Thursday 31 March 2011

Running up to the rays of the sun

Trying to understand nature when he was young, Einstein imagined running alongside a beam of light, and he wondered, if he did, what would he would see light do? His conclusion was that he would see light stand still as a wave. I suppose the way surfers might see a frozen wave beneath their feet.

But years later, through the theory of relativity, Einstein blocked off that possibility of reaching the speed of light. Anything slower - or faster - than light can not reach light, and light can neither speed up nor slow down. Assuming that we are massive creatures, i.e., creatures with mass, to get to the speed of light is to acquire infinite mass. Now, this isn't the sort of thing you get by eating a lot of sweets. Nor does it mean we magically acquire mass like a mythical stone in a folk tale or the child christ in the legend of St.Christopher. It means that, the faster something gets, the harder it is to make it even faster (I think that is all that is meant by inertial mass in relativistic physics). So, this is something which gets harder and harder as you do so, each time requiring more and more energy for the same increment of light-speed. And, no matter how fast you make it - 0.99 the speed of light (0.99 c), 0.999c, 0.999999999999999c - you can never make it hit light speed.

Nothing massive can catch up with light.

For faster-than-light particles, tachyons (we slower-than-lights are tardyons), no matter how much energy you put in, you cannot slow them down to the speed of light. They are always faster-than-light. Whether tachyons exist outside the realm of Star Trek, i.e., in the actual universe, the universe where people can't fly around space in plastic and tin boats - that is not something that's been in any way proved.

Nothing massive can be caught up by light.

It's also not clear to some physicists that there could be anything 'like' moving at the speed of light.Once we define the motion of another massive body, through transformation equations (I think they're called), we can use the data about the universe as observed within our own frame of reference to describe the universe from the other frame of reference. But, at the speed of light, such equations break down.

For example, the length something has along its line of motion - e.g., a rocket ship's length from nose to tail as it flies forward - this length is shorter for an observer in another frame for whom the ship is moving. But, at the speed of light, this length is zero. It disappears. At least according to the equations.

But worse - and for me, this was worse, and left me grumpy and disatisfied - the time between two moments, e.g., the time between seeing the rocket pass and checking your watch, however quick you do it - this time, once translated into the 'frame' of light - this becomes infinite.

Does this mean that, from the speed of light, all time has stopped and everything is flat? I thought that was what it meant when I first started working on time-consciousness. Then I got another interpretation. It's this: no, it doesn't mean those two things; it means that there is no physical description of spacetime structure from the speed of light. Physical lawas do not provide any description.

Perhaps this is why I've also heard it said (and no I can't cite sources; ask a physicist) that there is not, in a sense, any such thing as light. In the way that an asteroid occupies the 30,000km/hour inertial frame relative to earth, and I occupy the rest frame relative to this couch, and this couch occupies the 40miles/hr frame relative to a car passing by outside, nothing occupies the light-frame. If so, photons don't exist-

Or if they do, they are quite unlike anything we can otherwise describe.  And this 'quite' is quite a 'quite' - I mean, it's not a quiet 'quite'; it's not a quitting 'quite'; it's not a quasi-'quite'; light is seriously QUITE. Unlike, anything, massive.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Confusion about EEGs and fMRIs in my JCS paper

So, I had a paper published last month in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS). I'm very happy about this, especially as it resulted in brief discussions on the journal's yahoo group's messageboard.

I'm particularly happy about this as this journal is what brought me back to philosophy. In 2002, I was working as a waitress in a hotel bar - hold on, no I wasn't. I was working as a technical support engineer/software consultant - the title kept changing - in a desolate industrial estate just a few miles from Schiphol airport in Holland. On my breaks, I found a series of articles and discussions about consciousnesss. The one that struck me was 'Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness' by David Chalmers in JCS (free-to-read here). I'd gotten quite cynical about philosophy after my undergraduate - definitely partly due to not having done any work for my BA. After reading Chalmers' article, I got interested again. Never thought I'd be published in the JCS myself, though. Alot of things have changed.

Like my professional situation. In February, I applied to IRCHSS - the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences - for my two-year project 'Time and Illusion' at University College, Cork. Two weeks ago, I found out that I got it. Again, I am very happy. In Dublin at the moment for a meeting of 'awardees' tomorrow in Dublin Castle.

Anyway, enough about me - more about my mistakes. In my JCS paper, I discussed a possible experiment for finding out if there is a privileged frame for the neural correlates of experience - or, at least, the subject of the experience. This experiment turns on measuring the velocity of the neural correlates. The evidence needed is a common velocity, i.e., not a velocity relative to each subject, for the neural correlates in all subjects. In setting up the experiment, I suggested you could do this with an fMRI or something like that.

However, as I discovered in discussion with my friend David Jenkins, this can't be done by fMRI. fMRI - or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging - is a method of mapping activity in the brain. To quote from the Columbia site, it does so by tracking increases in blood flow. It doesn't measure the movement of the correlates themselves. Positronic emission tomography, or PET also only measures the blood flow. EEG (electroencephalography) does seem to measure neural activity directly but it does not seem to do so finely enough to pick out the motion that's needed.

This, however, is not a problem for the argument of my paper. It is a problem for those who object to it. So it is not a serious issue for the position I promote. But it still shows that I should pay more attention to the actual detail of how things are made, and what they can do. I forget that most things I encounter have limits. They can break; they are finite. Even the  internet you're reading this on is not some spiritual non-physical dimension of thought. It's electric fields, dark dots in hard disks, copper wires and undersea cables. It is a multitude of such things, the locations of which are not easy to find. But the multitudes are finite, and they are somewhere. You can break the internet by pulling enough plugs.

Anyway, enough!

Sunday 28 March 2010


Caprica is set in the Battlestar Galactica milieu but set several decades before that story. It is set in a world of a mixed aesthetic of the 1930s prohibition US and some time very near in our future. Men wear hats and conservative clothing, smoking, standing by apple carts. There is sexual liberation, casual interplanetary prejudice, and a multisensory, immersive online world where anything goes.

The story revolves around a group of families from different backgrounds connected by the tragedy of a single terrorist act. This act is in the service of a religious group called the Soldiers of the One True God. One family's daughter is a member of this group; she dies in the first episode. Her father is the original designer of the Cylons.


Caprica breaks away from the typical science fiction model of these shows in the first few episodes by playing with a very common premise: The Super-Girl. There is one of those in it, certainly, but here she does not look like a girl; she has the mind of one. In most shows, the Super-Girl looks like an ordinary girl but she is actually a super-hero/robot/and so on. It is important that, no matter what she is, she looks normal. Here, she doesn't look normal. She looks like a great big clunking machine. She, Zoe, is downloaded into the body of a Cylon . Although, there is a bit of a cheat on this - the immersive virtual world (if I remember the world's name I'll set it in) allows her to appear as a girl.


One of the ideas in this series is that Zoe, in being downloaded from the immersive virtual world into her Cylon body, leaves the immersive virtual world. She cannot simply be copied into the Cylon body. She is not like a file. You cannot simply copy her and make two of her.

In the last four years, I've been a tutor at the university where I did my doctorate. There, we ran courses in the philosophy of mind and the introduction to theoretical philosophy. Some of the thought experiments run were like the following two:

(i) In the future, you can teleport to very distant planets by doing the following: You step in a machine which scans information about all the atoms in your body, with all the relative locations, parts, etc. It then sends this information to a receiver in a far away planet, where the machine over there assemblies an exact physical duplicate of the original body as you stepped in. The person who steps out is physically identical to you, down to the arrangements of the most basic atoms.  Meanwhile, the body in the original machine is broken down into raw materials for assembling bodies from incoming signals.

Would you get in the machine?

(ii) From surgical evidence, it seems as if a person can lose a hemisphere of their brain (have a hemispherectomy) and still retain their personality, memories etc.(for, e.g., epilepsy). Let's accept that we can survive as ourselves with just one hemisphere, and it doesn't matter which one.

Now say also the following, slightly more science-fiction scenario occurs. An evil scientist knocks you ought, then clones your body.  They then swap one hemisphere of your brain in your original body with one hemisphere of your cloned body. The scientist then wakes both of you up. 

Who is the real you? Is the other a real person?

If they have the same personality, memory, etc. as you, and look the same, and actually have one of the original hemispheres from your body, are they just as right to think of themselves as you?

Let us say this happens: the scientist clones your original body, replaces one hemisphere of that clone's brain with one of your hemispheres, then destroys the rest of your body. The scientist then up in your new body (because it is your hemisphere in there, and this has all of your personality in there)? ...Wakes your clone up (and has murdered you)? Which?

Change the thought experiment to this happening: the scientist is not evil at all but good. You barely survive a plane crash, which  happens at the base of her secret mountain fortress. She finds your smashed, ruined body in the debris, and that you have barely any brain activity; only one hemisphere is intact, but it is very intact. So what she does is clone your body in her laboratory, and then put the surviving hemisphere into the clone. A few days pass, the brain-body connections seems fine, so she it, you? up.

If you get different answers for whether or not the hemisphere-in-clone is you, why do you think that is? Am I subtly leading you to those conclusions, perhaps? If so, is there are a more neutral way of describing these?


These thought experiments are not identical to all the original courses' details. I pick out the details that suggest the following: You can physically copy  a person so that they are indistinguishable from the original copy - including: moles, cuts, broken noses, stomach ulcers, haircuts, environmentally worn neural pathways, etc. If you do this you get a psychologically, consciously, personally identical being to the original. This is true even if you keep the original.

Is this right? 


So, is an exact copying of someone possible? Is it incoherent to say that it happens? Is it incoherent to say that it cannot happen? How could we know?

No person has never been exactly copied;  we don't have any evidence if it is right or not. 

What we have is whatever our assumptions about the world give us.


Caprica suggests* a different response: whether they are merely  physical or not, persons are unique; they can only be maintained in one physical place;. This may mean one of two things, one of which I consider better than the other:

(i) A physical copy can be made, but a conscious or mental copy cannot. 
 Making a copy results in something that acts, looks and reacts just like a conscious, mental person, but this thing is not a person. 

This doesn't necessarily mean that the original keeps the consciousness or the mind. The physical duplicate or the clone-with-its-original-hemisphere might have the consciousness or the mind, and the original lose it. The point is that the behaviour of the non-conscious or non-mental thing is just like it has consciousness or a mind, but it doesn't, because only one of them has a  mind.

This option exploits one or both of two philosophical issues, the problem of other minds and the possibility of philosophical zombies. I'll put these aside for now (but will return to it later).

(ii) A physical copy can't be made and the original survive.
No matter what we do, no matter how exactly our technologies  should, in  principle, physically duplicate the original, either:
a. The original remains intact, acting like it is the same conscious/thinking, etc. person but a copy can never be constructed of the original person.
b. The duplicate is a proper person but the original fails in some crucial respect, so that it fails to behave like a conscious, thinking, person.

In comparison to (i), (ii) is rarely considered.  Yet, so far as it stands, in terms of contemporary evidence, (ii) is as possible as (i). And what someone claiming (ii)  is also doing is making a falsifiable statement about the world. It's just it comes from how we think about minds, not how we think of the physical world.

Both alternatives are possible at the moment. Until we actually succeed in making a copy of someone while keeping the 'someone' as well, we cannot discount either. If we do succeed, then we throw aside (ii), leaving just (i), and then face the puzzle of who is the real you.

But at the moment, it is all just a problem for the characters in Star Trek, just like evil is a problem for the characters in Christianity.

*Although it only suggests it. Arguably, Cylon-Zoe is a software copy of original Zoe. Although, they also seem to be different - and they are not as clearly distinguished as how I put it here (which is interesting too).

Thursday 25 March 2010

Technical Metaphysical Interlude: does what we experience exist?

In my thesis, I defined a principle I called PEPE,The Principle of the Experienced Particular Existent. This principle is that what we experience exists (and is something in particular - but that's not important right now). If this is right, then if we experience something when we are imagining, then this 'something' exists.*

But is this right? Is there anything wrong with saying that what we experience doesn't exist? (and isn't something in particular - but that isn't important right now).

I called my principle a principle because I don't think there is anything obviously contradictory in denying it. It doesn't seem to me to be incoherent to say that what we experience doesn't exist. But at the same time I think that, when pressed, this is not what we tend to say.

How would we be pressed on this? Consider the following: someone turns up, shaken, late at night, soaking wet from walking through fields of heavy rain, and says:

'I'm sorry. It's so late. I had this experience. It - I seemed to experience - it was - was - like - it wasn't like I saw something, or heard or - it wasn't like anything physically touched me, or any sort of sense-perception..But, tonight, you must believe me' - and he twists his sleeves in his fingers, looks up at you, scared, hopeful - 'I experienced the presence of God.'

Do you believe in God? Perhaps you do. Do you believe that you can have some awareness of God? Perhaps you do. Say this, however, take this viewpoint: you do not believe in God.

If you are an atheist - you must be an atheist to run this - an agnostic might concede the possibility - my hunch is that you will say to him: 'look - calm down - here, have this vodka and lime.** I know you're overwhelmed for now, but, although it seems that way, you did not experience the presence of God.'

Does that seem right to you? And do you think that your intent is clear to the listener? Or could you say, without causing any extra confusion, or for the listener to not have to actively interpret what you're saying: ''you experienced the presence of God alright but God does not exist'.

Because we tend to speak the first way, I think that, when we talk about 'experience', we mean that we are consciously aware of something, there is something apparent to us; there is something phenomenological going on. But we do not often refer to 'experiencing' as experiencing, typically. We refer to it as seeing, hearing, or doing something of which we are conscious, e.g., experiencing running a marathon, jumping from a plane, scratching off the charcoal from burnt toast.

My example above suggests another point about experience: we refer to an experience as only an 'experience' when we mean the most general form; we aren't referring to a particular kind of experience, e.g., to seeing a bright light, hearing a low rumbling, remembering the taste of honey, or reciting the ten times tables 'in our heads'. I think we only refer, in ordinary conversation, to experiences in cases of being unable or unwilling, or of being unsure how, to specify the kind of experience further. For whatever reason, we can't say we are seeing, feeling, imagining, or only thinking. It's just we are experiencing. That's all we can say.  

But there might be another way of using 'experience', especially if we are talking about being conscious in experiencing. Perhaps when we talk about experiencing something, 'something' needn't exist. Or, even more, what we experience needn't even seem to exist.

For example, if I imagine a unicorn, I experience the unicorn - but I also definitely experience it even if it doesn't exist and I know it doesn't. That's just what it is to imagine unicorns.

Once I say that, I no longer say anything more: I imagine a griffin and so I experience furriness, eagle-head-shape-ness - but no problem: whether I experience it or not, the furriness needn't exist or even seem to.

I got this idea from a conversation with Julia Jansen: she didn't see why I would think in the following way: we experience a mental image when we imagine something. What we imagine isn't necessarily what we experience - actually, anyone is more likely to say that it isn't. What we imagine is, e.g., a griffin, and whatever we say here, it doesn't seem right at all to say that we experience a griffin. But why, Julia wondered, would anyone bring images into this story? When I imagine a griffin, I just imagine something that doesn't exist - and, so we could say here that I am experiencing something that doesn't exist as not existing. But this doesn't mean we have to say, really, we experience something that doesn't exist or we experience something else that does exist. The former is like saying you really experience a God, though there is a non-existent God; the latter is saying you experience an image.

Julia is an expert in phenomenology, which we might very roughly call the philosophical examination of appearances, or how things appear to us, or an examination of consciousness from the first person perspective. This isn't exactly accurate, there is a  lot more too it, and different versions of it from different founders, each version different to the others, e.g., Husserl's phenomenology is more ideal than Heidegger's phenomenology,  who is fascinated with the sense of our being always conscious in time , while Merleau-Ponty constantly reiterates the compelling idea that we are always experiencing the world from a body.

The development of the phenomenological method comes in stages(I am not sure it is right to say it is done). But a significant beginner of it, a 'father' some might say, is Edmund Husserl. Husserl's description of the phenomenological method is, to my mind, the best example of what phenomenology is. In particular, there is epoche, the 'suspension of belief 'by someone about the reality, idealism or unreality of what is presented to them 'in consciousness' (as is often added - though I'd assume it anyway, if it weren't mentioned). To suspend belief is not to doubt the reality of what you experience; following thinking of Descartes, Husserl considers doubt to be disbelieving in something. Suspending belief is not believing or disbelieving it. Husserl thought you were free to do this, no matter what you were presented with it.

Give it a go. 

Get back to me when you do.

The point about this method is that you examine what is presented to you without necessarily believing it is real or not, and you do so in order to get at invariant features of consciousness, 'rigid data', and thus ultimately to develop a science of first-person consciousness of the world.

I think that's it, anyway, although I am often frustrated in my understanding.  (It reminds me of the pyrrhonian sceptic view, that one does not believe anything except appearances, does not assent to anything except to which she is a forced to consent to. I don't think this is a coincidence). The point I take, anyhow, is this: When you describe what we experience, you don't just presume what you experience is as you have assumed it to be. To do so is to remain in what Husserl has called 'the natural attitude', an attitude you are supposed to bracket off. Away from that attitude, and instead in the phenomenological attitude, you don't assume that what you are presented with is either illusory or real. You simply describe it as it appears to you.Back to the ancient sceptics again: I do not know if honey is sweet or not when I am not around, but it tastes sweet. It seems sweet.

Once you do that, though, this question arises: does anything seem real or unreal to you anyway, even if you suspend belief in everything you are conscious of? That is, can you suspend belief in everything you are presented with? Are you compelled to believe in the reality or unreality of anything you are presented with? What is left? What is lost? Are you forced to believe?

This question is important because it gets us to what phenomenology can contribute to a discussion about what exists. This is a metaphysical question, not in the domain of phenomenology as it is traditionally understood. But it is in the domain of which physics or physicalism is involved:  the entities posited by physics to explain what is apparent to us should address at least what we is apparent to us after doing phenomenology; physicalism says  only what is physical exists so it should show how what is apparent after doing phenomenology is physical (these two tasks might be different; they might  be the same; I'm not sure).   

When we walk in with what we hold to exist or be real, we can look at this phenomenological description as a test of our theory.

Take, for example, someone claiming to see the Virgin Mary hovering in the sky over a cave. What exactly is apparent to them? They believe that it is the Virgin Mary but what is apparent to them if they suspend belief in that? What can they suspend belief in, and what must just seem to be real and presented to them? 

This is the sort of thing that is supposed to be done in doing phenomenology.
Anyway, that is the end of this metaphysical discussion.

[Right now, I have a massively high temperature, dried out mouth, and exhaustion, sitting by a gas fire and listening to a documentary on BBC4 about the science of sleepwalking and law. So, the phenomenology bit might be a bit unclear. I feel very frustrated about my understanding of the phenomenological tradition. But I need to get it clear, bit by bit].


*If I continue to run with this, I'll probably change the principle's specific terms. Since reading a paper by Peter Simons, and seeing a lecture by him, I think it's better too refer to 'real particulars' rather than 'existing particulars'. According to Simons, 'existence' refers to a much broader scope of things, including things that are not real; in addition, in his paper, he argues, or perhaps simply shows, that 'existence' is more...I don't have the paper in front of me, so I can't use his term - but, it might be said to be more esoteric, or metaphysically technical or idiomatic than 'real'. So, then, it would be the principle of the experienced real particular, or PERP. These things matter to analytical philosophers. But, here, existence is fine.

**Atheists always drink this. It's an empirical fact.

Are you an atheist?


Friday 12 March 2010

Hallucinations and Perceiving

These last posts show that I am preoccupied about what we experience when we imagine something.

This is because I feel compelled to believe that we do experience something; - further, that what we experience is something complex; - further again, that the complexity of what we experience when we imagine something is in some sort of way like the complexity we experience when we perceive it: when we see/hear/taste/smell/touch, and so on. And this 'in some way like' seems to me best understood as what we experience resembles what we experience when we see, etc.

So, being less abstract, I feel compelled to believe that what we experience on imagining a ghost resembles what we would experience when we see a ghost.

This gives a reason why what we might call 'powerful' imaginings -   hallucinations, particular fantasies, affecting dreams - seem to us to be actual perceptions.

But doing this raises all sorts of challenges, the sorts of challenges I've been looking at:
  • If we believe that there are only physical things, i.e., only what occupies some physical space exists, then whatever we experience when we hallucinate has to occupy physical space. 
  • However, if it is true that we experience something blue when we see a little blue skittle 'meep' man (if I can call it that; see the first season of '30 Rock') and 
  • If it is true that what we experience on hallucinating a blue man is the same as what we experience on seeing a blue man, 
  • We must experience something blue on hallucinating a blue man.
But, then, what is this blue thing we are experiencing? And where is it?

That's been the problem so far.

But maybe there is another way of approaching hallucinations.

The philosophical position of disjunctivism is that hallucinations are not anything like perceptions. A visual hallucination of a  blue man is not at all like seeing a blue man. We experience something when we see the man but we don't necessarily experience something, or experience at least anything like a man, when we hallucinate one. So, forget about it. 

This answer is like the answer to what happens when we imagine (last post).

But, like there, we have this problem:  whoever hallucinates a little blue man will say that it's like seeing a little blue man. So why do they do it.
  • One answer is this: the issue is with their beliefs about what's going on - that's where it goes wrong. 
  • Or, maybe, we're not sure if it was like actually seeing it - but it's the only way we can describe it. We are, to use a phrase Wittgenstein is famous for, 'tempted to say' that visual hallucinations are like seeing,etc...

In 2005, the Sydney-based philosopher Philip Chaurd argued that this is just what happens when we believe we see, hear, etc., i.e., we perceive, the temporal order of things, e.g., hearing one note after another, a C followed by a G. That we seem to hear this change in notes gives rise to the doctrine of the specious present, the most contemporary understanding of which is that we see, hear, etc. a duration because we see, hear, etc., a temporally ordered change  (I discuss this in depth in in my doctoral thesis). But this idea of the 'specious present' has raised all sorts of issues over the ages, issue that seem to require metaphysical thought.  And some philosophers deny that we do perceive a duration or an ordered change. But then why do we think perceive this sort of thing?

Chuard's answer, if I understand it right, is that, from our belief that (i) what we perceive, which is not change ,and (ii) beliefs that our perceptions have changed,

We 'project' to the belief that (iii) we have perceived a change.

I think. I'm not sure. I don't know what 'projections' from beliefs are exactly, or what they are supposed to do in theories of perceptions, or what they save us from in the discussion (this Wikipedia entry is the most collated entry on projectivism I can find). If they are projections as Hume describes them...they suggest a 'beaming out',  like a film projector, of something from the mind onto things in the physical world - which, taken
  • - Literally, is weird. However, weirdness should be no barrier to philosophy; the world seems to be weird if you think enough about it.  The problem here is that it is not helpful to think of it as a literal projection: the 'something' and its properties still exist, e.g., if I project a little blue man-like thing into the world from my beliefs - there is a...well...a little blue man-like thing in the world.                                          This is like projecting an image onto a cinema screen. What is projected onto the screen is, in an important way, actually on the screen. Sure, a thirty-foot Liv Tyler's face isn't there in the cinema, on the screen, but blue, pink and brown colours, and two-dimensional shapes are up there.  And these - the properties of the image of Tyler's face - are what is projected.
  • - Metaphorically, is no help either. What is the metaphrand (a term from Julian Jaynes) of the projection metaphor. That is, what is it that we are describing metaphorically as a projection? It's a 'belief' doesn't, I think, answer this question at all.
In any case, for change at least, it's not my view. My own work undermines the central assumption that we don't perceive change. My own work isn't out yet, though - it's to be published soon in the Journal of Consciousness Studies - so I wouldn't expect anyone to be considering it.

Anyhow, we might be able to say this sort of thing with hallucinations, dreams, etc.   But we might say of all these trauma-induced memory hallucinations, and those caused  by drugs, and maybe those suffering from conditions such as a schizophrenia, or dreams, etc., that they don't see, hear, etc. anything. People are just delusional here - they think they saw something under the influence of drugs but they saw nothing; they did not see. All is good.

And, anyway, how imagining seems is very different to hallucinating, dreaming, etc.

With hallucinating, dreams, etc., what we experience seems to be real.  But with imagining, is this true? Couldn't we say that what we experience doesn't seem real?

This is something Julia Jansen has raised with me.

Saturday 6 March 2010

Experiencing and imagining the same things

I am going to discuss two things here. First, a follow-up from my last entry, where I stopped the madness by suggesting that it is misled to think of imagining as anything like perceiving, e.g., as imagining seeing a goat in a room as anything like seeing a goat in a room.

This is an issue I suspect I'll be chasing all over the place in my thinking  here, so I'll only write a little about it in this post; I also want to write about the practice of imagining.

What I see, I tell you; what I tell you, you imagine; but do you really make images?
Say I'm looking at a mountain against a darkening sky, hearing the screech of a sparrow-hawk in the thunder of rain and feeling a cold drop run off my heavy soaking hair. I think that what I perceive in such situations - what I see, hear, feel, etc - is to some degree complex: the mountain's shape against the sky, the screech and thunder, the cold tingle with the weight on my forehead: all of these are examples of multiple things (or those things' properties, but nevermind that distinction now) and the relations between them. I can see, hear and feel: the downpour muting the bird's screech; the mountain looming beyond the place where the sounds originate; the slow water on my neck shivering down it (even after I shut the door and go inside).

It seems correct to say that these sort of things are empirical data - at least, they are empirical data for me. They are what I report to others as being  what I am visually, aurally or haptically experiencing of the world; this is just what I'm doing now, with you as my audience. They are most of the first things I talk about when I talk about what the world is actually like.

But what about you, after you have read the description? Is what you experience, on reading this, empirical data to you? By describing these examples to you, I have not shown them to you. I have not literally brought you to a place where you can see the mountain; I have not dragged you into a rainstorm; I am not washing your hair with cold water. But if you are any good at imagining things, then you can probably imagine what it's like to see that mountain, hear that bird, and so on, and do so with whatever I describe as accompanying it.

So how can we imagine it? There seem to be two parts to imagining,  two parts common to experience in general. These are the material and the form of our imagining. There are the elements of what we experience when we imagine and then there are the various ways in which they  they are arranged. It seems as if we experience both when we imagine something but one seems less constructed, less fabricated, than the other (I'll return to that later).

Equally important is that what these are are not what they are imagined to be. When using my imagination, I experience whatever it is I experience; this may be something only 'in my head' or 'in my mind', so to speak. But that is not what I am imagining. What I imagine need not be in my head. It  need not exist.

The distinction I am making here comes from the early twentieth century philosopher, G.E. Moore. Moore argues out that when we imagine something unreal, for example, a greek monster such as the gryphon, we may have an image of it. But, whatever the status of image (or picture), the gryphon does not exist. So what we experience, the image, is not what we imagine, the monster. Obvious, right? Ok then.

The question I am curious about can be put like this: never mind the  gryphon; the gryphon is nothing; if it seems to exist, it is because I am superstitious, profoundly misled - an ancient Greek, perhaps (come from the past to the future to ask: are there any bagels left). But the image does exist. So what is the image made of?
Put in terms of material and form, we might say: what is the material of the imagination? What has its form, what are the relations between this material?

Whatever the image is made of, it needs to be able to have the form of whatever we experience when we imagine the gryphon's form. That is, if we can imagine the gryphon some way or other - as standing over there, looking in that direction, having that shape, colour, texture, then  if we  can do this by experiencing some kind of image, the image needs to be over there, have a shape, colour, texture - just as paintings, music and spider-games have the relevant profiles, sounds and soft, quick touches of what they represent. If we can imagine seeing the gryphon, then we must see an image that is gryphon-shaped.

At least, this is one way of understanding it.

We imagine seeing; we don't see images
But should we call whatever we are experiencing an 'image' when we're imagining? This means the following: when I imagine a furry golden, eagle-headed gryphon,  I'm seeing something golden, something eagle-headed, feeling something furry. But, as discussed in earlier entries, we can then ask: where are these things? Where and what is it that's golden, eagle-headed, furry? In my head? There's something furry in my head? What? My neurons are furry? What?

The nineteenth century metaphysician F.H. Bradley, not the greatest fan of the more excessive claims of his discipline, writes that 'when I smell a smell, I am not aware of the stinking state of my own nervous system.' (Quoted from philosopher Edmond Wright's paper). I don't smell my brain, right?

Earlier I wrote that the psychologist Kosslyn's idea is 'that people have a mental image or mental picture in their mind when they imagine something'. But this isn't exactly right. In his Stanford entry on mental representation, Pitt writes

Kosslyn (1980) claims that the results suggest that the tasks were accomplished via the examination and manipulation of mental representations that themselves have spatial properties — i.e., pictorial representations, or images.

The idea that pictorial representations are literally pictures in the head is not taken seriously by proponents of the pictorial view of imagery (see, e.g., Kosslyn and Pomerantz 1977). The claim is, rather, that mental images represent in a way that is relevantly like the way pictures represent.

Others write about imagining, mental imaging, as being quasi-perceptual or quasi-pictorial (I cannot cite anyone at hand - but the most recent example of this is a number of discussions around papers at a conference I attended last month on 'intentionality' - particularly Eduard Marbach). We don't really see/hear/feel images - we have quasi-perceptions - quasi-seeing, quasi-hearing, quasi-touching, and so on.

What does 'quasi' mean? It could mean 'not really' or 'only sort of'  - that''s how I take its use in phiosophical discussions. In that way, it might also be interchangeable with 'pseudo-x', where it might seem, or we might have reason to think, but it is not 'x', i.e., quasi-seeing and pseudo-seeing are not seeing.

But, as puts it, 'quasi' means 'a combining form meaning “resembling,” “having some, but not all of the features of,” used in the formation of compound words.

So what does that mean here? What does all 'having some, but not all the features of' mean here?

I don't know what it means here.

Whatever it means, this is what we must say: to solve the puzzle about imagining, we need to reject any actual experience of images in imagining; we need to deny furry, golden, eagle-headed assemblies of neurons, or the same sorts of things which are merely in our mind. This is what we have to do if we want to get away from the wierdness I've been heading toward.

(How something 'non-golden' can have some, but not all the features of' something 'golden' in a way that it gets us 'golden-like' stuff, I don't know. If you show me the side of a dog, and then get me to imagine the side of a dog, and you say 'in the second experience, you're experiencing something like the side of a dog but in no way spatially, or shaped like, or anything in that way that people might think it's wierd' - well, okay. But - how is it like it then? Why call it 'quasi-' anything. Can you say a little more?). 

If you could do all this, you could then probably get away from having images  in some kind of space, just because you're imagining things in space. The form of what we experience needn't be in any kind of space. For example, it needn't be a spatial shape; when I imagine seeing the a side of a gryphon, I don't need to be seeing a gryphon-sided shape somewhere in space. It can by whatever it is you're using to eliminate it. Whatever that is - whatever theory you got going there for yourself. Whatever that is.

Let's change the subject now.

Books without Pictures: Practicing Imagining
Let's go back to me telling you about something I experienced, something I saw, heard, etc.

When I tell you about something I experience, and you imagine it, and seem to have some kind of complex experience of it, you're doing something nearly everyone can do (I think  Chalmers states somewhere (perhaps in Blackmore's Conversations on Consciousness) that those who deny this capacity, e.g., theorists like Pylyshyn or Dennett, might have a sort of 'image blindness'. Whether these latter theorists do deny, I don't know). I want to talk a bit about what we do here.

Imagining is something, I think, we can do innately; we don't  get given stuff and taught to use it, at some age, e.g., in school;  it's not like riding a bike, driving a car, or being interesting to cool people. It's in us and it seems to happen spontaneously. Once we understand the meaning of certain words.  then, we can imagine what people tell us. But I also think there is a skill to imagining, and this skill is something we must develop. It has to be practiced.

You would get practised at imagining what I'm describing if you read books without pictures in my language. Reading books without pictures to any degree makes you have to imagine what you're being told. There are no visual aids, no sound effects. There are just words; what you imagine depends on your ability to picture what I describe.

I don't know if you get the same practice if you've never read 'books without pictures', e.g., if everything fictional that you've ever come across is what turns up in film, television, radio or computer games, and so on – on things where the sound, sight, or touch, etc., is provided for you. In that case, although what you experience is unreal, and you know it, you don't have to make it yourself. You don't have to try and imagine it.

So, my quite stuffy-sounding point is that, if there is any practice required to imagining, and you want to be good at it, you should read books without pictures. You would then 'stretch the imagination' -l ike you stretch a muscle. And, if the mind is the brain, this may not be in any way a metaphor; it may be literally true. The imagination is a muscle – a cerebral muscle, if you like (but never mind that now).

Books without pictures are just the sort that Alice in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' found very dull:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'
[Alice's adventures in wonderland, Gutenberg press – without pictures]

(Well, Alice would have been happy if there were at least conversations in the books. So maybe I'm being a little unfair on her).

Maybe the only reason to read books without pictures is to practice your imagination. If you have enough of it, I suppose there's no need for them. If you have too much of a fantastic imagination, I suppose you'd want to stop reading books without pictures.

Anyhow, when you imagine something, it also has a certain degree of complexity. It is this imagined thing that others' descriptions stir up in you. But how complex is this thing you're imagining? Is it is as complex as an actual experience of what you imagine?

It might seem doubtful. Imagining what it is like to jump out of a plane, no matter how well you can imagine it, is nothing like actually jumping out of a plane. At least for most people.

(But then some people suffer terrible hallucinations, and we nearly all have dreams which seem entirely real when we have them, and even for several moments after we wake. These are not of things I remember; what I seem to be seeing or hearing, etc., never happened, and they are not happening now (we suppose). Aren't they cases of something as vivid as actual experience but purely imaginary?)

Those extreme cases aside, imagination and memory are similar. When I try to picture what something was like that I previously saw, heard, etc., the same problem occurs; I can say what I experienced but whether or not what the picture I have in mind is more complex or vivid than my description is not so clear. In reports about what I experienced earlier, there may be some guessing involved. I might just assume that my experience was like that.

What am I saying here? It may seem to you now that you had a rich and detailed experience of something earlier today. However, this does not mean you did have such an experience. It is only that you remember it that way (e.g., seeing Dennett's discussion about remembering a woman with glasses in his Consciousness Explained).

Similarly, it may seem as if my description of the following: a vast mountain range marching off into the cold pink light of an Icelandic plain comes from my having the following experience: seeing, while shivering in the cold, a vast mountain range marching off into the cold pink light, etc. But this does not mean that I have seen anything like the image (if I can call it that)  that you have from my description – or anything even remotely close. It is just my description caused you to imagine it that way.

Offensive Images
If the description of an experience and what is imagined from that description can be different, there are consequences for how we should treat description. Some people take offence at what some things others do, e.g., their lifestyle, their art, their writings. They may be right to do so, they may be wrong to do so; but there is an extra issue here when it comes to writing or any form of descriptive art. If you are offended by what someone describes to you, your offence may depend on the way you imagine it. And this need not relate to what was actually experienced by the describer. So, someone might argue this: If you are offended by what someone is writing or saying, that is a problem with you, not with them.

I don't think the author is always completely innocent here. If they do write something they don't find offensive at all, but which is offensive to you, they may do it: 

i) Without being aware that you would imagine it that way and be offended;
ii) Knowing you'd imagine it that way and be offended, but they don't care;
iii) Knowing you'd imagine it that way and be offended, but think you shouldn't be offended; or
iv) Knowing you'd imagine it that way and be offended and – yes,, you should be offended - but it's too important for this worry to stop them.
v) Knowing you'd imagine it that way and be offended and – yes,, you should be offended - and they want you to be offended.

So: if they should be aware that you'd be offended, or should care, or are wrong that you shouldn't be offended, or what they're doing isn't important enough to overcome all that – well, then I think you can shout at them.

But just make sure, beforehand, that it isn't your own imagination that's causing the offence.

Horror Films
I feel that way about horror fiction all the time. I really dislike it. I have been to very few horror films in the cinema. When I've gotten in there, I've realised that – hell, why did I decide to go to this? I don't want to spend two hours being screamed at by reels of dying non-virgins. As the lights have gone down, I've sat there thinking bitterly, toward whoever I'm with: you bastard.

But I can only remember two horror films I've ever actually been to in the cinema: A Nightmare on Elm Street 6 and Jeepers Creepers. Both were a lot of fun, and not at all terrifying. 

And the same with those I've seen on DVD or TV: Evil Dead 2, The Shining, and so on.

The horror films I did not enjoy and always think of as examples of 'why would any want to watch that' are films which I've never seen in full, but only seen bits and glimpses of them – in my friends' houses, trailers before other films (bloody Grudge 2 trailer), etc.

These partially hidden films have caused me more offence than the others; I have hated them. The most immediate example I can think of is this: Tales from the Crypt. I've never seen this in full, but the single scene I've seen makes me think there's something wrong with some people. Not something wrong with me, mind – other people.

When I was a kid, I had a friend called Tim. Tim loved horror films. He watched them all the time (which seems to have worked for him; he went on later to become a very successful Goth in Dublin). I wouldn't watch them because, if I remember correctly, my public position was that they were cheap, boring and stupid. I think many of those Tim watched were probably close to that; he watched any he could lay hands on, and he was quite clear that there were many duds. But as I wouldn't watch them with him, and he didn't seem to care, the situation was fine; we remained friends (we just didn't have much in common).

When we met in school, or in a cafĂ©, Tim would bring up any of the films that particularly affected him. As a result, we would talk about the ones which would bother him enough to make him want to talk about them. He'd describe some scene and I'd ask him to tell me what happens next. And he would tell me. Most of the time what he told me would freak me out. I wouldn't show it though. After all, it wasn't like I was watching it – so it shouldn't frighten me.

So I got a verbal description of most of the horror genre in the '80s; at least, all of those allowed in Ireland. Here are the films I can remember that we discussed: Re-animator, From Beyond, Shocker, all the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' series, Poltergeist, the House series (that's the one with the skull with wings). From the description of these films, I decided that horror films were terrifying, and people who could watch them were either very brave or lacking imagination. (Otherwise, how could they stand it, watching these things?)

I've seen some of these films since. Those I've seen weren't frightening – and probably, if I'd seen them then, I'd have gotten used to seeing them.

This is probably true of Tales from the Crypt as well. Tim and I never discussed that – I think because it was just another horror; not a dud, maybe, but it didn't stand out. But what happened with that film is this: I called into Tim one summer afternoon. He was watching horror films in the sitting room with the curtains closed (it was really bright outside). Somehow or other he left the film on while he went somewhere else (I think his stepmother was calling him). As I waited, I stood and looked at the film. I didn't know what it was; it looked like one of the bad romantic comedies also loved by Tim. And what I saw was this:

A teenage boy and girl are trapped on a wooden pallet in the middle of a lake. They are terrified, as some of their friends who were in the water have been eaten by some kind of black oil slick. It seems to have disintegrated them when it does it.

 The story then switches to something like a scene  from the cheap teen romances also popular then (all of which seemed to be named after Beatles songs). It is night. The girl is asleep, turned over on her face on the pallet. The boy is awake and tries to make a move on her. She wakes up and he draws back, embarrassed; but she turns toward him, terrified and whimpering. And her face is half-eaten away. The oil-slick is under the pallet and has gotten at her through the pallet's wooden boards.



For days, I was sick to my stomach. The images of that scene flashed through my head. And there was also something else, what I can only call a prompt or a compulsion to imagine further into what was so horrifying; something in me wanted to take the brief material of that scene and imagine more of what was so awful about it. This showed a marked difference in seeing, hearing etc. such things, on the one hand, and reading about them on the other.

With a single flash of an image, this film sent something cold to sink down through me. However, this does not mean it helped develop my imagination. Why it frightens or horrifies me is because what I'm seeing, hearing, etc., is frightening or horrific. I don't need to imagine the frightening thing; I don't have to 'picture' it and I don't have to use elements of my previous experience. The experience is happening now. The picture is there on the screen.

However, there is also the further urge to imagine further. The possibilities of what doing this might turn up was far more worrying for me than the original scene. And its something related to this which is why I hated these films. I have a capacity, maybe even a compulsion, to imagine things, and I am inspired by what I encounter in my day to day life. I think this came from reading too many books, and not watching enough films. (This might be true of a lot of people). I enjoy it a lot of the time. But these bits of horror films make imagining unpleasant, and I resent the films for it.

Even though it might have nothing to do with the film itself. The film-makers probably didn't make this film thinking 'some over-imaginative kid is going to see just a single scene of this and be absolutely terrified and disturbed' - and end up watching a lot of romantic comedies in the cinema instead (Which are terrible in their own way).

Anyway, ech...horror fiction.  Why watch it (why not?).

Sunday 10 January 2010

Where is My Mind?

We have discussed the idea that mental images occupy space (whether they seem to or not). This leads to the next two questions:

(i) If mental images occupy space, what is this space?
(ii) What are mental images made of? That is, what is the stuff in this space?

In this section, I want to talk about what spaces I think they aren't in.

Private Space
The idea floated a few entries back was that whatever it is we experience - the image, if you like - when we imagine or remember literally occupies some kind of space. And then I wondered if that was some kind of private space, a space which no-one else can observe; if it is a separate space to the one we share with everyone else - because the 'whats' that are in it, the images etc., are not in the shared world.

If we were in the medieval period, this might have seemed reasonable; my thinking of it comes from medieval metaphysicians such as Athanasius Kircher and Fludd. But I don't think this is something we would now take seriously. So let's see what else we might say about this space for mental images.

The first thing to say is that, however one thinks about, a certain position about the actual world requires that mental images, if they exist (see later), cannot be in some other space than what we see, hear, taste, etc. If mental images exist, mental images must be spatially related to the external world. They need not be what they seem to be - but if they're anything they better be somewhere in the actual physical world.

But why assume that they have to be in the actual physical world? Couldn't they be in some other possible world? Could they be possible objects in the space of another possible world?

Possible Space
I say the 'actual physical world' because there is one type of space images might occupy that some philosophers might think is a real space. I don't think images do occupy this space, but I want to spell it out (it's also useful to introduce a current way many philosophers think). They'd occupy this real space if the following from two statements are true:

(i) Images are only possible; they are not actual in the world we share. This is not a typo or conceptual confusion: I am not confusing images and what is imagined - I mean what we experience, the representation, the image itself, is merely possible.

(ii) Modal Realism is true. 

'Modal realism' is the position that whatever is possible is real. This includes whatever is possible which is not actual. That is, whatever is merely possible is also real.

What makes something merely possible can be controversial but examples of it have included, e.g., you right now wearing something other than what you're actually wearing (whatever that is; I don't judge); the Nazis winning WWII (e.g., as imagined in Philip K. Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle'); and... I suppose... dragons, elves, unicorns... dolphins in dinner jackets.

Many contemporary metaphysicians talk of whatever that is possible, whether actual or not, as being something that occupies a possible world. For the modal realists,  the merely possible stuff, the 'non-actual' stuff, is just not in this actual world; it is in a different possible world; it has a different actuality, some of them might say. So, e.g., a resistance fighter against the fourth generation of Nazis, clothed in Henry VIII's tournament armour, is really reading an entry like this on his laptop - and, seeing the mention of unicorns, he sobs "oh! Solostick! My loyal steed. Why did you have to die?" (ok. I'm annoying myself now). He is really reading this - just not in this actual world; in another actuality, another possible world.

Just because it isn't actually real doesn't make it unreal. According to its most famous advocate, the highly influential philosopher David Lewis, each of these possible worlds is in a separate spacetime to the others. Though all things in each of them are real or exist,  nothing in one world is spatially or temporally related to anything in any other; but they are spatially or temporally related to each other - so long as they are in the same world.

I don't want to criticise the talk of possibility in terms of possible worlds; I don't even want to criticise modal realism. (Lewis has argued that modal realism is the best way of explaining our statements about what is possible; famously, he has added that the most common, and usually final, objection has been just an incredulous stare, i.e., people just staring at him in disbelief  because of what he says). With this in mind, someone might answer the question

'How can the images of my remembering and imagining occupy a different space to my body, the world around my body, etc.?'


'They are in the space of another possible world.'

But this would be a very confused answer. This would mean that the images are merely possible, not actual; that is what it means for something to be in another possible world. Maybe this is true of what I imagine - when I imagine a unicorn, as above, the unicorn might be possible. But if I'm experiencing anything here,  then what I'm experiencing is actual. It's in this actual world.

The thinking behind all this is part of a certain view of the world already discussed: physicalism, that everything is physical. I'll say more about the idea of physicalism as we go on - but  now, there's what it says about things in space. 

So far as I understand most people's thinking (but there's something to say even about this), a condition of something being physical is that it occupies space, and this space is the same one as that of mountains, planets, cafes and viruses.

So why not, then, have it that images are physical? Why not have them sharing the same 'spacetime' as all the physical stuff?

Along with all the matter, all the mountains, and sky, and badly worn shoes, my body and its bits seem to definitely be part of the physicial world. My body, and your body, and anyone-but-God-and-ghosts-reading-this's bodies, at least seem to be particular lumps - albeit very sophisticated and distilled lumps -  of matter. In other words, biological stuff shares the same spacetime - it is spatially related to - all the other stuff in the world.

So, if the images I experience are part of my body, then they are in same spatial world as the rest of my body. They are spatially related to other physical things. We can then say things like: when I imagine a unicorn, what I experience is three feet from the front door (because I'm standing outside the front door). The unicorn, of course, is not; there is no actual unicorn - I'm only imagining it. But the image - the mental image - of the unicorn is three feet from the door. What's so wrong with that?

I've said they do not seem that way. But at this point, we might say: so what? They just don't seem that way. That doesn't mean they aren't that way. And the alternatives seem much worse, if you think we're just physical things. The alternatives are that we have our own private space, or we can experience other actualities, or...doesn't that all seem much worse?

I say all this because if we say that we experience mental images, and we allow then that there are mental images, and we think everything that exists is physical, and so is spatially related to everything else, then mental images are somewhere. So where is this somewhere? And if we look there, what will we find? Whatever we find there - how is that related to these images?

WAIT WAIT WAIT - a panicked pedestrian is waving their arms in front of the b batmobile. This isn't how you fight crime!

What we imagine doesn't exist anywhere in space. And - neither do 'mental images'. What am I thinking?