Sound on Mars?

Today the Guardian reports that sounds on Mars have been recorded and sent back to Earth. You can listen to the sounds yourself. The robot Perseverance makes the sounds itself with its wheels, and it sounds in need of a drop of oil.

But wait a moment! Sounds on Mars? In what sense are there sounds on Mars?

A sculptor stands before a block of marble. The sculptor knows there is a Goddess in there and all he has to do is chip away the extraneous lumps of marble to reveal her. The casual bystander might be forgiven for expressing scepticism. The sculptor will, of course, be proved right, in a fashion, but in taking him at his word, we are ignoring his skill, art, workmanship, expertise, and talent, all of which seem to be rather important elements in this story.

In asserting the presence of sounds on Mars, we are ignoring the rather important fact that these sounds can only be brought forth through our ingenuity, engineering, and concerted effort. The microphone that plays an important role here is a human artifact, engineered using norms derived from human hearing, sensitive to the kind of things that our ears happen to be sensitive to. Absent the microphone, Mars is rather more like a block of uncarved marble. Yes, you can listen to the sounds. They are real. They are the Goddess revealed by the skill of the engineers, technicians, and everybody else who worked hard to parse the continuum of Mars in this way, and not another.

There are no sounds on Mars, or Goddesses in marble, until we bring them forth.

1, 2 and 3

Philosophers of a particular stripe like to pepper their discursive examples with tables and teapots. Occasionally a tree or a rock might be put forward as a clear object of discourse. It is naively assumed that placing “teapot” in the frame of the discourse is somehow unassailable. Clearly it exists. Clearly it exists in a similar fashion for you and for me. Surely we are on safe ground here.

This is the simplistic error of thinking about one thing at a time, and wielding the notion of “existence” as if it were without wrinkles, and as if it were immune from the paradoxes of time. It underlies the unreflective demand of science for accounts that are based on facts, not values, and that are (please do not look at this word for longer than necessary) “objective.” Damn, I put the word in scare quotes, and now it is a little suspect.

For it doesn’t take long for this kind of wishful simplistic nonsense to reach its limits. The teapot is just fine, but proceeding in that vein threatens to describe a universe without qualities, an objectivity in which no subjects arise. One still meets both scientists and philosophers for whom existence statements in this flat objective mode are the stock in trade. But a move to consider a number beyond 1 is needed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Synkairony, anyone?

Synchronisation is supported by the notion of chronos, which is an index on a notional scale beginning at the big bang, and oriented towards the future. As an index, this picks out an infinitesimal, which is not well aligned with our notion of being in time. Chronos is whatever we read off a clock. Kairos is another temporal notion based on relative timing. The weaver passes the shuttle through the loom at just the right point in the cycle. A punch is thrown just as the other is off-guard. A handshake unfolds, with each hand moving with respect to the other.

Our being in time is not captured by chronos. We live among the processes of the living, among seasons, recurrences, rituals, weeks and weekends, mornings and nights. To see us as beings oriented only by chronos is to see us as transient anti-entropy engines, living towards death. To see us as suspended in the web of relations that is living, is to recognise that almost all of our orientation towards “time” is kaironic, rather than chronometric.

Many of us study patterns of synchronisation: among animals, biological processes, collective labours, chants, and beyond. When we treat of such patterns as if chronos were the substance of time, we do violence to ourselves. Fireflies synchronise with respect to each other, to the fading light of dusk, to the ambient temperature change. Not with respect to any clock. When blackberries arrive, all at the same time, it would be odd to call it synchronised emergence, but synkaironic?  I see a need for a new term here. This is collective time, time brought forth in coordination, in mutuality.

Although I love dynamical modeling as applied to the processes of life, it is in kairos that we come together to forge a world, not in chronos. Oscillator models take note!

Stafford Beer: I said you are Gods!

Thanks to the diligent offices of Vanilla Beer, here is the text of a talk given by renowned cybernetician Stafford Beer in 1981 to the Teilhard Centre for the Future of Man. It is a mature distillation of themes of cybernetics, metaphysics, and spirituality, which were matters of lively debate among many of the early cyberniticians and friends (Gregory Bateson, Alan Watts, George Spencer-Brown, Humberto Maturana, etc).

PDF: I Said You Are Gods

Please don’t insist that the brain is a computer

Thinking aloud on Twitter, a colleague expressed his frustration thus: “It has bothered me for a while when people say that “the brain as a computer” is a metaphor that has had its day. It’s not the same as saying the brain is a clockwork machine or whatever metaphors there were in the past. It’s not a metaphor.”

This led to an exchange with involvement of several people, and, inevitably, the substance of the matter got lost in the abbreviated exchange of polemical statements. In the exchange, it was obvious that I represented a minority opinion. Indeed I was insistent that “the brain is a computer” is indeed a metaphor, and that it must be seen as such as long as alternative positions are available. It is this position that I wish to elaborate upon here.

I do not set out to convince anybody that their view of the brain as a computer is wrong. My concern is that alternative views, views that cannot be aligned with this position, are available, are representable (in the sense that coherent arguments can be made for them) and that the core of the debate is a metaphysical disagreement, not an empirical one, so that it is important that space be made for divergent interpretations. To do this in a brief post, I think it necessary that I do these things:

* demonstrate that I understand what is being claimed when it is asserted that “the brain is a computer” and that I recognize the power of that view
* demonstrate that that view has metaphysical commitments of its own that are not universally shared
* briefly say a few words about how this might appear if one had different metaphysical commitments, and
* outline why the original argument is politically important, and why I will continue to insist that the original statement is a metaphor and, in an ethical debate, must be seen as such.

Read the rest of this entry »

Workshop announcement

A Workshop on and with Anthony Chemero

Wednesday June 27 and Thursday June 28

Location: The Boardroom, Computer Science Building, UCD (Room 2.24 on the second floor of the CS Building).

Read the rest of this entry »

Beware the solitary thinker

TV Rodin by Nam June Paik (1976). One of several instantiations of this work that confronts the solipsistic thinker with his own image.

Far too much theorizing, thinking, and speculating is done in isolation, by solitary souls who believe they can interrogate reality alone, and on their own terms. The whipping boy de jour is, of course René Descartes who is unfairly held responsible for the bifurcation of man and nature, the hard problem of consciousness, and some terribly unconvincing proofs of the existence of the Christian God. Distrusting his senses, eschewing any empirical foothold in the world, he asserts, quite reasonably, “Je suis! J’existe!” But to assert that on one’s own is rather pointless, so he wrote it down and shared it with others. Had he sat with another person, his retreat from the world, and the melodramatic hypothesis of an evil demon who misled his senses, would all have been both unnecessary and, frankly, incredible.

Conversing in each other’s presence is an invitation to a kind of consensual realism. When we sit with each other, there is necessarily a shared quality to our experience that acts a wonderful antidote to the kind of solipsistic interpretation that Descartes seems to allow. Our joint presence makes the very notion of a discrete, unobservable domain of a private mind unintelligible. Being co-present to each other places limits on our ability to indulge in radical skepticism. When we are together, something is indubitable—though of course we will go wrong immediately if we try to pin down, describe, and represent what that is. The simple stark reality of co-being precedes any vain attempt at description.

In isolation, a lone individual might speak of an “external world.” When we sit together, there is just the world, for it is then clear that we are not trapped inside cranial caves, peering out, but we are instead co-habiting a largely shared reality. There are necessary limits to that sharing. We do not share perspectives, for example. Your view of the cup on the table is related to, but independent of my view of the same cup. We have histories that are only partially shared, no matter how intimate we may be. And when we are not actually talking, we are each capable of attending to a silent voice, the medium of a particular kind of thought. But unless one of us judges the other insane, we cannot doubt that we are grounded together in a single reality. This is true if we are lovers and if we are enemies, if our contact extends back over decades, or if we have just met. The condemned felon and the hangman are co-present no less than the couple dancing the tango.

Most metaphysical talk, written down in cold impersonal words on paper, treats of a first person perspective and a third person perspective. When we are tasked with interpreting these notions, the first person perspective is that of the solipsist, tragically alone, and set off against the notional “external” world. The third person perspective we are enjoined to consider is impersonal, all-seeing. It is, in fact, the mythical view from nowhere, or God’s eye view. This pair of view points, which we learn to discuss but never to inhabit, gives rise to the idea that subjects and objects are distinct, and opposed. Subjects, and the subjective, then acquire associations of idealism, while objects collapse into materialism.

But neither a first nor a third person perspective can lay claim to correspondance with reality. They are, in fact, both works of elaborate fiction, the result of a superabundance of isolated thinkers and their written words. The transcendental subject, nowhere to be found, becomes a model for the thinking “I”, and the associated notion of subjectivity thus becomes tainted with the stain of taste, opinion, capriciousness, irreality, and indeterminacy. The “external” mind-independent object must then be equally transcendental, knowable only through the mediation of the senses, instruments, or media. Objectivity then is set off against the diaphenous world of the subject, as something very very real indeed. It is the realm in which things exist, or fail to exist. It underpins the assertions of naive realism, though even the most enthusiastic realist will concede that we may never know this objective realm perfectly. For we are, after all, subjects, and Descartes’ evil demon could still be lurking under the bed.

These several conundrums seem to fade out if we come back to the embodied situation in which we converse face to face. Here, there is “us”, there is “we”, neither simply subject nor object, and yet here reality obtains—more real than any mind or rock, than any words or tree. This sounds dubitable on paper, or on a screen. It is obvious when we actually sit together. In writing, I am forced to lean on the syntactic crutch of sentences like “This is real”, “That is real.” In our joint presence, we need to no such thing, for it is indubitable that we converse from some common ground. In an important sense, just when we are co-present to one another, we share a “now.” From this common present, we launch our dialogue: “Now, what shall we discuss?”

This shift in our rhetorical situation, from the isolated thinker scribbling words to be read elsewhere by others, and to the familiar conversation among co-present embodied real beings, may be of use to those who find themselves unwittingly drawn into the game of metaphysical disputation. Most of us would prefer not to get involved in such disputes, because metaphysics is not a game of puzzle solving, in which a correct answer will some day be arrived at. All metaphysical positions, if insisted upon too strongly, look equally ridiculous. And yet there is a widespread assumption both within the world of science, and stronger yet, among the public, that any description of events and happenings must be couched in either a first person (subjective, unreliable, whimsical) or a third person (solid, scientific, objective) framework. What is neither acknowledged, nor exploited, is this simple truth: Both first person (subjective, unreliable, whimsical) and third person (solid, scientific, objective) accounts are no more than that: stories we tell to make the world intelligible—intelligible to us.

When we tell a story, we open up a representational domain, with its own consistency conditions. We might speak of metaphysics, but we might speak of baseball, of a historical occasion, of movies, or politics, or of our common aquaintances. Different discussions bring different entailments with them with respect to truth. The entities and events that feature in a discussion about baseball are not beholden to the same metaphysical commitments as the entities and events that feature in discussion of laboratory chemistry, of politics, or of music. We might, in one context, agree completely that the Eiffel Tower really exists, and that Batman does not exist. But in a different context, say when we discuss comic book characters, films, merchandising, urban culture, or the music of Hans Zimmer, we will speak in equal certainty of Batman, whose reality we do not, now, question. Normally, we are not careful to keep such representational domains separate. They flow into each other during one and the same exchange, wires get crossed, and the conversation goes on.

[This is a preliminary sketch at the start of a rather larger series.  Work in progress, as usual.]

Art moment: Harry Dodge, Time Eaters and the nature of knowledge

Theories of knowledge in cognitive science tend to draw upon two particular notions: that we learn from experience (the empiricist position, as when John Locke famously treats the new human as a tabula rasa), and that knowledge, or a lot of knowledge, can be encoded in propositional form (a rationalist theme, as exemplified, e.g. in the Language of Thought hypothesis of Jerry Fodor). Gilbert Ryle, the most pragmatic of philosophers, introduced the terribly useful distinction between knowing that (something that might be expressed in a proposition) and knowing how (e.g. the practical skill of tying one’s shoelaces, that cannot be adequately expressed in words).

In Time Eaters, a 39 minute film by Harry Dodge, we encounter a newly minted human, and we are confronted with the inadequacy of any of these approaches. The human is introduced to the world by a guide. The guide lists many things that any grown adult might know. The relative merits of plastic versus fabric place mats is casually discussed, as is the threat of under-capacity in the Australian water supply infrastructure. The practical business of keeping one’s testicles cool is a useful thing to know, as is the chemistry of soap. The whole of practical sphere of love making is treated with a brief exposure to a (caution, strong!) gay porn clip and a pantomime of kissing executed on a massive bronze statue. The guide and the novice spend a single day in each other’s company and in that time, human knowledge is treated as if it were itemizable. Much as you might run through a list of things that you need to take on a holiday, so these two run through a wonderfully arbitrary list of things anybody might need to know anywhere.

Harry Dodge’s website.


The Time Eaters—Harry Dodge from Futurepoem on Vimeo.

Art Moment: Nam June Paik and the rabbit hole of recursion

Nam June Paik (1932 – 2006) was a Korean artist who pretty much kicked off the whole world of video art.

One of his most famous works, which was implemented with variations several times, is the Thinking Buddha. The version I just came across is in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, and it is more elaborate than most.

A small copy of Rodin’s famous statute The Thinker, maybe 2 foot high, sits opposite a TV screen. A video camera is pointed directly at the thinker, and his image is presented to him on a screen.

Beside this, a statue of the Buddha, coarse and bronze, is likewise positioned in front of a screen on which his image is displayed. The camera relaying the image is obvious and directly over the TV.

Finally, two TVs are arranged at the third corner of the triangular pedestal on which the whole work sits. The screens face each other with no more than about 8 inches separation. On one, the image of the Buddha is shown. On the other, the thinker. The two images face off against each other.

A deep analysis of this work would drop us into the entire weird and wonderful world of self-reference. This is where we find such classic paradoxes as the barber who shaves all those men who do not shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself? This is the heart of Goedel’s incompleteness theorems that place hard limits on the aspirations of any logical system to be both complete and consistent. This is the paradox of recursion at the heart of every system that asserts a self in opposition to a world.

Describing and participating

This morning I chanced upon a podcast interview of a Chan Buddhist monk, going by the dharma name of Guo Gu, who also lectures on East Asian Religions in an American university as Jimmy Yu. Jimmy, like the interviewer, had been involved in punk and hardcore bands in New York in the 1980s, having played bass for influential bands such as Death Before Dishonor and Judge. There is something wonderful about individual stories with such contrasting colours. In the interview, they were discussing both Buddhism and the hardcore band scene, and Jimmy mentioned that he recalled participating in mosh pits at that time.

[Jimmy Yu] We went through that age, from maybe 13, to 17, 18, and then I just kind of dived into Buddhism, during my college years, Chan, Zen Buddhism in particular. But I do want to say something, tag on a footnote about that. There’s a camaraderie, you know, we were kind of all marginalised, and we’d go all angry, but in the shows, you know, on the dancefloor, and the matinees, and our gatherings, we all found a sense of transcendence, at the time, I didn’t know what the word transcendent means, but it’s kind of unspoken, but there’s a sense of freedom, when we dived off stage, when we went all out, and we were in bands and playing, there’s a kind of social critique, we’re part of the society, but we’re outside of it, and slam dancing, and so on, so there’s a real transcendence there that united us, and that, I link, to the kind of freedom that I found in Chan and Zen.

[Interviewer][ You know, I’ve been in a circle pit at a Sick Of It All show, and you are completely present in the moment. There’s nothing that is distracting you from being in that circle pit during Sick Of It All.

The interview was Episode 36 of the Classical Ideas podcast by Greg Sodon.

If you are unfamiliar with the notion of a mosh, or circle, pit, it refers to a more-or-less spontaneous outbreak of vigorous, almost violent, dancing typically happening in front of the stage at punk, heavy metal, and similar concerts. The music is loud, fast, and incendiary. Those involved engage in highly agitated movement that is almost, but not quite, combative. Individual dancers deliberately slam into each other (that’s the “slam dancing” above), elbows are wielded robustly, and it is quite possible to get hurt. There is, however, essentially no antagonism, and if one dancer goes to ground, the others will immediately ensure that he or she is lifted back to their feet, or removed from the circle if that is warranted. To the onlooker it can appear perilous, even frightening. Those taking part, however, are usually very enthusiastic, and, as the interviewer and interviewee seem to agree, they are completely caught up in what they are doing. The phrase used “completely present in the moment” is quite conventional now for describing this kind of concentrated presence, but as it stands, that phrase does not manage to describe what is going on at all well. The notion that one could be, or fail to be, “entirely in the moment” has the ring of modern platitude, bringing to mind such nonsense as “mindfulness colouring books for adults” and the like. I defy anyone to show me, to my face, how they can be anywhere other than “in the moment.” There is clearly something interesting going on as these two discussants reminisce about taking part.

You can stand outside of a moshpit, and from a suitable vantage point, you can describe it. I just did so from the safety of my university office. Other researchers have given this rather more thought and developed computational simulations of the activity found in mosh pits (Silverberg et al., 2013). It turns out that interesting things happen under certain circumstances. In particular, in real mosh pits, the uncoordinated activity of a group of moshers in the mosh pit may spontaneously self-organise into a coherent circular motion, a transition the authors characterise as from a gas-like state (mosh pit) to an ordered vortex-like state (circle pit). 95% of the time, these circular organisations rotate counterclockwise, for reasons that are not entirely clear. A computational simulation allows such transitions to be studied in simple model form, using a variety of simple representational descriptions of individual dancers and the interactions between them. Other collective behaviours known from mosh pits, such as the alarming wall of death, the less alarming but hardly more sedate pogoing, or the different forms found in hardcore pits, ninja pits or push pits are not (yet) captured by such models.

Nobody in the moshpit is describing things though. There is far too much going on, and the “transcendence” and “being in the present” that arise in the retelling seem to me to have to do with the fact that in a moshpit, one can participate, but not describe, while outside the moshpit, one can describe, but not participate.

There is something to be learned there.