Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Achievement of Illusion

Akiyoshi Kitaoka

There’s an interesting discussion on the New York Review of Books at the moment between writer Tim Parks and realist philosopher Riccardo Manzotti on the subject of consciousness. Manzotti rejects the idea, popular in much cognitive neuroscience, that our experience of the world is a mediated product of the mind or brain. Instead Manzotti takes an “externalist” stance that conceives of experience as somehow “spread” out across the things of the world. Even if we agree with Manzotti’s realism, this needn’t commit us to either internalism or externalism. Experiences simply happen wherever they happen. A walk in the highlands certainly doesn’t happen in your head, but it makes little sense to say that it is spread over the mountains either.

One of the standard objections to realist accounts of consciousness is what is known as “the argument from illusion”. The basic idea is this. If we are susceptible to optical illusions and other illusory phenomena, then we cannot rely on perception. Manzotti responds:

“Mirages and Hallucinations are not necessarily ‘pure appearances’, one sees something that is really there, only that one takes to be something else. Yet it is not misperception, rather it is misjudgement!”

Few people would claim that mirages, hallucinations and illusions are not caused. But if one mistakes a reflection in a mirror for an actual thing, then it isn’t true that “one sees something that is really there”. If the mirror (the thing that is really there) isn’t seen and its reflection “is taken for something else”, then quite clearly the mirror has been misperceived. Such a response cannot be a “misjudgement” because judgement is not a precursor to perception. If you look before you leap, you don’t judge before you look.

Manzotti seems to have fallen into a conceptual trap. In his eagerness to refute internalism, he has adopted an opposing view when it would have made more sense to stick to his otherwise justified critique of internalism and to point out that consciousness is something we ascribe to whole people, not to their brains or minds.

Parks and Manzotti discuss an interesting optical illusion by Akiyoshi Kitaoka. What appear to be blue and green portions are in fact the same colour. Internalists argue that this illusion shows that everything we perceive is an illusion generated by the mind/brain. If so, this would be a truly miraculous achievement on the part of the brain even if it were sometimes wrong. However, a far simpler and more parsimonious explanation is that these apparent colours are merely the result of the very opposite of an achievement. They are the product of a very ordinary perceptual failure brought about by the circumstances in which the illusion is presented. Change the circumstances in the right ways and it becomes obvious that there is only one colour involved. No neural mysteries need be imputed.

The effect conforms the same principle used to make colour prints with inkjet printers or to produce colours on the screen you are currently using. In fact, the same basic principle enables us to place tiny black and white squares together to produce a patch that looks grey.

If it weren’t for the fact that all normally sighted people are susceptible to illusions in the same sorts of ways and in the same sorts of circumstances, then all illusionistic media (images, movies, representational paintings and drawings etc.) would be unacceptable as representations. There would simply be no ways and no circumstances in which such representations would be like the things they might otherwise represent.

Sometimes things can look like other things because they are genuinely alike. Two leaves from the same tree will usually be alike in a whole variety of respects. Such isomorphism is the very basis of what we take to be observer-independence, of what is objectively real. On the other hand, things can look like other things because in some regularly occurring or contrivable circumstances it can be difficult for us to discriminate between them in one or more respects. Equally, and for the same reasons, two things that are actually the same in one or more respects can seem to be different. The mastery of illusion is not an achievement of the brain, it is an achievement of human culture.

I will leave the last word to the Scottish realist philosopher Thomas Reid:

“The sceptic asks me, Why do you believe the existence of the external object which you perceive? This belief, sir, is none of my manufacture; it came from the mint of Nature; it bears her image and superscription; and, if it is not right, the fault is not mine: I even took it upon trust, and without suspicion. Reason, says the sceptic, is the only judge of truth, and you ought to throw off every opinion and every belief that is not grounded on reason. Why, sir, should I believe the faculty of reason more than that of perception?—they came both out of the same shop, and were made by the same artist; and if he puts one piece of false ware into my hands, what should hinder him from putting another?” (Thomas Reid, IHM 6.20, 168–169)

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Masters of Illusion

A Cartesian can believe that the existing world is not visible, that the only light is that of the mind, and that all vision takes place in God. A painter cannot grant that our openness to the world is illusory or indirect, that what we see is not the world itself, or that the mind has to do only with its thoughts or with another mind. (Maurice Merleau-Ponty 1964, 186)
The following discussion aims to show that our perception of the world is in no way illusory. Whilst we are obviously susceptible to illusions, our various skills and tools enable us to recognise and exploit many of these susceptibilities in a variety of powerful ways.

According to Alex Byrne: "Perception comprises, by stipulation, veridical perception and illusion" (2009). For Byrne, and many other philosophers, one “veridically perceives an object if and only if one sees it, and it is the way it appears or looks.” In other words, veridical perception is what we usually mean when we speak of perception in ordinary language. It is the perception of how objects ordinarily are, or what we typically call “ordinary perception”, “normal perception” or just plain “perception”. However, like Byrne, some philosophers claim that perception “comprises”, or at least sometimes involves, illusion or illusory perceptions. Two important points need to be made regarding this claim. Firstly, an illusory parrot is not a species of parrot—in fact it is not a parrot at all. And by the same token, an illusory perception is not a perception either, at least not in the respects in which it is illusory. The same is true of misperceptions, false perceptions or perceptual mistakes etc. A failure to perceive something in certain respects cannot be a sort of perception in those respects. Missing a train is not an instance of catching a train.

Secondly, to notice or recognise an illusion is not to be at its mercy. It is to grasp the illusion for what it is. To say that one length of an optical illusion "looks" shorter than the other is not to say that the line is shorter than the other. Recognising that the two lines could be mistaken as being of different lengths does not preclude our seeing that they are the same length.

In a forthcoming book chapter, John O’Dea writes: "I can think of no good reason to deny that a tilted coin could be seen as elliptical and flat with respect to the viewer. This would be tantamount to denying the possibility of illusion." It is perfectly justified to say that a tilted circular coin can be treated, regarded or considered as a flatly presented ellipse, because a tilted circular coin can be successfully depicted as a flatly presented ellipse. However, if O’Dea intends “seen” in the sense of “perceived”, which seems likely in the context of his discussion, then his claim should be examined in light of the conclusions we have already drawn about the relation between perception and illusion. Thus, if the alleged perception is an illusion, then it is not a de facto perception in the relevant respects. On the other hand, if looking at a tilted circular coin results in a perception of an illusion—in seeing the illusion for what it is—then a description of the illusion alone will not answer the question of what has been perceived. What has been perceived is a tilted circular coin that can be successfully depicted through the use of a flatly presented ellipse. 

In the concluding paragraph of the chapter, O’Dea writes:
Constancy often fails; deep shadows can make surface colour perceptually unclear; at severe angles, shapes constancy disappears; size becomes harder to judge from more distant objects; and so on. Is perceptual experience illusory in these conditions?
Evidently O’Dea has mistaken illusions of inconstancy for actual failures of constancy. Constancy is usually characterised as the stability we regularly encounter in the properties of perceived objects, despite changes in angle of view, illumination, shading etc. So if circumstances of apparent inconstancy do not constitute actual inconstancy, but rather the illusion of inconstancy, then it would be false to conclude that they are perceived as inconstant. A failure to see that a dead parrot is deceased is not a failure of constancy on the part of the parrot.

If the properties of a stable object, like a book or a table (or even a dead parrot), are perceived as having constancy, there is nothing to prevent us from also regarding, considering or treating these same objects as if they have inconstant features like being blurred when viewed at close quarters or being small when seen from a distance or being colourless in moonlight etc. This is important because it shows that we are often capable of treating things in two quite different ways, one of which involves the capacity to represent the actual properties we perceive whilst the other involves a more sophisticated knowledge of how to represent objects by way of illusory representational techniques.

The following passage from Maurice Merleau-Ponty makes a related point:
It took centuries of painting before the reflections upon the eye were seen, without which the painting remains lifeless and blind, as in the paintings by primitive peoples. The reflection is not seen for itself, since it was able to go unnoticed for so long, and yet it has its function in perception, since its mere absence is enough to remove the life and the expression from objects and from faces. [...] It is not itself seen, but makes the rest be seen. Reflections and lighting in photography are often poorly portrayed because they are transformed into things..." (2012, §364)
It is true that eyes quickly lose their lustre in the absence of lubrication, but if the reflection is not seen for itself, an obvious question arises. Is the reflection on a pond seen for itself, or the reflection in a mirror? Merleau-Ponty provides no obvious answer, but it seems reasonable to conclude that his view would be this. Until the discovery of depictive techniques capable of transforming reflections into things, people were not capable of representing them. In other words, it is by virtue of the emergence of pictorial techniques that visual phenomena like blurring, reflections, perspectival distortions etc. have become communicable (there is even evidence that this applies to the colour blue). This is not to say that reflections have not always played a part in perception. After all, if tears produced no reflections, they would be invisible. As Merleau Ponty says: the reflection “is not itself seen” but it enables the tears, the pond etc. to “be seen”. And what of mirrors? Do we not perceive the reflection in a mirror? His point is that the reflection is not perceived “for itself” as a thing. We might occasionally mistake a reflection for a thing, but this would not constitute a perception. It would be the perceptual equivalent of sitting on the platform of Glasgow Queen Street station dreaming that you are on the 8:15 to Edinburgh Waverly.

Schwitzgebel (2011) raises another reason to be wary about the claim that perception involves illusion. 
Consider the oar's looking bent in water. Could we say that the oar's appearance is an illusion? That seems natural. But if so, then presumably the look of things through a glass of water, which will be similarly distorted, is also an illusion. And if that, then also the look of things through a magnifying glass held appropriately close? Through a telescope? Through ordinary corrective lenses? (166n.8)
It makes little sense to say, for example, that when things recede into the distance, they gradually become illusory. They are simply harder to make out. When we look across a table, we see less of the far side. This isn't an illusion. It's a commonplace and unremarkable consequence of the spatial fall-off of sensory input. The more distant an object, the less we see of it. The effect is regular and gradual and leads eventually to the complete loss of input as objects recede into the distance. If our sensory systems were perfect, there would be no fall-off. But then again, if our sensory systems were perfect, there would be nothing we could not perceive and there would be no such thing as partially seeing or barely hearing something etc. Partial perception and the gradual failure to make things out in certain respects are just normal characteristics of our sensory relation to the world.

In ordinary circumstances, when we perceive things normally, we often describe them as if they have properties that they do not actually possess. We might say that shiny surfaces commonly "look silvery or wet", that rainclouds "look leaden or grey" or that fast-moving objects "appear to be blurred". These are not perceptual reports (or at least not perceptual success reports), but they do not preclude other (arguably more objective) ways of reporting things in terms of their actual perceived properties. In normal usage though, it doesn't really matter which strategy of representation we invoke in describing the objects we see (or "seem to see" on account of the ordinary fallibilities of all sensory systems), because we all familiar with the same representational techniques and we are all subject to very much the same perceptual strengths and weaknesses.
Very much less theoretical attention has been paid to those perceptual failures that are the logical corollary of success. […] In the wake of each positive perceptual advance the reciprocal logic of discrimination failure opens up new prospects for influential representational substitution. (Brook 1997)
This is a vitally important observation with profound implications. To be under the spell of an illusion is to be incapable either of recognising it or exploiting it. It is simply to make a mistake. However, to recognise an illusion is not only to be capable of recognising and perhaps avoiding other similar illusions. It is to have an insight into how other similar illusions might be staged. While many creatures are capable of learning from their mistakes, only tool-users are capable of recognising and exploiting their mistakes in the form of illusionistic tokens.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Grammar of Information

Wittgenstein said he preferred to reserve the expression “I know” for the cases in which it is used in normal linguistic exchange. […] If we are to build a theory of information, if there is ever to be a science of information, that, after all, is what we want a theory, a science, of — whatever we, in normal conversation, are talking about when we talk about information. (Dretske 2003)
According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: "There seems to be no pragmatic pressure in everyday communication to converge to a more exact definition of the notion of information." The following discussion is not intended to offer a more exact definition, but it is intended to present what I think are some important observations about the concept of information that are all too commonly overlooked, ignored or misunderstood.

Communication Dependence

The first of these is that information is dependent upon communication and the skills that mediate between intelligent creatures. To fail to account for this connection is to risk undermining the important distinction we typically assume between communication and causation. To communicate is to share information, usually between two or more parties. Inanimate objects cannot share information. Their influence is causal, not communicative. Nonetheless, the effects of causal influence can be used as information, but only by creatures capable of treating effect E as evidence of cause C.

Transmissibility and Communication
In a paper entitled “The Metaphysics of Information” (2003), Fred Dretske argues that information has three “essential properties”, one of which is its transmissibility. On this point I agree, but I think we could probably be a little more specific. Communication always involves transmission but transmission does not always involve communication. Conductive materials transmit heat or electricity, but they do not communicate heat or electricity. Communication is the narrower conceptual category, but it still encompasses all forms of information. It might be rightly argued however, that information about the origins of the Universe is transmitted from distant stars without being communicated by them. The important point to bear in mind though, is that without our culturally acquired communication skills and associated technologies we would have no capacity to treat the light from distant stars as information.

The of/about Distinction

The next “essential property” of information, according to Dretske, is that it is about something and is therefore necessarily semantic: “If it isn’t about anything, it isn’t information.” If this means that nonverbal (i.e. non-semantic) representations do not qualify as information, then we would have good reason to object. A simple but vitally important distinction will help to exemplify the issue. We commonly distinguish between what nonverbal representations are of and what they are about. I can answer the question of what an image (for example) is of by offering another depicted view (by providing different information that is). But I cannot answer the question of what a representation is about in the same way. “Aboutness,” as it is sometimes called, is necessarily semantic, whereas of-ness is not. A more detailed image of what a representational sculpture is of will certainly provide more information, but it will not necessarily provide more information concerning the semantic content of the sculpture, i.e. what it is about. We could document Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss” in minute detail without providing the slightest information regarding what it is about.

False Information

The last essential property of information according to Dretske, is that it is true. He acknowledges that we sometimes talk of misinformation and false information, but he regards it as “heavy-handed” to conclude that information can be false. He states: “False information is fake information and fake information is not a species of information any more than fake diamonds are a kind of diamond.” If a theory of information needs to take account of “whatever we, in normal conversation, are talking about when we talk about information,” then it makes little sense to reject our ordinary talk of false information, misinformation and misleading information etc. It is also mistaken to suggest that “fake information” will serve as a superior substitute. Fakes are always intended to be fakes, whereas false arguments, for example, are almost never intended to be false.

Unreliable information needn’t always be false information. Information may be adequate in some circumstances and not in others. And even if such information were always reliable in most circumstances, this would only make it contingently true and not universally true.

Effects as Information

According to Steven Pinker (1997) “Information itself is nothing special; it is found wherever causes leave effects.” There is potential to be led astray here. Causation is not in the business of leaving representations in its wake. We can measure and evaluate many of the effects of causal processes, but these measurements and evaluations—not the effects measured and evaluated—are invariably instantiated in the form of representational tokens of one sort or another. It should be clear then, that information concerning the precursors of a certain effect is not to be found like apples lying around an orchard. It can only be found through the application of various skills, tools and techniques, many of which have taken many centuries of experimentation and discovery to reach their current level of sophistication.

Carrying Information

Pinker continues: “We can regard a piece of matter that carries information about some state of affairs as a symbol; it can ‘stand for’ that state of affairs.” It may not be immediately obvious, but this is a tautology. It is like saying that we can regard a symbol as a symbol. To say that something “carries information” is already to imply that it can be regarded in symbolic terms. When information is transmitted, the process can be described in either of two ways: causal or symbolic. Despite being a tautology, Pinker’s point is correct—a piece of matter can be regarded as a symbolic stand-in for a state of affairs of which it is the effect. That’s what it means to “carry information about some state of affairs”.

The Burden of Information

It is also important to distinguish the carrying involved in information-transfer (or communication more generally) from the carrying of a physical burden. Carrying in the sense that we use when discussing information, is not at all like the carrying of a sack of potatoes or the carrying of a virus. It is more like the carrying of value or responsibility. When we say that a coin “carries” value, it would be absurd to assume that the value inheres, and is therefore detectable, in the coin. Value is conferred upon the coin through a system of exchange that enables the coin to be traded for various goods or services. The carrying of responsibility is likewise, something that finds its expression in actions. To carry responsibility for looking after a friend’s dog, is to be trusted to treat the dog with care and consideration. Burdens of responsibility are not burdens that can be measured by the kilo; they are burdens of expectation.

So when we say that something “carries information,” we mean that it can be treated in representational terms and, by virtue of this treatment, we acquire information either in the form of actual representations or through the ability to produce them.

Representational Utility

In a paper entitled “The Informational Turn in Philosophy” (2003), Fred Adams writes:
Waves of radiation traveling through space may contain information about the Big Bang before anyone detects it. Fingerprints on a gun may contain information about who pulled the trigger before anyone lifts the prints. Thus, information appears to be mind-independent (and, thereby, language independent too).
Just as the utility of objects precedes any use that might be made of them, so too does the capacity for something to be used as information precede any use we might make of it. So, whilst the ways of exploiting the world did not exist before they were discovered, the regularities—that enable exploitation—almost certainly did. Fingerprints on a gun are not representations, but when used as representations about the identity of of a murderer say, they can have very significant utility indeed. It should be noted though, that without the necessary skills and techniques, this utility of fingerprints—and thus any information they might contain—would remain wholly inaccessible. A latent image on a sheet of unprocessed film is not yet a representation, even though it contains information. It clearly follows then, that it is the techniques and processes that we apply to things that draw out their representational utility; their information.

Information Reified

According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Audi, 1999), information is: “an objective (mind independent) entity.” If information is an entity, we could be forgiven for trying to put a finger on it. Sometimes philosophers use the term “entity” to cover concepts (as does Dretske in fact) and this is usually unproblematic. In Audi’s case though, the claim that information is an objective mind-independent entity, would surely make it more substantial than a concept. Representations are entities but a capacity to represent something is not. Skills exist of course, but it is both silly and misleading to suggest that they are entities. If I commit some information to memory, I have not taken an entity on board, I have developed an ability. Abilities are not entities, they are actions that we can perform.

The Principle of Information Proliferation

When we produce information, the way that we do so can also be treated as information. When we make a phone call, the time, duration, origin and destination of the call can all be measured and recorded. This kind of information has recently become known as "metadata" and there is no reason in principle why the measurement and recording of metadata could not itself be measured and recorded. It will be evident then, that, in principle at least, this process could proliferate infinitely. I can think of no better or more persuasive evidence that information is a consequence of the way that we treat things as representational tokens.

The Media of Information

Without its representational utility, information would have no capacity to inform. So when we say that something "carries," "contains" or "conveys" information, this utility is implicit. Information is something we use. To use an object as information is to treat it or respond to it in a particular way or ways that have to be learned. Using information is thus a skill and is reliant upon techniques of communication in which representations function as the fundamental medium of exchange.

I would like to thank the members of the British Wittgenstein Society Facebook Group for valuable input during the preparation of this text.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

A Brief Introduction To My Research

The following is an introductory text produced for an exhibition of research staff currently teaching at Gray’s School of Art.

Throughout my career as an artist and academic, I have always been interested in the theory as well as the many practices of representation. During the last 5 years this interest has developed to the point that my research has become wholly devoted to the theory of representation and its wider implications, most especially as it pertains to perception, communication and consciousness.

What is representation? By "representation" I mean precisely what we commonly mean by the term in ordinary language. Representations are stand-ins typically, although not exclusively, used for the purposes of communication. Even political representatives act as proxies for the people whose political views they represent. In short, representations are useful substitutes for the things they represent (although substitution alone is obviously not sufficient for representation).

The means by which representations function might seem to be extremely varied, because they are can involve so many different techniques. But in fact representations can be divided into three distinct categories (vide Donald Brook 1997, 2013), two nonverbal and one verbal. The two nonverbal strategies of representation rely on two importantly different sorts of resemblance, whereas verbal communication relies upon the capacity to accept almost anything as a symbolic substitute for anything else. This is an extremely sophisticated skill, almost entirely restricted to most humans.

It is my view that our prodigious skill in the use of symbolic communication is the result of a long history of tool-use and especially of practices of social exchange in which objects and behaviours become interchangeable due to socially negotiated attributions of value that are ascribed to them. It is this process—this technique—of value attribution that I regard as such a vital factor in the emergence of practices of symbol-use and the ascription of symbolic meaning.

It will be clear then, that I regard symbolic meaning as an exclusively human invention because it is fully dependent upon the capacity to treat objects and circumstances as having significance that is not a quantifiable property of them. When we say that a ball means "playtime" to a dog, we need not be committing ourselves to the belief that the dog regards the ball as a symbol of playtime. We merely mean that the dog knows that the ball usually accompanies playful activity. In other words, we take the dog to be capable of forming associative responses to things and thus to know what they mean in this limited sense.

Returning to nonverbal representations, we find that language enables us to treat these also as verbal constructs, but it does not follow that it is always appropriate to do so; to treat them as messages, signifiers, descriptions or texts. What a nonverbal representation is of is what we might regard as a first-order representational feature. What it is about, on the other hand, is a second-order representational feature and thus depends on a different set of interpretive resources on our part.

There is another common confusion that my research seeks to disentangle. Images, for example, do not resemble things in the same way as models. Models, copies, replicas, reproductions, re-enactments, and exemplification etc. all function because they share features in common with the things they represent. These shared features may be approximate to various degrees, but they are not the result of effects. Images, on the other hand, are only fully like the things they represent in certain ways and under certain conditions. In other words, depictions can sometimes be mistaken for the things they represent, but such mistakes rely to a very significant degree on the particular circumstances of presentation or encounter (i.e. the level and evenness of light, our point of view, our level of attentiveness etc.). This is the basis of many illusions of course.

Finally, to say that an image is a description or that a description is a picture or that a picture is a model or that models delineate the world etc. is to talk in circles. My research is intended to show how the theorisation of philosophers, researchers and sometimes even scientists can go awry when they carelessly confuse, misunderstand or mischaracterise distinct categories of representation.