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.

The illusion of control

The stories we tell about “who did what” all revolve around the collective illusion that we are in “control” of ourselves, in control of our bodies, in control of what happens around us. Control metaphors all demand a distinction between the controller and the controlled.

When your car is hurtling down the motorway, adhering to the conventions, rules and practices of motoring, you are staying in lane, using signals, going the right way, at a speed matched to those of your fellow motorists. Your contribution to this whole thing is minimal. You twitch the steering wheel a little, and gently pump pedals with your feet. You are a component in a superordinate system, and all is well.

Now your car has a blowout, and it swerves violently, tumbling through the air, over the hedge and into a tree, where it hangs upside down, steaming. At the moment the tyre burst, the road markings and speed conventions lost their ability to constrain the car. At that moment, you got back control. We speak of “losing control”. The opposite is the case. You regained it.

No wonder Boris Johnson speaks of regaining control.

Representation for whom? Who is the subject?

When something is about something else, that relationship needs to be understood. There are very many ways in which one thing can bear a systematic relationship to another, but we would not consider most of them to be representational. When a foot leaves a print in the sand, we understand the causal chain connecting the residual trace with the originating event. We can infer many things about the original from the trace, and there are many we cannot infer. The footprint might be considered a “representation”, but because we are knowledgable about the entire causal chain, I would prefer to use the term “imprint” in this instance.* Imprints are many in kind, and one imprint may lead to another, as when one tree falls and knocks another down in a forest.

But we typically use the word “representation” for cases in which the causal chains are opaque, unknown and possibly unknowable. I want here to consider a relatively simple case that most would find unproblematically “representational”, because if we don’t understand what the notion of representation entails for simple cases, we will be in deep trouble when it comes to representations of a more hypothetical character. As a cognitive scientist, I am particularly concerned with the way the term “representation” is wielded in discussion of minds, brains, intentions, and the like, but the hard questions about representation extend far beyond such provincial concerns. They have formed the basis for intense theological dispute, schisms (e.g. between the Oriental and Western Christian churches), repeated paroxysms of iconoclasm, and even wars. Perhaps the violent execution of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for the perceived crime of representing the Prophet might serve to make it clear that the issues involved are wide ranging, important, and contemporary.

The simple case I want to discuss is a straightforward picture, nay, a photograph, of something. Let’s use this picture of a cat as an example. In what sense is this picture a representation of a cat? Perhaps the reader might attempt an initial answer before reading below the fold.


Read the rest of this entry »

Christianity, representation and psychology

I a previous post I cryptically alluded to a possible link between the Christian sphere and the readiness of psychologists to accept an image as a substitute for the thing itself (in that case, for a real flesh-and-blood face). I realise this is insufficient, and I cannot do it justice here either, but there is an important conversation that needs having.

When I say “Christian”, I do not mean one institutional church or another, nor do I mean one set of beliefs or another. Indeed, the notion of belief as underlying the rational deliberation of an autonomous agent is itself resolutely “Christian” in the sense I mean. I could say “Western” instead, but I don’t like that, it leads to fatuous East/West orientalism, and it dodges the theological import of many ideas that shape our contemporary discussion within the human sciences. More after the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

The science of “face perception” is bankrupt

There is a vast literature on the topic of “face perception”. This is one of the pillars of contemporary cognitive neuroscience. There are many competing models, informed by many kinds of experiment, both behavioural and neuroimaging. This field sits at the core of contemporary view of functional brain organisation. The finding of the field will inform not just speculative models, but real flesh and blood brain surgery.

It is troubling then to recognise that the entire literature is built on a simple and obvious conceptual error: experimental subjects are not viewing faces at all. They are viewing images of faces. Whether using still photographs, or moving videos, subjects are almost* never exposed to a real face (except perhaps outside of the framework of observation, as they arrive at the lab and greet the experimenter). Once the experiment begins, no faces are employed.

Isn’t looking at a picture of a face almost the same as looking at a face in the flesh? Absolutely not! If a real face is present, that face might just turn to you and snarl, spit, bite, kiss, shout or smile. No image will do that. Being in the presence of a person is not a mere detail. It is a completely different proposition from being in the presence of a picture.

But the belief exhibited by researchers that an image can stand for a real face in this way is revealing. Representational commitments of Cartesian, cognitivist approaches to minds go beyond the interpretation of patterns of brain activity. Here we see a consequence of a specifically Western, Christian approach to the relation of immanence and transcendence that needs a much fuller treatment.

* In a brief quip on Twitter, I made the overly strong claim that there were no studies at all that used real live faces. A few exceptions, listed below were pointed out to me. These constitute a tiny drop in the ocean, and do not materially change the observation that the field as a whole is based on the viewing of images, rather than faces.

Here are two studies that actually thematise the distinction between images and real faces. Using ERP methodology they find marked differences in brain activity when viewing real faces compared with images.

Pönkänen, L. M., Hietanen, J. K., Peltola, M. J., Kauppinen, P. K., Haapalainen, A., & Leppänen, J. M. (2008). Facing a real person: an event-related potential study. Neuroreport, 19(4), 497-501.

Pönkänen, L. M., Alhoniemi, A., Leppänen, J. M., & Hietanen, J. K. (2010). Does it make a difference if I have an eye contact with you or with your picture? An ERP study. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience

And there are a few studies to see whether people can match real faces to photos (e.g. when checking passports or photo ID), for example:

Kemp, R., Towell, N., & Pike, G. (1997). When seeing should not be believing: Photographs, credit cards and fraud. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11(3), 211-222.

Science, objects and subjects


Like many of us, I watched with keen attention as the technical crew who run SpaceX pulled off one of the greatest stunts in rocket science ever.  For the first time, they managed a controlled landing of the discarded stage 1 from a rocket, bringing it down vertically on a drone ship with near perfect accuracy.  I got a lump in my throat, my eyes teared up, it was fantastic.

I suspect many in the crowd had a similar experience.  The event was broadcast live with a very sophisticated webcast, full of happy presenters who were keen, so very keen, on the science.  I might gently point out that a great deal of what they were enthusing about was technological and engineering in nature, and not really science, though for sure, science was a motivator.

But pay attention to what happens to the crowd at 1’15” in the video excerpt here. (If copyright considerations break the link, it is at 28’37” of the original video here).  There is a great deal of cheering, and clapping, but then they break out into a chant of “U.S.A.”. Right in the middle of this celebration of science in an objective key, the collective subject asserts itself, by literally jumping up and down and chanting.

The project is, of course, motivated to a great extent by the fact that the American space programme is in an odd state of limbo, as the shuttle no longer flies, and the only actors capable of sending people to the ISS are China and Russia. There are interests afoot.

Now, do we want a science that is unable to address what we witness in this video?  Not just the rocket landing bit (and, again, hurrah for that!), but the jumping up and down and synchronised chanting bit?  Yes, we can approach this in a scientific manner, but only if we do not recoil from recognising that there are, indeed, subjects here.

State of science 2: The impossibility of an objective science of behaviour

The behaviourist turn within psychology at the start of the 20th Century was an attempt to be rigorous, objective, empirical, and seriously scientific.  To graduates of more recent psychology programmes steeped in talk of information processing, cognitive systems, and computation, behaviourism is liable to occasion spittle-flecked revulsion, as if the scientific study of behaviour were a gateway drug, leading inevitably to the extinction of the light of the soul mind.

All science starts with observation. If the scientific study of behaviour does not take the observation of behaviour as absolutely foundational, then it has no ground under its feet, no chance of garnering consensus, no necessary connection to reality, and no authority.

But in the observation of behaviour, we as observers necessarily become entangled in the object of our attention.  From one second to the next, the universe is changing, flowing, becoming.  This flux is not partitioned into discrete behaviours.  Behaviours are not like rocks, lying around to be found, kicked, and counted.  Rather, to parse a specific kind of going on as one behaviour or another is to frame one’s observation as the goal-directed striving of one system or another.  And in so doing, our imposition of this teleological framing necessarily results in the entanglement of the observer and the observed.  Goals are not observable.  They are rather a projection of the observer, in order to make one’s observations intelligible.

So the study of behaviour cannot be done in an objective key.  I think Tim Ingold put this rather well, when he says:

Yet all science depends on observation, and all observation depends on participation — that is, on a close coupling, in perception and action, between the observer and those aspects of the world that are the focus of attention.  If science is to be a coherent knowledge practice, it must be rebuilt on the foundation of openness rather than closure, engagement rather than detachment. (Ingold, T., 2011, p. 75)


[1] Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Taylor & Francis.

State of Science 1: Putting objectivity in its place

In my consideration of science and its place, it seems unfortunate, but necessary, to start with the notion of objectivity, its relation to the terms “fact” and “truth”, and the place that this kind of knowledge has in our overall intellectual and consensual economy. If we fail to adopt at least remotely similar relations with respect to this mode of knowing, then our subsequent discussions will surely be pointless. Read the rest of this entry »