Monday, 23 December 2013

Evolution's Greatest Gift

Gifts can arrive carefully concealed or right out of the box. Either way their long term consequences can only be envisaged but never seen.

I recently had a discussion with a philosopher in which he defended the concept of "seeing-in." He argued that an expert talent-scout working for a modelling agency would be able to see - literally perceive - potential in the face of a prospective model. Sadly the discussion was interrupted so I didn't get a chance to challenge him on his view.

Is it possible to spot talent? Do experts see potential in things? And, when we look at artworks do we see meaning in them or would it be more precise to say that meaning and potential are ideas that we project upon the world, i.e. thoughts that we are capable of describing?

It may well be the case that our philosopher was using the term "perception" figuratively as  shorthand for appreciation or evaluation. Potential in this sense then is a notion. Specifically, potential is a notion about the future. It is an anticipatory story, image, account or proposition that we are able to offer. If I say that someone has potential, I do not mean that I literally see anything. If the person in question leaves the room, the potential I see doesn't walk out of the door with them. Seeing of this kind is not a sensory state. It is a mental state. 

So, when an expert looks into the world, her expertise does not endow her with heightened sensory powers. Nor is the world filled with indications of an as yet unrealised future. This may seem counter intuitive, but the universe does not concern itself with indicating anticipated states of affairs. Only brains do that. Indications are things that we are capable of producing or selecting, not things that the universe presents for our edification. When we see dark clouds looming we say "It looks like it's going to rain." But we can only say such things because we recognise some of the many patterns of the universe. We know from past experience that dark clouds often precede rain and we can use this knowledge to inform our judgements about the future.

Expertise is partly a condition of being acquainted with certain causal regularities. Experience and education about these regularities furnishes experts with exemplars that allow them to make more accurate predictions. But these predictions are not properties of the world. They are capacities of thought and this is why even experts are often wrong, especially about long-term events.

So, to say that we see potential in a student is to hedge a bet based upon their previous achievements. It is certainly not a kind of mysterious emanation that only experts can sense. It is not a perceptible thing or energy of any kind. It is a supposition, based upon evidence and supported by experience without which the determination of potential would be impossible.

It might be argued, as our philosopher friend contended, that the expert talent-scout could literally see beauty in the face of the model. That seems perfectly plausible doesn't it? But it would wouldn't it? Philosophers aren't inclined to holding easily refuted ideas no matter how incorrect they might actually be. Let's shift the turf then and see what it exposes. To see beauty in an image, by our philosopher' reckoning then, is to perceive beauty. Moreover, to see meaning in an image is to perceive meaning. If so, then what can we say of all the other potential meanings perceived by other experts? To take this explanatory route leads straight into a 5th dimension of unending meanings, each one neatly and - most tellingly of all - imperceptibly packaged within every image.

The alternative approach - the one I'm advocating - is to deny the perception of beauty, meaning etc. on he basis that these are not attributes but rather attributions. If beauty were a perceptible property of a prospective model then every perceiver - aliens included - would have to be capable of perceiving it. I don't think anyone would be confident of that view. Beauty and meaning etc. are concepts. They are ideas we closely associate with certain kinds and configurations of perceptible attributes and objects.

When we give gifts we often try to conceal their identity by wrapping them. It is never the point of gift giving that the recipient should be able to predict the contents. Such a skill would render the ritual of wrapping meaningless. One of the great pleasures of wrapped gifts is the expectation they elicit, an expectation that reaches its greatest peak in childhood. This has two important consequences. Firstly, it encourages self control; a vital life-skill. Secondly, it encourages powers of imagination that are of inestimable value to us as a species.

When the expert talent-scout sees potential in a prospective model she imagines a possible future. When a teacher sees potential in a student they also imagine, or are capable of imagining, the student excelling. When we receive a present we imagine a future pleasure. These acts of imagination are not properties of things, they are capacities of mind. Strictly speaking they are capacities of representation: evolution's greatest gift.


Thanks to Brian for his contributions to a previous discussion on the subject of talent that was an important prompt for this post.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Sense and Sensibilities (distinguishing and discriminating)

When discussing such things as taste, discrimination and discernment, there is always a risk of sounding elitist.  It's an occupational hazard in the arts. But, as I hope to show, this is due to two quite different ways in which we are capable of responding to experiences, one of which we all have access to, whilst the other has to be learned.

"But though there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty." —David Hume (1757)

It could be said that an art school education is largely directed towards the cultivation of sensibilities, to the sharpening and refinement of tastes and to the subtleties and nuances of method, media and process. In order for us to become conversant with and to develop our appreciation of the fine details and qualities of experience it is often necessary to attend closely to the minutiae of sensations and to form distinctions between subtly different materials, gestures, expressions etc. But does this skill emerge through sensory experience alone or do language, and the distinctions that language enables, play a vital part in what Hume called "the delicacy of taste"? He writes: "Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact, as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste."

Hume observes that our first experiences of things are often "obscure and confused; and the mind is, in a great measure, incapable of pronouncing concerning their merits or defects." But as experience increases, "The organ [of taste] acquires greater perfection in its operations; and can pronounce, without danger or mistake, concerning the merits of every performance." But if it is the case that experience and exacting discrimination are sufficient to explain this skill then we are left with an unsettled question: do animals develop a delicacy of taste through experience also? And if experience and fine discriminatory capacities are fundamental to a delicacy of taste then old dogs and innumerable other mature animals must possess sensibilities that far exceed our own.

In the late 1980’s and early 90’s Timothy D. Wilson and colleagues published the results of several frequently cited studies which explored the relationships between feelingful or “affective” judgements and verbal criteria. In the most famous of these studies test-subjects were asked to rank a selection of 5 jams in order of quality. The average rankings determined by these novice jam tasters turned out to be fairly closely correlated with rankings determined by expert jam tasters. Another group of novice jam tasters were also asked to take the test but in this case they were asked to make a note of the reasons for their judgements before ranking each jam. In this case the average rankings were significantly unlike those of the expert tasters.

Wilson et al conclude that what differentiates novices from experts is that novices have not yet integrated their affective states into a conceptual system, with the consequence that their attempts to verbalise their feelings fail to do them justice. Experts, on the other hand, have a much more stable grasp of their conceptual system and the ways this describes and frames their underlying affective states.

What this research reveals is that experience alone is insufficient for the development of our sensibilities. No matter how many jams I try - and I like jam a lot - I'll never become an expert simply by triggering my affective states, by tasting my way. What makes the crucial difference is my capacity to structure and articulate my feelings through language. 

Savouring a sensation then, can be thought of in two quite different ways. We can prolong an experience by deliberately lingering over it - sustaining and consolidating the associated feelings. Or we can contemplate an experience by carefully distinguishing between its component parts. This would be impossible if not for the categories and concepts of language. The ability to discriminate, on the other hand, is enabled by our sensory capacities, capacities that we share, though obviously to differing degrees of resolution and acuity, with other animals. 

Sensibilities, it turns out, are what language enables us to derive from the affective responses of sensory discrimination - from our senses. Without language we might still be able to savour our sensations but we would be unable to contemplate them. Not only is contemplation linguistically derived, it is also inherently social, precisely because of these linguistic roots. Perhaps this is why much of the most memorable and pleasurable savouring is that which is shared.

"No pleasure has any savor for me without communication." —Michel de Montaigne