Tuesday, 9 April 2013

More on Appearances (Part 2 of 4)

"If we attempted to paint an "impressionistic" rendering of your experience, the jangling riot of colour blobs would not capture the content; you do not have the experience of a jangling riot of colour blobs, any more than you have the experience of an ellipse when you look at a penny obliquely." -Daniel Dennett

In a much loved episode of the Irish comedy series “Father Ted” there is a fabulous sketch where the infinitely hapless two main characters (Father Ted and Father Dougal) are holidaying in a caravan attempting to amuse themselves in the middle of a field of cattle. At one point Father Ted decides to explain the theory perspective to Father Dougal with the help of some plastic toy cows.

Father Ted: “Now one last time. These…” [he lifts two plastic cows from the table] “…are small; but the ones out there…” [looking out to some cows beyond the window] “…are far away.”

[Father Dougal shakes his head in bewilderment]

Father Ted: [motioning again with the model cows] “Small.”

Father Ted: [Frowning intently out of the window] “Far away.”
The humour derives from our recognition that given a very warped perception it might just be conceivable that someone of Dougal’s naïve outlook could possibly think that things actually shrink as they recede into the distance. Not even children make this elementary perceptual mistake and why should they, what possible evolutionary advantage could it confer upon them or us, or any other species for that matter?

Notice though that Father Ted makes no reference at any time to the distant cows “appearing” to be small. He gets it exactly right: distant cows are not small and the only reason we would think of them as small would be if we were considering them in the terms of two dimensional representations. The problem is exactly the same as the one that raised such copious commentary in my previous post about tilted disks having the ‘appearance’ of ellipses.

If philosophers and cognitive scientists such as Alva Noë and Daniel Dennett are to be believed, this issue bedevils the form of philosophy known as phenomenology (from Greek: phainómenon, literally the “study” of “that which appears”):

“It’s hard to see how phenomenology could be anything more than earnest pleading as to the supposed revelations of one’s own inner searchings. One phenomenologist says: ‘when I look at a circular coin tilted away I see something elliptical.’ Another phenomenologist demures: ‘circular coins seen tilted don’t look elliptical; rather, they look like circular coins.’ Such a dispute, if it even rises to the level of genuine dispute, does not – indeed, cannot – engage with matters beyond its basic terms; it floats free of questions about the natural world. Phenomenology, conceived this way, makes no meaningful epistemic commitments.” –Alva Noë, “A Critique of Pure Phenomenology” 

Alva Noë fairs a little better in his examination of these kinds of perceptual issues, but what he fails to grasp is the purposefulness of perception: seeing ellipses where there are tilted disks has only one known exploitable function or purpose; to enable the production and consumption of what Donald Brook calls "simulating representations" of tilted circular objects (ie: representations that we, as a species, have characteristic difficulty discriminating from the things they represent under certain circumstances and in certain respects). In Noë's understandable eagerness to distance himself from previous assertions that we perceive the world as a multitude of representations, he makes the mistake of paying insufficient attention to the role of representation in perception.

Like Noë, Walter Hopp of Boston University has some thoughts and observations to add to the debate. Hopp suggests that Noë would be better off jettisoning his claim that we simultaneously perceive tilted disks as both round and elliptical. Hopp may well be correct to make this suggestion but, if he is, we are once again left with an incomplete explanation of why people can be so adamant (artists and representation makers in particular) that they see ellipses where there are clearly tilted circular objects or why a toy cow might ‘appear’ the same size as a real cow situated at a distance.

Perhaps a couple of examples might help to clarify where Noë and Hopp have missed an important point (and where Brook's work sheds some important light). In the following animation the size of a representation of a balloon is enlarged. I’m sure you will predict the outcome, but have a look anyway just to confirm what you already know.


Everybody I have shown this to says the same thing: “It looks like the balloon is inflating.” Now have a look at the next animation of a car.


What did you perceive? Was it the same as the balloon? Did it appear to inflate or did something else happen? Everyone I have shown this to tells me that they have the impression of an oncoming car. What might seem a little strange though is that exactly the same thing happens in both animations: the image has simply been enlarged over time. But whilst the balloon appears to get bigger, the car appears to move forwards. What we know of the objects depicted is clearly influencing our perception at a fundamental level.

If we didn’t instinctively recognise the characteristic signs of looming vehicles, oncoming fists, or approaching projectiles our chances of survival would be severely limited. Perspectival distortions, as Father Ted knew all to well, provide us with crucially important information about our environment that no other perceptual abilities can achieve so effortlessly.

To speak of appearances – to think of them - is to think of how we could simulate the things seen via the sophisticated strategies of representation. Avoiding oncoming cars and other large or fast moving bodies is often a far more pressing issue.


Anonymous said...

Interesting - the animations especially. What would happen to the car if you did the same thing from a side elevation? And does the fact that the balloon appears to inflate mean that it's difficult to make believable animations of oncoming balloons?

Jim Hamlyn said...

I haven't tried those examples but I'm fairly certain that the results would depend greatly on a number of subtle but important factors. Most of the time we have a variety of contextual cues to allow the accurate perception of motion etc so, where an animation might create some room for ambiguity, experience in three dimensions is a good deal less equivocal. But yes, if I understand you correctly, it would be interesting to see how much or little would be needed to shift the perception of the balloon to one that makes it appear to come towards us or to change the animation of the car so that it appeared to grow.

DrawStillWater said...

I’ve been following your recent blogs plus the lengthy comments in response to the last post. The 'GREEN!' and Umlaut pronunciation examples were really helpful. The Balloon and Car animations worked well too to exemplify the theory but I can certainly understand why it raised so much debate.

Anyway, I found a couple of useful things in a book published in 1999 'What is Painting? Representation & Modern Art' by Julian Bell..(there is a whole lot of stuff in this book which you may find relevant & worth reading)

Perhaps you know all this already but here goes:

1. Mimesis is imitation is representation. This was the assumption prevalent in Europe for two millennia after Aristotle..and if imitation is a skill to be perfected, so therefore is representation...
This was an ethos that was at some level embraced by the Romans (as can be seen in their surviving murals) that was demoted for a thousand years with the rise of Christianity and the religious suspicion of images.
(It was then re-animated by Giotto in the 14th century)

2. Perspective, which had stood behind painting for five centuries as a theoretical and practical prop, came to be experienced by many 20th century painters as a prison. instead of describing what could be seen, it defined what COULD NOT be seen. Instead of opening the world out to the view, it hemmed the eye down to one place, forcing each observer to occupy merely a single, relative, unprivileged location.

3. The problems of late 20th century 'realism' are touched on in Diana Crane,'The transformation of the Avant Garde' (Chicago 1987) which quotes the painter Janet Fish:
' I do not consider that the appearance of the world has been established.
Even though you and I may have accepted particular conventions as a way to begin to approach seeing, analysis and reconstruction of appearances can only be a matter of imagination'
To say one is a realist is a statement of approach and not a matter of fact'


Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks for the feedback. The quotes are interesting. The first one about representation being a skill to be perfected is especially relevant I think. Funny, today my two and a half year old son pointed to the curl of his toy dragon's tail and exclaimed: "It's like a circle." For a moment I was dumbstruck - how could he have picked up this doctrine of appearances so soon I thought! But on the other hand he has been learning shapes for a while now and I think shape recognition must surely be one of the primary skills of representation making. And this is no doubt where the whole notion of shapes being part of the ‘appearance’ of the world must surely derive: i.e. from our most early experiences, which is presumably why it's so difficult to break with the whole appearances doctrine. It reminds me a little of the difficulty some photography students mention when they begin to make analogue black and white images. They are so used to picturing the world in colour that they often find it especially difficult to imagine what their images will be like in greyscale and they are often disappointed by their first attempts. With practice it's possible to get to a stage where you can predict the outcome reasonably well. Ansel Adams called it "previsualisation" and, whilst it's not quite the same as seeing ellipses where we see tilted disks etc, it perhaps goes some way towards explaining how we perceive the world in relation to our evolved needs, acquired interests, preoccupations etc and not as a pure unadulterated stream from World to consciousness.

Identifying ellipses where we are actually seeing circular objects from oblique angles is a peculiarly conscious process, one that we have to deliberately attend to. In other words it doesn’t come naturally but must be cultivated. Thus, the only reason in which it would be advantageous to envisage an ellipse where we are actually seeing a tilted circular object is in order to make a representation of it. The situation is exactly the same as when we might describe the tonal modulations upon an uneven wall. Do we perceive the tonal modulations? They enter our eyes yes but to say that we perceive them is to speak of them in the terms of representation. What we perceive is the uneven wall.

Anonymous said...

Hi, just wanted to say I instinctively saw the balloon as oncoming, and I had to make conscious efforts to see it as inflating (I guess it's because the tail of the balloon is becoming bigger too while it wouldn't in reality). Thought you might be interested in that, people's perceptions are always slightly different and sometimes up to the point of them having different interpretations.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Yes, I was surprised myself that the tail on the balloon wasn’t more tell-tale (sorry).

I think you’re right about variations in perceptions too. Yet for the most part we must surely perceive things in largely the same ways – at least as regards simulating representations - otherwise moving image simulations wouldn’t work for many people. But yes, where ambiguity is involved I think it’s very likely that we might tend towards different inferences and interpretations of the evidence. With that in mind I’d be really interested in what you make of the following animation – specifically I’d be interested to know whether you instinctively interpret the leading edge to be the upper edge or the lower – or is it equally unclear: http://vimeo.com/64948653

Anonymous said...

At first I saw it like a circle making love to another circle from behind if you see what I mean, and then I could see it like rotating circles. Yet the more forward circle was always the bottom one, which is wrong if you consider they're the same size, but I guess that was because I couldn't shake the first analogy out of my head. Still, your circles don't have perspective so it's a bit hard to figure them as rotating in 3D. I'm a visual artist btw so that may be the reason I pick on more subtle visual cues than people who don't work on abstracting their visual perception.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Ha Ha Brilliant! But I think you are trying to prove a point that I already took for granted. I ask you what you “instinctively interpret” and you give me shape porn. No wonder you choose to be anonymous!

It’s true that we can interpret things in many ways - that in itself is clear proof that we are remarkably adept at recognising possible substitutions (representations) that other members of our species might find similarly plausible or suggestive. Art is unparalleled for that.

I’m just trying to demonstrate that visual perception is not what is commonly thought. However, if I were to say that we all perceive things in different ways, as you seem to be suggesting, then I’m likely to get nowhere other than gathering a lot of colourful descriptions of the world.

One thing you cannot deny is that moving images are perceived (interpreted by the unconscious processes of the brain) in the same way by all members of our species: when we see shapes getting bigger or morphing across the flat surface of a screen, we perceive shifting viewpoints or receding or oncoming vehicles or numerous other changes that we have come to expect in our encounters with the 3D world.

If we wanted to become aware of all the many simultaneous distortions occurring on a TV screen all at once we’d find it impossible. Shifting our attention to the strategies of representation takes quite a lot of effort, even for the visual artist.

Oh, and by the way, the animation that you saw does have perspective. It was made using a 3D modelling program and the lower shape is a hard edged shadow. Naturally they are both representations but they are projected in virtual 3D space (unlike the earlier animations).

It’s high time that we attended much more insightfully to the evidence of our eyes.

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