Monday, 22 April 2013

Tilting at Appearances (Part 3 of 4)

A challenge to Alva Noë’s account of perception, and Sean D. Kelly’s missed opportunities.

Two weeks ago I nearly brought about the tragic deaths of 9 people. We were caught on the ground floor of an unfamiliar building the upper floors of which were filled with what we were told by a fire safety officer was a raging fire belching thick black smoke. It was imperative to get out of the building as quickly and safely as possible and it was my responsibility to lead everyone out of the pitch darkness. Sidling along the walls feeling for doorways and constantly describing my movements whilst asking for a roll call from everyone behind me was stressful to say the least. Eventually in the distance I could make out the tell-tale crack of a doorway and carefully, though perhaps a little overcautiously, I led everyone towards it. 

As we emerged into the light we were met by a fireman from Strathclyde Fire Brigade who informed me that I'd made a fundamental error. Despite my methodical manoeuvres and despite the fact that I'd registered and recovered a straggler from the group, I had missed a doorway that might have led us to safety much earlier in our proceedings. In any other situation I'd have been hailed as a hero for saving everyone but this wasn't any ordinary situation, this was a fire safety simulation at Strathclyde Fire Brigade's newly constructed fire safety training centre. In my determination to overcome the obstacles confronting us I'd made an elementary mistake: I'd failed to take sufficient notice of the contours of the walls and in the process I'd missed a door. No doubt the simulation had been arranged in such a way that the doorway would be difficult to distinguish in the darkness and as such it was obviously intended to point out the importance of swift but comprehensive checks of all tactile clues. In my defence I knew - or thought I knew - that there couldn’t be a genuinely useful doorway so early in the simulation and this presumption had led to my ultimate failure in the task. The moral? In situations that call for vigilance to subtle clues, leave no stone unturned.

At the beginning of a paper from 2006 entitled “Real Presence” (available here) UC Berkeley Philosopher of perception Alva Noë writes:
“A satisfying account of perception must explain how a silver dollar can look both circular and elliptical… The content of perceptual experience is two dimensional, and this needs explaining.”
For Noë, perception (though he only really mentions vision) is a “two step” phenomenon in which we see a silver dollar say, as both circular and elliptical at the same time. Noë cites several theorists who adopt differing opinions on this issue and in the process he makes very little real progress due to his inability or unwillingness to tease out the underlying reasons for his conflicting tendencies to say on the one hand that a tilted coin is elliptical and on the other that it is circular. The vital question that Noë fails to address is how the perception of ellipses (where there are in fact circular objects) might be of use to us as evolved organisms. For him the duality of appearances – the co-existence of what we know and what ‘appears’ – is simply a matter of viewpoint, a visual fact in which two perceptions happily – or at least “commensurably” - coexist:

“Experience contains within it precisely two aspects, or dimensions, to which we can turn our attention.” – Alva Noë

Noë concludes by stating that perception is an encounter with how things “present themselves to a vantage point”. For him perceptions are “ways of coming into contact with the world.” Well, we might not wish to quarrel over these modest claims but then again they are far from the “satisfying account of perception” - let alone a satisfactory one - that we were led to expect from the introductory paragraph. A satisfactory account of perception must explain everything we would subsume under the title of “appearances”, not only the ‘look’ of tilted silver dollars, and by doing so it will, as a consequence, explain a great deal more than how things present themselves to a vantage point or our coming into contact with the world.

To put it bluntly, as admirably clear and diligent as Noë’s method is, he has made exactly the same error as I did in my fire safety training: he has missed a possible route out of the difficulties that he, and thereby we, have found ourselves in, and in the process he leaves us pretty much where we started: in the dark with no real clue of how to make our way out into the light of understanding.

In the same article, Noë cites a 2004 paper by Sean Dorrance Kelly of Harvard University (formerly of Princeton) in which Kelly claims that we are only able to see the similarities between a tilted disk and an elliptical representation if we shift our attention to an “unnatural” attitude; what Kelly calls a “detached attitude”, as opposed to the “natural attitude” of ordinary perception. Kelly argues that this is an especially difficult shift to bring about:
“But we humans have somehow learned to adopt this attitude. I’m not sure how this happened or whether there are animals who can do it. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if our own capacity to adopt this attitude is as little as 600 or so years old, dating back to the discovery of the laws of perspective. Learning to paint realistically, after all, requires learning to adopt the detached perceptual attitude.”
Noë dismisses these speculations by stating that he finds it “impossible to believe” that they are true and in so doing he passes straight by what are admittedly the barely discernable signs of a way out.

And what of Kelly – does he fair any better in navigating the obstacle-ridden shadow-world of appearances? Kelly catches the barest glimpse of the solution but he is already transfixed by a glimmering that he senses in the darkness. After a cursory pause, Kelly’s attention is drawn towards what he believes is a more revealing illumination emanating from the work of French Phenomenologist philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and as such he is committed to an account of perception  that leads him and us, if we choose to accompany him, headlong into the most stifling and disorientating phenomenological smog.

In a more recent paper Kelly (2009) returns to these issues, once again with Merleau-Ponty in tow, quoting him thus: “To say that a circle seen obliquely is seen as an ellipse is to substitute for our actual perception the schema of what we would have to see if we were cameras.” Of all of the sentences comprising Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre it is unlikely that Kelly could have selected a more pertinent one and it is no wonder then, that he omits its companion sentence: “In fact, we see a form which oscillates around the ellipse without being an ellipse.” These latter words can only be described as those of someone who barely knows what he is talking about. However, the preceding sentence shows that even Merleau-Ponty has occasional moments of murky inspiration.

So what do the schema of camera vision and the laws of perspective have in common? They are both ways and means of producing a very particular and immensely powerful form of representation, a form of representation that, with the help of technical reproduction, has come to pervade our world. When we find ourselves inclined to say that something ‘looks like’ something else, that it ‘appears’ in such and such a way, what we are in fact demonstrating is that we are aware of how one thing might be substituted by another thing; of how it might be represented to others of our species. The content of perceptual experience is by no means two-dimensional, as Alva Noë seems to think. Only the content of two-dimensional things (principally pictorial representations) is two-dimensional and it is a profound error to fail to notice this fact, especially if you’re seeking to explain appearances.

I never did find out what was on the other side of that door at Strathclyde Fire Safety Training Centre. It might have been firmly locked for all I know. One thing is certain though, if I’d noticed it, I’d have been duty bound to try to open it and if it yielded to my attempt to open it then I would have been duty bound to make a swift but comprehensive evaluation of its potential to lead us to safety.


DrawStillWater said...

This post clarifies the question very well I think. To sum it up...

The vital point is that we KNOW it is an illusion...i.e. we understand (in our mind) that what we are looking at seems to be 'two things at once'

So the vital factors in understanding this phenomenon are our human intelligence & experience...which are brought to bear on the apparent evidence (which appears to be before us) allowing us to interpret this evidence to others of our species.

So obvious that it 'goes without saying' ...except that it didn't!

Have I got that right?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Nope, sorry. You're tending to fall back on the terms that have mischaracterised this problem for centuries. There's no "illusion" – our species has evolved to make extremely good use of our perceptions just as other species have. When we use the term "illusion" (as if it were something external that we overcome through "knowledge") we are applying the lexicon of appearances to explain and/or describe what we see and in doing so we get the whole thing completely wrong (apologies for being so categorical). This tendency (the language and philosophical doctrine of appearances) is so deeply habituated that we find it immensely difficult to extract ourselves from it. What we are looking at doesn't 'seem' to be two things at once. To say so would be to side with Alva Noë. But, just for the sake of argument, let's grant Noë a little elbow room and say for a moment that we do have two forms of perception. Let's also say that one is primary and the other secondary. And, like Sean D. Kelly, let's also say that this secondary perception is difficult to muster. The reason it is difficult to muster is because it goes against what our species has usefully evolved to perceive. It is often vital for us to determine the nearside of things and it is vital for us to perceive when things are approaching just as it is vital for us to perceive a flat dappled tabletop as opposed to an 'apparent' undulating mass of tone and colour. In spite of all appearances, shape and colour constancy (to be technical about it) are powerfully exploitable regularities of the universe that our species, and evidently all others possessed of eyes, have evolved to exploit in one primary way (still accepting with Noë’s argument). The fact that we can turn our attention to another way, or 'dimension' as Noë confusingly calls it, of visual perception is because we have found that our species (and some others too) can exploit this shift to make and present representations that we, and others of our species, find difficult to discriminate from reality.

If you like you can think of this other 'secondary' perception as the simulating representation perception: an exploitable weakness in our ability to discriminate certain kinds of representations, in certain circumstances and in certain respects, from reality.

All of this derives from the work of Donald Brook whose theory of representation serves as a powerful means for us to recognise just where Noë, Kelly, Merleau-Ponty and numerous other philosophers have gone wrong on this issue. In fact without viewing the subject thorough an analysis of representation I doubt whether Brook would have made any headway on this issue either. In my next post I'll try to explain why it is so important to establish exactly how representations work.

Brian said...

If we could not "see a form which oscillates around the ellipse ..." we would look in vain for a dish to put our food on, and only see one if we were directly above it: thereby we would likely starve to death. I don't think MMP is "murky" at all. If you can make out any sort of rectangular shape in the wall of a smoky room, you will make for it - not wait until there is a perfect right-angled one. You are able to read that shape as a possible door, although you may be mistaken. This is so simple.

You constantly conflate some weird "philosophy" of "appearances" with phenomenology. Phenomenology is much deeper than that, and deserves a bit more respect.

Of course artists use shapes extracted from reality: to use the word "exploit" suggests some strange kind of Malthusian attitude to art.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Brian,

I can see that I’ve raised your hackles again. I’m sorry for that, but if this business is as simple as you claim it is, then it must surely be surprising that I’ve managed to find so many examples of philosophers debating whether we do or do not see elliptical shapes where we are in fact seeing tilted circular forms? I take these as evidence that these issues are not as simple as you claim. In fact I take this as proof that the same errors are repeatedly made on the subject and I believe that these errors are the result of an insufficient understanding of representation and representational strategies.

You say that MM-P’s statement about “a form oscillating around an ellipse” is not murky. Try telling that to a potter. Potters don’t see forms oscillating around an ellipse of the actual oscillating circular form before them on the wheel? For someone who writes as lucidly as you do I’m surprised that you are so adamant that MM-P is clear on this point. Even his previous sentence is far from obvious. What on earth is the “schema” of how we would see if we were cameras after all? We’ve had this discussion before Brian. You seem to be happy with ambiguous philosophy. I’m with John Searle who, as you will remember, wrote: “If you can't say it clearly you don't understand it yourself.” You can’t have it both ways though. You can’t say this problem is simple and then argue that descriptions the like of which perplex even experts are an acceptable means to elucidate the issues, at least not if you wish to be consistent.

You say I repeatedly conflate a weird philosophy of appearances with Phenomenology. It just so happens that 4 of the philosophers I have cited on this subject are phenomenologists or are involved in discussions of these issues within the context of phenomenology. You’re quite right that phenomenology covers much more than the issues of appearances. However, the appearance of things is an important component of phenomenology is it not? A quick look on the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy states: “Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but if we wish to discuss appearances then phenomenology would seem to be as good a place as any.

I use the word “exploitable” in the Darwinian sense not the Malthusian. Simulating representations, as explained by Donald Brook in our previous discussion here, are dependent upon systematic perceptual failures common to all members of our species and as such these perceptual failures are exploitable and are the source of the inordinate volume of visual representations that saturate our culture at all levels.

What I think you take umbrage to is my categorical assertion that I know the truth and believe everybody else is wrong on this issue. What would you have me do though Brian – keep it to myself? I happen to think that Brook’s theory is the most convincing one that I’ve encountered on the perplexities of appearances. I also think that the conceptual tools he provides for a thorough analysis of representations have greater explanatory potential and scope than any other theory of representation I have encountered. If you know of a better one then I’d be very interested to hear about it.

Brian said...

Jim, you say that according to Merleau-Ponty "In fact, we see a form which oscillates around the ellipse without being an ellipse", and that he "barely knows what he is talking about". And yet, in our earlier discussion you said that there is in reality no ellipse, other than the section of a cone. Here, you actually agree with M-P. I'm risking taking him out of context, but it seems to me that he is saying the same thing. The important word here is "being". There 'is' no ellipse there, any more than there truly is a circle. They are the same 'thing' appearing differently. Where I think we disagree is that I would say the thing's "being" is what should be questioned. What, and where, is the "being" of the thing itself?

We could say that the plate is a plate is a plate (or coin), and we would be right, as far as dear life and common experience give us. But when we see a plate, we don't simply 'see' an ellipse, or a circle, or just a 'plate', we 'see' all of the these and hundreds of other things associated with it in the fraction of a second. This is where Phenomenology begins, the phenomena of "experience", as per your dictionary definition of Phenomenology. It is more that just 'appearance'.

For phenomenology this gift is the important thing to emphasise: in the first instance, that we recognise that it occurs; then we contemplate how it occurs; and finally we ask "who is doing the experiencing?"

The "schema (...)" remark by M-P: he seems to be saying that we are not cameras - we are much more than that.

I understand your interest in Donald Brooke. And it is interesting. Correct me if I'm wrong (I have not read his books), but I think he is suggesting that we have an evolved "weakness" that disables our ability - under certain circumstances - to discern illusion from reality, but that also enables our capacity to represent illusion as reality?

Your answer to DrawStillWater's natural response was apposite. We are culturally conditioned, to some extent, to separate 'reality' from 'illusion', whereas in fact it is not the case that the ellipse is an illusion, and the circle 'reality'. Under normal conditions, to the sense of sight they are both appearances. To the sense of touch they might describe a particular shape. There is no such thing in reality as a 'circle' any more than an 'ellipse'. They are both what we call two-dimensional 'shapes'.

I'm happy that you find Brooke's theory inspiring. I'm just a little worried that it may indeed suggest itself as being "definitive", and that - to me- would be a sure sign of an error, even if its only one. Other theories should not be dismissed as having "occasional moments of murky inspiration". That is indeed my point. It may be true for some of us to see them that way, at least some of the time, but it might simply be that they require a little more thought.

The idea of a 'one and only' truth, and a universally acknowledged method of arriving at it, is questionable. It harks back to a narrow nineteenth-century rationality, or our slightly distorted view of it, to which I do not think Darwin himself would have subscribed.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks again Brian, I appreciate your sticking with me along this rocky road. I fear we will keep going like this indefinitely though until either you give up again or take it upon yourself to explain how representations function. I’ll try to respond to your points though.

I interpret M-P as struggling to make sense of an experience that he has no clear sense of route out of. He vacillates (and oscillates even) on the threshold of explanation and evidently sees no other solution than to be as obscure in his description as he is in conception. At the end of Kelly’s most recent paper (“The Norm Nature of Perception”) he says that he is not sure if M-P would agree with his claims and that he hopes they are in the spirit of phenomenology (indicative of uncertainty accreted upon uncertainty). As the concluding words of the paper Kelly once again quotes M-P:

“Phenomenology is the study of essences; and according to it, all problems amount to finding definitions of essences: the essence of perception, or the essence of consciousness, for example.”

Now there’s a Rylean howler if ever I saw one! Shifting the emphasis to the “being” of “the thing itself” though Brian doesn’t resolve anything, it just changes the terms and leaves everything else entirely untouched.

You say of the circle/ellipse that “we 'see' all of the these and hundreds of other things associated with it in the fraction of a second.” Where do you get this knowledge from exactly? If I could prove that this is not the case would it make any difference to you? Until a couple of years ago, Kelly had a ‘lab’ at Harvard that allowed him and his team of graduate students to conduct perceptual experiments. In 2007 he supervised an experiment designed to establish whether we do indeed perceive elliptical shapes when we see tilted disks. Kelly and his team used a “shape-priming” experiment in which individuals are primed to prefer one shape over another. The results were conclusive: subjects primed by seeing tilted silver dollars etc. were quicker to identify circles than ellipses.

I welcome this kind of evidence but I wonder how much evidence would be needed to convince you? You treat philosophy like one big history exercise in which we must embrace everything with equal credence and in which we pay respect to all its endeavours despite any doubts we might have as to the efficacy of some of its claims. Darwin would not approve and, more to the point, nor would evolution.

Brook is not saying that our perceptual limitations disable our ability to discern illusion from reality, no. Once again, he is saying that our perceptual limitations make it impossible for us, in certain circumstances and in certain respects, to discriminate between what he calls a “Simulating representation” and the thing/s it represents despite the fact that we can clearly distinguish between them (principally through the agency and categories of language). Furthermore he is saying that there is another form of representation (“Matching representation”) in which we cannot discriminate between things in certain respects (ie: rarely if ever whole VW’s as per our previous discussion) nor could any species of perceiver no matter what their perceptual abilities. Once we have established this disarmingly simple definition it becomes blatantly obvious that there is no so called appearance that you, me or anyone else for that matter, could point to that couldn’t be represented via the agency of simulating representation. But, and this is the crucial point. There is no appearance, no matter of what kind or of what nature, for which we can fashion a matching representation. If you can demonstrate that it is possible to do so then Brook’s theory will collapse as indeed it should if it is inadequate to the task of elucidating just what a nonsense all this reification of appearances is.

Brian said...

If you photograph a VW, you will have made a "simulating representation".

If you build two identical VW's, you will have matched one vehicle with the other - a "matching representation" according to Brook (but I would argue the new VW is not strictly a "representation". It is an entity with its own essence, since it is not a simulation). Each one has its own appearance, therefore you will also have matched one appearance with another ("appearance" here being something you have allowed, which is separate from the essence, but is still not a "representation" [unless all appearances are 'representations' of all things, which could be argued]). If you can do the first, you must be able to do the second, according to the terms and rules of your language. So far, so good.

But a "matching representation" is a contradiction in terms (Brook's terms): and that is why it can't be done. He does not differentiate between appearance and representation. So in fact he is the one who is needlessly perpetuating a specious problem of appearances. This does not prove anything, except that language games are tricky, if one doesn't stick to one's own rules.

Jim Hamlyn said...

You are quite right to say that two identical VW’s match. Nonetheless your previous point about their spatial discriminability also stands and this is why I think it is always preferable to talk about Matching in terms of attributes rather than as gamuts since some cleverclogs is bound to came along and point out how one VW smells different than the other or how the breaks of one squeak at a higher pitch etc.

A match of a coin is categorically not a match of a coin’s appearance. Copying the ‘appearance’ of a coin will never under any circumstances leave us with legal tender. Copying the appearance of a coin will only ever leave us with a simulating representation. A match of a coin is a match of a coin. It is a match of the perceptible characteristics that other perceivers of the coin would also find impossible to discriminate from an identical coin. A bat won’t recognise any simulating representation no matter how well rendered but a bat would have the same difficulty discriminating between two identical coins as we would.

If you have a coin and ask me to represent it I could draw it (simulating representation) or more directly I could pull out another coin (matching representation). Similarly if you have a tilted coin and I want to represent its angle of inclination I could try to match it with an approximate tilting gesture of my hand.

You would argue that one coin is not strictly a representation of another. Yes, but that’s not the point. The point is that I can use a coin as a representation of another coin by holding it up and asking “Do you have another one of these?” or I could hold out three 1p coins and say “Do you have this many 2p coins?” and you could match my 3 with your 3 in respect of quantity.
It’s all very elementary really.

Jim Hamlyn said...

My granddad was a carpenter and in his spare time (all of it!) he used to make model ships and smoke Navy Cut by the pack load which, amongst other terminal consequences, meant that I had insufficient opportunity to form any memories of him. In his lifetime he managed to make a grand total of two of model ships, the first of which was bought by the now defunct bank Bearing Brothers. The proceeds of the sale allowed my grandparents to buy their first house and, as I remember, the sale of the second unfinished ship (to the National Maritime Museum in the mid 1970’s) sold for what I thought was astronomical sum that would easily have paid for a house too.

In the context of our discussion it would be a mistake to say that my granddad was concerned with appearances. He definitely wouldn’t have said that he was making models of appearances. He was making models of ships. If you asked him if he were concerned to capture the appearance of the Coriolanus I’m sure he would have agreed but this reveals nothing other than the fact that you have smuggled in a subtle language game. When you make a basket you don’t have to concern yourself with capturing its basketness – that comes gratis, as do appearances. Things exist entirely independently of appearances. Appearances are not things. You can’t make appearances save through the agency of simulating representations. This is the mistake you keep making.

Sometimes people speak of visible characteristics of things as appearances. But this is just a consequence of a casual use of language. If someone says that a red thing has the appearance of being red that’s because it is red. Anyone would agree. The use of “appearance” in this case is entirely redundant.

My granddad was only marginally concerned with simulating representations. The walls of his workshop were covered with blueprints and diagrams, not perspectival renderings. The images that were of most use to him were the ones that match as much as possible (ie: that provide the most information) not the kind that simulate. Diagrams and scale models do simulate in certain respects of course (notably in scale – hence presumably “scale model”) but their efficacy as tools is largely dependent on their ability to match in as many respects as possible (proportion especially). By following these proportions and by matching materials as closely as possible: brass for brass, glass for glass, wood for wood and braded wire for cable etc. he was able to create a predominantly matching model of the external (and some of the internal) characteristics (NOT appearances) of these clipper ships.

Brian said...

Forgive me, Jim, but I think it is you who is placing undue emphasis on appearances. As you say, your grandad's model (it hasn't escaped my attention that we have returned to a nautical theme) must have had the 'appearance' of the original. If you had disagreed, I think he would have been upset. What would you have said then: "No, grandad, I mean it doesn't look like the ship - it is the ship!" ... ? He would have thought you were a bit simple, and referred you to Father Ted. But then you could have gone on to explain that the sea doesn't look blue, it is blue (or grey, or green - as you said above that “if someone says that a red thing has the appearance of being red that’s because it is red”). Paradoxically, despite your aversion to it, this might be true in a painting, but not in reality. Water has no intrinsic colour.

Thank you for pointing out the "mistake" I keep making regarding taking appearances as "things", but I think you are the one who is trying to separate them ontologically from their source, and then claim they do not exist. What is a "characteristic" if it is visual, if not an appearance? Again, here it is you - not I - who is playing with "language". The very word 'appearance' implies that it is not a thing in itself, but a visual attribute of something. To say that things are what they appear to be is absurd, from any standpoint. I would venture to say that what things really are we cannot know in terms of epistemology, which is where art comes in.

Your analogy of using your tilting hand to make a 'matching' representation of a tilted coin hardly seems to fit the bill, according to your previous standards. Nor does presenting coins of a different kind to represent completely different coins of the same number. You seem to keep changing the rules of your game, which makes your theory far from "elementary really". You began the whole debate by concentrating on verisimilitude, which (in my humble opinion) is the only area in which this whole theory stands any chance of credence.

Brian said...

(cont.) You ask "where do you get this knowledge from exactly?" regarding my experience of looking at a coin. The simple answer is from empirical observation - and by this I mean witnessing what happens within my personal encounter with the coin: this encounter involves not only sight, but other senses, plus memory, associations, etc. That is what is looked at seriously in Phenomenology, which is why I think it is very pertinent to art. The 'phenomenological reduction' is not a theory that purports to outline a posited truth. It is a method of observing at first hand the experiences that occur in consciousness, and of getting back to a point where their reality as 'phenomena' is acknowledged and recognised. In that sense it is a unique "first philosophy". There really is no need for a laboratory. I don’t say that it is perfect, but is - I think - an important step in the right direction. You might even say that many artists who have never even heard of Phenomenology practice the 'phenomenological reduction' all the time.

Take a coin out of your pocket and try it for yourself.

But the idea of 'representation' you are pursuing seems to be fundamentally a strategy for achieving a useful purpose. Earlier, you reduced drawing to the same kind of “strategy” regarding simulation. However, much as that may seem to be true to instrumental reason, or science, or for what you claim as "evolution", or even ‘Platonism’, I would argue that representation in art has now very little to do with verisimilitude - indeed I would say that mimesis never was its true value, no matter what it's allotted purpose or mode of expression. Art, even mimetic art, re-presents the world in a changed form: and it is in that change that we discover its true value, not in its likeness, or its match.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks once again Brian,

This helps a lot in showing where the difficulties lie in the explanation of these ideas.

You’re quite right to spot that the theories of representation we have been discussing are insufficient to account for all representations. Brook’s theories of Representation are broader than simply matching and simulating representations. We have only been dealing with these here because it is not necessary to go into symbolisation or allusion or other forms of representation in order to discuss appearances.

You say that I should take out a coin and try phenomenology myself. All I’m saying is that matching the coin would be the best way to show that we fully perceive the coin. I would argue that the builder who spends her time making a copy of your house is far far more familiar with the phenomenology of your house than the draftswoman who draws it or the philosopher who exhaustively describes it’s appearance.

Now we need to address the question of whether appearances are objective properties of things. Contrary to your claim that a visual characteristic is an appearance: a visual characteristic is a visual characteristic. As I have already stated: properties of things are independent of the way they appear. A red ball is a red ball despite whatever a colour blind person says. Aberdonian philosopher of the Scottish enlightenment Thomas Reid once wrote:

“Thus by my senses I perceive figure, colour, hardness, softness motion resistance softness, motion, resistance, and suchlike things. But these qualities, must necessarily be in something that is figured, coloured, hard or soft, that moves or resists. It is not to these qualities, but to that which is the subject of them, that we give the name of body. If any man should think fit to deny that these things are qualities, or that they require any subject, I leave him to enjoy his opinion is a man who denies first principles, and is not fit to be reasoned with."

You say that appearances are characteristics or visual attributes of things. So when we see the appearance of a red ball ‘in’ what is in fact a white ball lit by red light this is a visual attribute of the object, a characteristic of it. Taking this line and following Reid we are obliged to say that these qualities are the body of the ball. Or to state things more starkly: the appearance of a film projected on a screen is a visual property, characteristic or attribute of the screen – worse still it is “in” the screen. You will probably think that I’m twisting things around here but I’m just trying to show how implausible this line of reasoning is.

You say that I’m separating things from their ontological source. But surely the source of the red colour on a red lit white ball is – ontologically speaking - a property of the red light which is reflecting off the surface of the white ball. The colour that objectively inheres in the ball or at least in its material surface structure is white. The person wishing to offer a matching representation of the ball would most likely be very aware of the properties of the red light and the influence it would have over the ball. They would understandably seek to determine the objective properties of the ball by casting a white light upon it. Or, if no such determination were possible, they would most likely offer a tentative best-guess.

Reid writes:

“Thus we know, that a print in a book may represent houses, temples, and groves: and so far it is from being necessary that the print should be perfectly like the thing it represents, that its perfection often requires the contrary: For a circle must often be represented by an ellipse, a square by a rhombus, and so of other things.” [my emphasis]
Phenomenologist philosopher, Walter Hopp, thinks differently: “Ordinary objects look the way accurate two-dimensional paintings of them look.” Kendal Walton says the same of photographs but I think Reid is much closer to the mark.

Brian said...

Thanks, Jim, for bringing up Reid - whom I was not familiar with. I would say, however, that common sense would lead him to say that the red colour of the white ball is a quality of the red light, as you do. The ball appears to be red, but is actually white (in quality). This is a little like my illustration of the sea, above, which takes on a colour but is itself colourless. It requires an 'external' knowledge of cause and effect to perceive the 'truth'.

Your separation of visual characteristic or attribute from appearance is tenable in the context used, I agree.

It seems to me that Reid and Hopp are in accord, and take into account that we naturally see things from a particular focal point. Does your emphasis mean you think that natural vision in general is a 'representation' of reality, since we see things in much the same way as we represent them graphically? Or is what we see directly unmediated 'reality' itself? Or are the two much the same, one representation being simply a representation of the other?

There seem to be two possibilities. If vision is a representation of 'reality', then the question of the circle as the true reality is raised again, and reason points to a negative, since there is no 'circle' save an ideal one. If the elliptical shape is reality, then it is a kind of 'naive' reality.

Could it be that both possibilities are valid? That is, the true reality is both formless and naive - rather like in the perception of a very young child? Or, again, is the whole phenomenon, including all possibilities, the 'truth'?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Yes, appearance is a slippery fish because it's sometimes used to describe both what we have been discussing and also genuine properties of things such as “The red ball has a scarlet appearance.” or “The model ship has all the appearances of a real ship except size.” etc. I’m reminded of J.L. Austin’s discussion of the word “directly” in the sense data theories of Ayer and Peirce:

“Philosophers, it is said, 'are not, for the most part, prepared to admit that such objects as pens or cigarettes are ever directly perceived'. Now of course what brings us up short here is the word 'directly'—a great favourite among philosophers, but actually one of the less conspicuous snakes in the linguistic grass. […] One can't abuse ordinary language without paying for it.”

I’m not so sure that Reid and Hopp are in accord though. Reid says that representational perfection often requires that representations are perfectly unlike the things they represent whereas Hopp says that accurate representations look the same as ordinary objects. That’s surely about as different as it is possible to get.

In answer to your third paragraph: vision is not a representation, no. You might remember Brook also stated this quite emphatically in his last comment. Nor is reality. I’m a little unclear what you are asking though because you use a few different terms that have different implications: “natural vision”, “seeing” and “seeing directly” – there’s that “directly” word again I notice! As I think I mentioned before, we certainly have images projected on our retinas that conform to perspective but what happens downstream in perception is undoubtedly more complex than simple reception. The animations in my last post were intended to indicate this point. We have evolved to rapidly and efficiently evaluate the evidence of our senses.

Brian said...

How can Reid be saying that representations are "perfectly unlike the things they represent" unless he is referring to the difference between perfect geometrical forms, and the 'distortions' we see in our vision of the world. He had rather a lot to say about aesthetics, and he was a little too early for abstract art.

If "vision is not representation", or one of the instruments of representation, of reality to the mind, then there is nothing between you and the outer world. Thus you are somehow in direct 'touch' with it, and experiencing it "directly".

Jim Hamlyn said...

Once again Brian, I’m a little unclear whether these are questions or statements of what you take to be the case, statements of what you take me to be saying or Thomas Reid to be claiming. Reid was a “Direct Realist” so yes he believed that we experience the world directly and that we do not have representations in the mind: “As to images in the mind, if any thing more is meant by the image of an object in the mind than the thought of that object, I know not what it means.”

The point I need to reiterate, at the risk of being tedious, is that we don’t see distortions or ‘distortions’ in “our vision of the world” we see Shape and Colour Constancy - and for good reason. You are clinging on to this conception of appearances Brian with admirable tenacity but I think you may be starting to realise that it is the most infirm of grips. Just watch the TV for a few minutes and see if you can perceive all the simultaneous shifting morphing shapes, all the ellipses, the rhomboids, the parallelograms, the trapezoids etc, the rapidly changing patterns of light and dark, the moment-to-moment alternating colours that play across the surface. If you can, even for one brief moment, divorce yourself from seeing representations of recognisable things, of surfaces, of people, of vehicles and sky and all the wonderful variety of what we refer to as things then I might concede that you don’t see what all the rest of humanity manifestly does see.

This isn’t intellectual trickery, it’s what is known in educational jargon as a Threshold Concept and it is certainly the most taxing one I have ever encountered (apart from Relativity which I still don’t fully understand). Threshold concepts are well known for putting students under great ontological strain since they promise to reconstitute what was previously thought to be well founded knowledge. The great thing though about threshold concepts is that once you cross over the boundary into a clearer conception of the facts so much else falls into place. Some people describe this kind of thing as "learning as loss" and yes this is probably why we struggle so hard against the tide. But surely it's better to be in possession of an accurate account (or at least more accurate account) of the situation than a inaccurate one. It is not learning as loss but rather learning as gain.

Brian said...

First of all, let me go back to the analogy of your female "builder" and the "draftswoman". Certainly, someone could make a representation of a three-dimensional object to represent it accurately (matching representation?), but if it were a complex object, with subtle planes and angles (your ship, for example), they would most likely still need the blueprint. The builder (male or female) certainly needs a plan to commence building. I'm not an expert on history, but the Egyptians were apparently among the first exponents of geometry, and they were consummate builders. So, you have to ask yourself, how much is the original building itself the representation of a plan? The plan, in this case, comes first from the idea - then the building is constructed (these can be reversed, though). When it is built, in the real world, when seen from most natural viewpoints, previously drawn squares become optically ‘distorted' into rhomboids, circles become ellipses, etc. Surely this is what Reid is talking about. He was not anti-graphic representation. The Greeks inherited a knowledge of geometry (among other things) from the Egyptians, and it is perhaps no coincidence that they saw the world as functioning according to the principles of logos, and mathematics. Plato was a mathematician, and this may account for his expanded theory of 'ideal forms' from geometric forms.

One may critique this principle of logos, but it can’t simply be discounted as archaic, since modern scientists also form their concepts of the physical universe according to mathematical calculation. ‘Platonism’ runs right through scientific thought. Pseudo-science is a poor representation of science, and borrows from its narrower concepts to make specious claims that are neither scientific nor revolutionary.

Once more, I am not "clinging on to this concept of appearances". You are the one with a so-called "threshold concept" that there is no such thing as appearance, and yet you constantly use the word to describe something. What then, do you mean by 'appearance'? In your paragraph above, you affirm that "we see shape and colour constancy". What is a shape, let's say an elliptical shape, of it is not a tilted circular 'shape'? What is a colour, if it does not alter with light. Where, oh where, is the problem? There is no threshold here at all. I say that all you are doing is playing with language, using its lack of clarity against it to prove a point through it. Ironically you accuse others of doing this in the pursuit of philosophy. I quote Gadamer:

"I believe that the only conscientious way to clarify our philosophical ideas is to listen to what is already known by the language that unites us".

Brian said...

(cont.) 'Appearance' has a specific meaning in language. If you accept that we all have eyes, and negotiate the world through the senses, then you must accept that there is such a thing as appearance. You can't simply side-step it to introduce a half-baked pseudo-Darwinian theory.

You are contradicting yourself. You said categorically in a previous response that “vision is NOT representation, no ... NOR IS REALITY” [my emphasis]. But you say, as regards TV, "if you can ... divorce yourself from seeing representations of recognisable things ... " then “you don’t see what all the rest of humanity manifestly does see”. (I would be out of step with everyone else, and also not quite getting the “threshold concept”. And this would be “swimming against the tide” - yet you say that this threshold concept is more difficult than relativity theory. How can that be, if the “tide” of “the rest of humanity” is already aware of it when watching TV?) If you say the TV pictures are representations - WHICH YOU DO - then they are by definition not real shapes and colours. If on the other hand they are real, they are by definition not representations. The distinction, and the choice, is yours. Once again, it seems the word ‘representation’ here subtly stands in for appearance, as I said earlier of Brook.

I see "trickery" sure enough, but nothing remotely "intellectual" in the so-called 'threshold concept'. How can students be put under "ontological strain", by this? True ontological strain would be to question the foundation of knowledge, which rests upon the assumption of being, which in all of this Brook-ian stuff is never even remotely considered. It's the allegory of the cave being played out endlessly.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Ok, I think I see where the confusion lies. A copy of a simulating representation would match the representation of which it is a copy in a great variety of respects. This means that the shapes you see on a TV can and do match shapes seen elsewhere. I hoped that would be obvious. So, no I’m not contradicting myself. I’m just trying in the best and most straightforward way I know of elucidating a theory which continues to stand up to your formidable onslaught very well indeed despite my relatively recent introduction to it.

But since you seem to have returned to your initial rebarbative state perhaps you could answer the following. No doubt you’ll avoid being specific or else you’ll add prevaricating inverted commas to your terms.
1. Is the elliptical shape that you say that you see when you look at a tilted circular coin a frontally presented ellipse, standing perpendicular to your line of sight?

2. If so, on what sort of surface is it printed or inscribed?

3. If it is printed or inscribed on a physical surface, doesn't this imply that other people should be able to see the very same ellipse, just as they (presumably) see the very same coin?

4. If the ellipse that you say that you see is not printed or inscribed on a physical surface but on an imaginary surface, where is this imaginary surface situated? If it is not situated somewhere between the tilted circular coin and your eye, how could it make sense to say that it perfectly (albeit transparently) occludes the tilted circular coin? Only things standing in this range of visibility can do occluding.

5. If the answer to the last conundrum is “The imaginary (transparent) surface on which the ellipse that I see is printed or inscribed is situated in any position I care to assign to it between the tilted circular coin and my eye, with its size proportionate to its distance along my cone of vision,” then which one of an infinite number of differently sized possible ellipses is the particular one that you are presently seeing?

6. If you are not seeing a particular one of these imaginary ellipses (according to the nomination of position that you seem not to have actually made) does it follow that your theory of perception cannot be a causal theory?

Brian said...

1. No. It is not an ellipse. It is - as you say - an "elliptical shape".

2. It is not printed or inscribed, unless I copy it through drawing, for example.

3. It is not printed or inscribed, so I'm afraid this makes no sense to me. If it were printed on, say a glass screen, then other people would have to see it from the same viewpoint to see what you call "the very same coin".

4. In this case the imaginary surface is the picture plane. Since I'm not allowed inverted commas, we will assume that the picture plane is a mutually accepted concept. It does not in any way occlude the titled circular coin, which you previously also refer to as an elliptical shape.

5. If the surface is transparent, the coin will not alter in size, so there is not an infinite number of possible ellipses.

6. I am seeing a particular elliptical shape, not an imaginary one. I have nominated a position. What theory of perception?

Brian said...

And as to the accusation of "rebarbative" (inverted commas are customary here) I would remind you of your own remarks, which are on occasion quite unreasonably derisory.

Brian said...

"A copy of a simulating representation would match the representation of which it is a copy in a great variety of respects. This means that the shapes you see on a TV can and do match shapes seen elsewhere. I hoped that would be obvious". I understand the first sentence, but not the second. In what way are the shapes seen on television copies of representations?

I'm sorry to post these points so quickly, but what seems obvious to you is far from being the case with me, Jim.

Brian said...

Jim, here are some questions that I’d like to put to you (in a spirit of fun):

1. If you are talking to someone who is six-feet tall, and s/he moves away from you, does s/he actually get smaller (crushed, as a helpless victim of perspective), or just appear to get smaller?

2. If you were standing on a green hill, and later - from several miles away - noticed that it was bluish, would it actually have changed colour in the time it took you to travel away, or would it appear to have changed colour (and shrunk in size)?

3. If you see a coin, which is circular in shape, from an angle, has it actually changed its shape, or does it appear to have done so?

4. How do you measure the definitive height, colour, or shape of an object, and why do we?

Jim Hamlyn said...

I apologise if I’ve been derisory. Looking back through my comments I can see only one real point (unless you also count my comment about the potter above) where I might be accused of being overtly derisory; at the end of our initial discussion where I think we were both a little exasperated by what little headway we were making. I apologise for that and if you like I'll remove the portion in inverted commas which might cause you offence.
Certainly the discussion has been heated but I have tried at several points to state very clearly that I value your input. Edmund Burke put it very well I think:

"He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper. This amicable conflict with difficulty helps us to an intimate acquaintance with our object, and compels us to consider it in all its relations. It will not suffer us to be superficial."

Back to the issues at hand. I think we can agree that there has been significant philosophical discussion over the years of the fact that we seem to be able to entertain two distinctly different perceptions of many of the things we see? Philosophers have differed greatly over the possible sources of these conflicting interpretations of the seen. Some, like perhaps you and Alva Noë, argue that there is no contradiction because we have both perceptions simultaneously or we can switch between perceptions at will (this is a very good but, I would suggest, partial explanation).

Several questions then arise: do we genuinely have two simultaneous perceptions, only one or one primary perception plus a subsidiary one? If we assume two perceptions then further questions arise: how is it that the second one (the possibly subsidiary one) is not more evident in the historical record? Thomas Reid points out that “appearances have been a matter of speculation to ingenious men, at least since the time of Euclid.” This is surely true, yet there is scant evidence (through visual representations or otherwise) of a particular form of appearance (perspectival distortion) prior to the development of early optics and the ground-breaking discovery of Brunelleschi (perspective).

If we assume that this secondary perception was exercised by everyone prior to the emergence of perspectival representation then we have to ask why there is so little evidence of its (this secondary perception that is) use or mention in the many artefacts and documents that precede that time. The most plausible explanation would seem to be that it emerged simultaneous to and as a consequence of the discovery of perspective and was therefore a latent ability, a “felicity” as Brook called it, that perspectival representations exploit.

In his studies of child development, Jean Piaget recorded his observations of children as they learned to draw. He writes: “The child, as we all know, begins by drawing only what he sees around him - men, houses, etc. In this sense, he is a realist. But instead of drawing them as he sees them, he reduces them to a fixed schematic type; in a word, he draws them as he knows them to be.” [my emphasis]

Piaget very clearly makes an assumption here about the nature of perception. He assumes that what children actually see is this subsidiary (or contested) form of perception. Whilst it is certainly the case that children learn to recognise representations from infancy, this is no proof that they are able to switch their attention to this secondary form of perception from such an early age. What Brook and I are arguing is that this is an acquired ability: what Sean D. Kelly describes as an “unnatural attitude” of detachment from our “perceptual commitments about how the world is” that is backed up by Kelly’s empirical experiments mentioned earlier. This is all we’re arguing really.

Jim Hamlyn said...

In response to your fun questions:

1. If you are talking to someone who is six-feet tall, and s/he moves away from you, does s/he actually get smaller (crushed, as a helpless victim of perspective), or just appear to get smaller?

Neither, You see her/him move away. Though I like the idea of crushed by perspective (what a great album title!)

2. If you were standing on a green hill, and later - from several miles away - noticed that it was bluish, would it actually have changed colour in the time it took you to travel away, or would it appear to have changed colour (and shrunk in size)?

Brook writes of exactly this question too and it’s a lovely one to think about. I can’t remember where to dig out his discussion of it but I’m sure he would ask what we would be inclined to offer as a representation of the distant hill. If someone offered something green then we’d probably assume they were trying to draw our attention to the actual colour of the hill (to offer a matching representation of it) and if they offered a cornflower blue dab of paint then we would readily assume they were offering a simulating representation. As should already be clear the possibility of matching the apparent colour would be a near impossibility but getting a good simulation that we would find difficult to discriminate from the distant view would be relatively easy for anyone practiced at mixing colours (if they had them to hand). Once you think about it a little the example is identical to the example of the white ball lit by red light. The colour of the hill, as it is perceived, is influenced by airborne particles that have different optical properties than the distant hill and that is why it’s nigh on impossible to produce a matching representation of the resultant colour.

3. If you see a coin, which is circular in shape, from an angle, has it actually changed its shape, or does it appear to have done so?

It has been crushed by perspective again… or the same answer as question 1 ie: it’s at an angle.

4. How do you measure the definitive height, colour, or shape of an object, and why do we?

By matching the height, colour, shape orientation etc of objects we are able to show that we perceive them to a high level of accuracy. If Mike Nelson were to make a copy of my house I’d be more uncertain of the structural integrity of the copy than if an experienced builder were to do so. Nelson might be able to match the superficial properties (you’d say appearance) very well but I’d expect an experienced builder to be able to match (or at least approximately match) the more important (to my purposes) structural properties of my house. So to answer your excellent question more simply: we measure in order to confirm, aid and/or improve the accuracy of the determinations we form through our senses in the knowledge that our discriminatory capacities are limited. How do we measure the definitive properties? Well that takes us back to the questions we were deliberating over much earlier. Fortunately our perceptual abilities and the scales and speeds we and our fellow organisms operate at are such that definitive tends to need nothing more precise than approximately near as damn it.

Brian said...

Thanks for that, Jim. It is pretty clear. As you surmise, for the moment I'll stick with the idea that human beings are capable of both ways of seeing, and indeed many others, and that we choose different emphases for representation, according to cultural needs and preferences (ancient Greece, Rome, the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century, being eras of predominantly realistic representation).

I'll look forward to reading your further articles, but I'll try to refrain from comment, and give you peace to develop your thesis.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Brian, actually I'm writing a paper for a conference on perception in Glasgow this September and your comments and questions have been absolutely invaluable in helping me see the weaknesses and necessities of my argument. You have truly been my helper.

I foresee another disagreement looming some way down the line though about mental imagery (I'm planning a an extended series of posts on the subject of imagination). Thomas Reid had it right about that subject too I think but let's leave that discussion for later.

Thanks again



Jim Hamlyn said...

Today I came upon an astounding article by R.G. Collingwood from 1923 entitled: "Thought and Sensation" critiquing the then popular Sense-Datum Theory. Collingwood writes:

"On the theory we are criticizing, our sense-data come to us in the form of pictures correctly drawn in perspective : we actually see the rails as convergent, the house as diminishing at its farther end, and so forth. It. is only (on that theory) by interpreting these pure sense-data that we arrive at the judgment that the rails are parallel and the house cubical. Now if this were so, correct drawing in perspective would be as simple and natural as the correct singing of a note heard. All children wouild draw in perspective as naturally as all children mimic notes. But drawing in perspective is notoriously a very difficult accomplishment, and one which no child achieves naturally. It took the European mind many centuries of hard work to invent it, and no non- European race 'has ever seriously tried to solve the problems of perspective. But this is an inconceivable state of things if perspective is simply the way in which our sense-data reach us. And it cannot be explained by adopting the literally preposterous view that when we learn perspective we de-intellectualize our sense of vision and bring it back to a naivet, an immediacy, which the child and the savage have lost. No one who has learnt perspective could possibly confuse that process with one of de- intellectualization, unless he believes that Beelzebub is the right person to cast out devils.

What we learn to do, in learning perspective, is to project the objects we see upon an imaginary sheet of glass held in front of us, the so-called plane of the picture. All perspective is conventional in the sense that it is based on a conventional starting- point, namely, the problem of projecting objects upon this plane. Those who think that objects immediately " appear " to us so projected, are deceived, by the ease with which they have learnt to do a thing, into supposing that they are not doing it at all; or else they are falling, in a more confused way, into the same fallacy which has led some people to wonder why we do not see things upside down.

If one forgets perspective, one no longer says or thinks that the lines look convergent or that the distant objects look small. This is the way in which everyone who has not learnt perspective looks at things, as is proved by the fact of perspectiveless drawing; and it can easily be recaptured by anyone who is willing to try. Put two oranges on the table, one two feet away and the other four: look at them without any thought of reducing them to the same picture-plane but simply as a three-dimensiqnal group of objects (Need I repeat that to think of them, while looking at them, as three-dimensional is no more an interpretation than to think of them as projected two-dimensionally?) and ask yourself " does one look larger than the other?" If you have really got rid of the imaginary picture-plane you will at once reply " No, they look the same size." An ingenious objector might reply " I should never say they looked the same size, but only that they looked as if they were the same size." This would amount to a plea that he could not think away the imaginary picture-plane, and that it was therefore an immediate datum of sense. I must insist that this is simply an error. If everyone cannot think away the picture-plane, I cannot help him; I can only tell him that I find no difficulty in doing so, and that I actually find it very much easier to judge "real" sizes, shapes, angles and so forth than to judge the " apparent" sizes, etc., which would be correct in a perspective drawing of the things I see. Nor am I singular in this: everybody in point of fact is more liable to errors of perspective than to errors in estimating real shapes, and those who think they are not have either not tested themselves or are not capable of checking their own errors."

Seán said...

I'm just imagining you all in a burning building having this conversation for some reason....

Jim Hamlyn said...

Haha Sean, yes I often wondered if you'd pop your pragmatic engineer's head round the door. Have you heard of Newton's Flaming Laser Sword? Basically it's a form of Occam's law and says that if something cannot be settled by experiment it's not worth debating. Sometimes though we need a little philosophy to determine what experiments are needed.

Seán said...

This one?

I hadn't, but I like it, though of course the guy's a mathematician.

Engineers do not philosophise about which experiment to do, and philosophers do not do experiments, or they would have arrived at a conclusion is the couple of thousand years they've been at it.

To be fair though, some of the expert witness work I have been doing recently has convinced me of the benefit of an understanding of a difference between logic and rhetoric.

Jim Hamlyn said...

“The idea that philosophy could be kept apart from the sciences would have been dismissed out of hand by most of the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But many contemporary philosophers believe they can practice their craft without knowing what is going on in the natural and social sciences. If facts are needed, they rely on their “intuition”, or they simply invent them. The results of philosophy done in this way are typically sterile and often silly. There are no proprietary philosophical questions that are worth answering, nor is there any productive philosophical method that does not engage the sciences. But there are lots of deeply important (and fascinating and frustrating) questions about minds, morals, language, culture and more. To make progress on them we need to use anything that science can tell us, and any method that works” -Stephen Stich.

I think Stich has got it right but there are times when we have a tendency to think the foundations of our thinking are settled. One of the consequences of this complacency is that we stop asking questions about things that are insufficiently or inaccurately understood. Until I encountered Brook's theories of representation I thought I knew pretty well what representation is. I now realise that my assumptions stood foundations laid in antiquity, assumptions that continue to underpin much scientific thinking about representation. Science could do with a copernican revolution in its understanding of representation.

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