cash in on the adventure itself rather than the intrinsic joys of the activity. I knew how skis worked, theoretically. But until that day, I had only used skis to get somewhere with a pack on. My technique was purely pragmatic, and rudimentary. To go downhill, I left the climbing skins on the skis. I then skied across the slope, stopped and turned to face the other direction. I repeated that process to the bottom of the hill.

When we got to the top of the pass, the skins came off the skis. Jim gave me some tips on turning without stopping, and then we were off. Again and again I nosedived into the unconsolidated powder. Jim was soon out of sight. I began to suspect retribution. I felt like I owed him at that point though, so I sucked it up and ate a little more snow while he carved track after track in the slope. When we had had enough, we went into town and wandered around.

Winter tourists milled around the square. Most were dressed to ski, with lift tickets still clipped to their coat zippers. A few were dressed as cowboys in Stetsons and shearling coats. The famous antler arch was busy with group after group documenting the fact of their visit to Jackson Hole with a picture under the strange sculpture of bone.

There was not much for us around the square. We stood outside a couple of the bars and debated going in for a drink. They seemed too crowded though, and we decided against. We stopped by the mountaineering shop, which at this point in its evolution had basically become a Patagonia outlet, to chat with an old friend of Jim’s. We didn’t go in to any of the other establishments, but we did stop for a while in front of a photo display. Though neither of us was in the market for an expensive print, Jim had a professional interest in the product.

Jim was a photographer, but not the kind of photographer who had a gallery in downtown Jackson Wyoming. Jim was an artist who scraped by on grants and museum patronage. He took pains to draw a distinction between what he did, and what a commercial photographer did. Yet he radiated a little glow of resentment as we stood in front of the spotless plate glass. The gallery inside was all polished wood. If there was an attendant, he or she was politely hidden in the back.

The well lit pictures were all of wildlife. Most depicted charismatic megafauna. The photographer seemed particularly fond of bears. Jim glanced over most of these offerings in a second, and then paused for a bit in front of a family of polar bears. He wore a discomforted expression.
“What do you think?”, I asked.
I expected to catch him off guard, and I was halfway teasing with the question, but he shot back right away.
“It’s too didactic”
I was caught off guard.
“What do you mean by that?”, I asked.
“It looks like a photograph,” he said.

I didn’t exactly know what he meant. However, I could see that there was something different about the pictures of wildlife in that gallery, and his pictures. There was one photo of his in particular, taken at Lac Du Flambeau, which stood out to me. The subjects were two members of the tribe, a man and a woman. He was looking into the distance with an expression of anger or determination, it was hard to say which. She stood behind him, maybe in contact with him, wearing that same, mysterious expression, but she was looking at him. She was standing still. He appeared prepared to stride off towards whatever it was the distance. He was silent. She was speaking.

Clearly, his photo was something other than the picture of the polar bear family. I understood the gist of it then, but it would be years before I could put that distinction into words. It is the difference between pictures of polar bears, and polar bear pictures. Pictures of polar bears could be pictures of the whole bear, but also could be photos of a patch of fur, a black nose, or a white dot in the distance. Polar bear pictures could depict whole bears too, but include stick figures, polar bear paintings, pictures of men in polar bear suits, or black eyes, a black nose and a red mouth on white canvases.

Pictures of polar bears document. Polar bear pictures represent. By representing, polar bear pictures evoke all the relative connections which comprise our categories, and therefore the sense of our experience.

The picture in the gallery was a picture of polar bears. It was as documentary as the tourists’ snapshots under the antler arch. The photograph of the man and woman at Lac Du Flambeau was representational. There was something about human relationship, emotion, and the interpretation of expressions in the photo. But the really brilliant thing was: the photo primarily represented something not present in the image itself.

The predominant impression was the churn of excitement and uncertainty which occurred in the beholder. It was a class of sensation which bound subsequent viewers to the original viewer in its momentary intensity.

Jim has been gone for some years now. I can’t even find that picture in the supposed eternity of the Internet. I don’t need to, because I can remember it in every detail by the feeling it represents. The feeling is the same as my excuse for wanting to climb the Grand in winter, and I think it also explains why Jim would throw in on my crazy project.

There is no gallery for such things.

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The Other Minds

My dog loves me. Despite his creaking hips and back, he heaves himself up and comes to greet me when I return home each night, with his tail wagging. Yet I wonder if I am right about his feelings about me. After all, I am just interpreting his behavior as representative of mental and emotional states which I would have in similar circumstances. And, he has been bred over centuries to be a veritable human-pleasing machine which exhibits a set of behaviors that, among other things, is calculated to make me feel that he feels like I am the best thing since kibbles. Come to think of it, he does not wag his tail while he eats, and he never met a kibble he didn’t love.

If only he could tell me that he loves me, then I would know for sure. On second thought, I could not know for sure. I can’t even know for sure when another human reports their feelings or perceptions or any other personal, qualitative aspect of their experience to me. In any such case, the experience that I attribute to their report may be radically different from what they are actually experiencing. At least, that’s what the Inverted Spectrum teaches us.

The Inverted Spectrum is a thought experiment. It was not devised to tackle the problem of other minds. It was devised to demonstrate the ethereal nature of qualitative properties. But like any good thought experiment, it illustrates multiple aspects of the target issue.

Here’s how it goes: Imagine that you have a best friend named Fred, who you have known since you both could walk. Unbeknownst to you however, whenever you both look at something red, Fred does not see red, he sees green instead. This is not to say that Fred is color blind. On the contrary, he sees all the colors that you see, and he quite happily calls the red object “red”. He just sees it as green. The two of you could go through your entire lives discussing painting and picking out Granny Smiths instead of Red Delicious at the grocery store, without a hitch. The basic qualities “red” and “green” do not influence function; we happily operate the same way with the qualities flipped.

The implications of the Inverted Spectrum may seem bizarre, dramatic and disturbing, but closer examination may shrink the menace. If I assign you and Fred to sort red and green beads into separate boxes, the two of you will complete the task in no time with no mistakes. That’s because what we all call “red” designates the same set of beads, even though they produce in Fred what you or I would call a “green” experience. To take it a little further, if I assign the two of you to tell me the color of sour things, sweet things, hot things, dangerous things or growing things, you and Fred will give me the same answers in French, English, Fulani, or even just by pointing. All secondary associations are flipped along with the reds and greens.

The jolt from this thought experiment comes when we imagine our experience of Fred’s experience, with all of our secondary associations still in place. But that’s completely off base. What we have run down with this thought experiment is an account of Fred’s experience with all his own secondary associations attached. The point is that there is some irreducible personal element to it all. But then, where does that leave Fred’s “red” or his “green” or his any other what-it-is-like aspect of experience?

Having seen what it is like to see what it is like to experience what Fred sees from your viewpoint, you may have trouble explaining your horror to him. You will insist that the apple is red, as are hot things and dangerous things, and he will heartily agree. You can desperately insist that he is deluded and is pervasively mistaking red qualities for green ones. He will reply that he is not and will ask you to prove it, which, as the thought experiment demonstrates, you cannot. What remains to his personal, qualitative experience, stripped of all the secondary associations, is just its personalness.

If you were to truly step into Fred’s skin with all its secondary associations in place and your own secondary associations set aside, you would have to admit that Fred’s “red” is indeed red; it is just not your red.

My dog may be an automaton. He may be a human-pleasing machine who wags his tail on the basis of a genetic algorithm and just acts in a very convincing way, like he means it. But if so, as the Inverted Spectrum illustrates, he does mean it, just as Fred really means red when he says “red”. All the secondary associations are in place. I may rightly conjecture that what it may be like to be him may not be what it is like to be me, but I knew that before he wagged his tail. He loves me, as sure as I know what love is.

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Causes, Facts, and Heroin

The lecturer moved his laser-pointer quickly over the loop of neural circuitry. He explained the role of Mu receptors in activating the circuit, which sent a signal round and round and came out as the behavior pattern we call addiction. It was all very neat.

It was so neat the he could have simplified his diagram by replacing the pretty brain graphic with a switch. Off would be synonymous with no addictive behavior. On would equal addictive behavior. If you took the theory, “Addiction = Brain Circuitry” at face value, anything that flips the switch would cause addiction. Yet we know that that situation does not obtain. Heroin flips the switch, but not everyone who takes heroin manifests addictive behavior.

For the advocate of “Addiction = Brain Circuitry”, there are two ways out of this dilemma. First, he can posit a multiplicity of switches. In other words, he can claim that there is an intervening network of necessary, but not sufficient, switches on either side of the Big Switch, mediating the input and output of the addiction circuit. But then in principle, all those switches could also be replaced with a single switch, and you are right back where you started. No limited set of if/then statements will be completely determinative.

The second way out of the non-correspondence dilemma is to simply abandon a complete and transparent explanation, in favor of reliable facts. Neurons are necessary to behaviors, and we know that because, if we zap certain neurons, we can reliably alter corresponding behaviors. That doesn’t exactly explain the behavior, but it lets us move on to knowledge of neural circuits and the experiences which correspond with changing the configurations of those circuits.

One might denigrate the second solution as an abandonment of truth-seeking. Perhaps, but that is not so bad, on a proper notion of truth. In solution #2, you get a theory, which is a set of reliable facts. To get to the truth what you need is an explanatory reduction. In other words, all the switches and their positions for a specific moment of behavior, across the cosmic board. Such an array is purely didactic. It refers to no knowledge, for it cannot reliably correspond with anything. You may think you know something about it, but you don’t – not until you begin to formulate a theory regarding it.

Johnnie shoots a dose of heroin because he has inherited a susceptible set of receptors, because he contains the dendritic representations of certain permissive life-lessons, because he lacks certain inhibitory representations, because he lives in a society which has heroin, because he anticipates certain effects from heroin injections. And on, and on, and on…

At the end of such an exposition (if there even is an end) what we have is just a snap-shot which we have pre-labeled, “Johnnie’s Addiction”. To make any sense of it – to know anything at all about it – we must delve in to the insufficient necessities, and be satisfied with their mere reliability. When we give Johnnie a medicine for his Addiction, we should expect that it will, to some extent, extinguish the behavior. We should expect that if we take away his heroin, his behavior will, to some extent, change. And in fact, our theory does correspond with the facts which it predicts, and upon which rests.

Like the addiction lecturer, we all frequently feel dissatisfied with reliability. We would like some non-provisional knowledge. Give us some truth, please. Aspiring to truth gets us nowhere, though. Truth is too hefty. To riff on Gettier’s classic thought experiment, Smith has the truth when he observes that a person with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job, once Smith sees that a person with 10 coins in his pocket gets the job. Yet he has no knowledge thereby. He cannot be (provisionally) right or wrong in such a statement, any more than a snapshot can be right or wrong (though our subsequent interpretations – theories – of the snapshot may be).

If Smith says, at his next interview, that the person with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job, and he takes care to put 10 coins in his own pocket in hopes of getting the job, then he may know something. He is making a knowledge claim regarding his experience with coins and interviews, and his claim may or may not correspond with his theory’s fact-conditions. Reliability is what he will get, and he will be happy with it, or not, as will we all.

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Being and Waspishness

In the Fall, our crags are swarming with wasps. Their source is a mystery. It is rare to see wasp nests in the cracks and pockets in the limestone, and when found, the nests are no bigger than a newborn’s clenched fist. The volume of the Fall swarms doesn’t comport with the numbers seen over the Summer. The wasps in Fall also differ in quality from the busy, irritable creatures encountered in Summer. The Autumn wasps are less likely to sting, but they are also harder to shoo away. When threatened, they flare their wings and wave their antennae.
A bunker mentality seems to have taken hold of them, perhaps as a consequence of excessive introspection, depression even. In flight, they behave with no less aimlessness than when clinging to the stone. They waft from perch to perch in short hops, always staying within a few feet of the crag, extending the arc of their flight only if they encounter another intransigent insect where they would land. They are not hunting, and do not appear to engage in courtship or any other purposeful behavior in the course of their days.
To the climbers who persist at the crags through the cooling season, the wasps look a feckless lot. Some observers go so far as to advocate swatting the insects on principle, as the wasps have lost their purpose and are simply waiting to die. Why let them suffer?

The Grand Auger, who sacrificed the swine and read omens in the sacrifice, came dressed in his long dark robes to the pig pen and spoke to the pigs as follows: “Here is my counsel to you. Do not complain about having to die. Set your objections aside, please. Realize that I shall now feed you on choice grain for three months. I myself will have to observe strict discipline for ten days and fast for three. Then I will lay out grass mats and offer your hams and shoulders upon delicately carved platters with great ceremony. What more do you want?”
Then, reflecting, he considered the question from the pigs’ point of view: “Of course, I suppose you would prefer to be fed with ordinary coarse feed and be left alone in your pen.”
But again, seeing it once more from his own viewpoint, he replied: “No, definitely there is a nobler kind of existence! To live in honors, to receive the best treatment, to ride in a carriage with fine clothes, even though at any moment one may be disgraced and executed, that is the noble, though uncertain destiny that I have chosen for myself.”
So he decided against the pigs’ point of view and adopted his own point of view, both for himself and for the pigs also.
How fortunate, those swine, whose existence was thus ennobled by one who was at once an officer of the state and a minister of religion.
– Zhuang Zi as translated by Thomas Merton

The same sentiment applies to the wasps. Trivially, some of the wasps which a climber sees in Fall are foundresses of next Spring’s colonies. No one would question their having a meaningful existence, in wasp terms. They represent the sisters passed, of the colony that bore them and back down the line. When we say ‘meaning’ in regard to a creature’s existence, we imply just such a representation on the creature’s part. After all, meanings don’t have meanings, symbols do. When we speak of purpose in the same context, we refer to the relationship between the representation and the meaning behind it, with the purpose of the representation being to signify the meaning.
Next Spring’s founding females have a purpose: to represent their colonies of origin and so on, in the genes they express, the ova they carry, and the smells they remember. The colony is gone but the intention of the colony remains, represented by the heiress.
People are no different. We represent our backgrounds and their intentions. We try to live up to our potential, what we are born with and what we acquire by learning. For us, as for the wasps, this representation is always in the present, pulling at the intention groping behind it. The colony’s heiress begins her own take on her mother’s colony. Her ownership changes the intention a bit. Her smell is a little bit different. Depending on what confronts her in the Spring, she may recruit the help of her fellow survivors to start her nest or usurp another’s. No matter, the next generation will recall a different ideal in its turn. We too, will try to live up to the tales of the deeds of our ancestors (by blood or tradition), rather than the deeds themselves, and the tales of the tales and so on.
But where does all this leave the true left-overs, the workers who will soon die in the cold? For them, the colony is lost forever. They represent the end. No one could blame the human observer for imagining these insects as little Macbeths, with their petulant defense of limestone cubby-holes and their swarming a soliloquy pleading for release from the futile farce which their lives have become, maybe which their lives have been from the start.
Still, they fly. They utilize the behaviors passed to them as social insects in their new context. They sting if pressed. They taste the air for familiar scents. They seek the light and shade with the progression of heat through the day. For their part, they signify the heritage of social insects as much as the females who will survive the Winter. If they have lost anything by losing the meaning and purpose of their role in the nest, it wasn’t much.
All representations work this way and the losses associated with any loss of significance are no more than the losses a cipher suffers in moving from one equation to another. When we pose the question, “Why should we let them suffer?”, the wasps might answer us like little Mallorys rather than little Macbeths: “Because I’m here.” That is exactly what they are saying when they wave their antennae at an approaching hand.

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