Methodology


Perhaps we could democratise not the jobs of authority (let them be done by competent people), but the selection of the sacred texts and objects.  I want to vote for the the Ghent Altar.  Media and screens as channels of engagement with the objects of veneration could become the sacred objects.  People might develop variants of potter’s nod, which would look remarkably like the bobbing found in prayer.  Let everyone’s world be real, might be our slogan.

On the outer panels of the altar, there are four figures in one row: the flanks are the patrons, all fleshy, very very real and present.  The middle two are saints and they are paintings of statues.  Representations of representations.  Because they are above mere humans in the neo-Platonic hierarchy, you cannot see them, which would be to be in their presence.  You must content yourself thus with a representation.

We can use linear time warping, via high speed cameras or time lapse, to perceive events at timescales that are at some remove from that established by our metabolism.  Watching drops into water, or watching plants fight and unfold, we recognize that events as salient as any we could see are going on all around us all the time.

But what if we explore non-linear time-warping.  We could look at the world through non-linear functions.  Start with periodic ones, and you are looking at loops. That’s cool and interesting. But once we break into non-periodic functions, the whole world becomes strange and different.  What do we see?  We will see more clearly that the simple things and events that we recognize are as much a function of the perceiver (the function) as they are of the world.  That should help us to develop a better sense of perspective for how we usually see things.

Causal explanation is tricky. I have in mind what I think is the Aristotelian distinction between Formal Cause and Efficient Cause. Of course I interpret these from the standpoint of a soggy philosopher/scientist in 2009, so Aristotle would probably not concur. Efficient Cause is closest to folk usage of the word. A causes B iff A precedes B, A necessarily gives rise to B, etc. Let us not get into necessary and sufficeint conditions, but suffice it to acknowledge that often, this kind of causation is what we mean by ’cause’. Formal Cause is completely different. A full dynamical description of, say, a pendulum, that captures essential properties of the system (typically position of the bob over time) is a formal causative account, but it does not contain any notion of efficient cause. With a full dynamical description, we have determinism, but, critically, you can run time backwards or forwards, and the lawfulness remains the same.

Now fans of efficient cause like to distinguish between explanation and mere description. Formal cause, as I interpret it here, is description. But I claim that it is as full a causal story as one can have. The notion of mere description sugests that description is theory neutral. It is not. In providing a description of the movement of the pendulum over time, I have selected some properties of the world as relevant (idealized bob position) and some as irrelevant (pendulum colour). Description is never theory neutral. Efficient cause fans seem to suggest that a causative account takes a theory neutral description and improves on it by adding causal relations within a theory. I would argue that one can do no better than describe, and that description is the building of a theory.

Most of the time, the desiderata of a full formal dynamical description are not available to us. System boundaries are unclear, knowledge is incomplete, the objects of our attention are subject to too many uncontrolled influences, etc. That is just the everyday messy world of observational science. Efficient causal stories try and limit this complexity by positing hypothetical idealized entities A and B, which stand in causal relation.

By preferring formal causal accounts, we are acknowledging that any selection of A and B is the imposition of a theory, and full description is the best we can do. Efficient causal stories are just that: stories. They need langauge for expression (which formal causal accounts do not: they are captured by equations). Language gives us causal stories. They are important in coming to grips with the world in a common sense way. But they are not privileged. Nor do they trump formal causal accounts.

I have been re-engaging with a bit of theory.

When we find any unmistakably periodic behavior from an organism, one sensible theory is that something is oscillating to control that behavior. (Bob Port)

I need to consider why this is important. What is it that is oscillating? The undamped oscillator of task dynamics is a hack. That’s not a good enough description. But the maths gets hairy when you get more complex.

First, since the theory specifies attractors in terms of phase angle,
we expect that at least for moderate changes in rate (that is, changes
in the duration of the repetition cycle), the attractors should be
unaffected in terms of phase but vary in direct proportion with cycle
duration.

My stance here would be to shun the notion of control, and recognize that periodic system behavior is simply a  common form of viable, stable self-organized behavior.  It needs no controller, and indeed, it makes no sense if there is a controller.  It only makes sense because this is how simple systems, each with some autonomy, will couple.

The set of things generally acknowledged to be real is getting bigger. That’s gotta be a plus.

With wonder, I have stumbled upon the work of Jakob von Uexküll, who died in 1944.  His work is hard to find, out of print or never even translated into English.  One article is available (I have scanned it in below.  Enjoy!).  It is a translation of a 1934 original, and it appeared in the obscure journal Semiotica in 1992, almost 60 years later!  It is called “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”, and my copy tells me that it was originally published in English in “Instinctive Behavior”, trans by Claire H. Schiller in 1957.  It is the most charming academic article I have ever come across.  The discussion is helped along by no less than 53 figures, most of which are slightly fanciful attempts to depict the subjective experience of non-human animals, ranging from the humble paramecium up to the dog chasing a stick.  Each of these is an Umwelt, and they are amazingly close to my notion of the P-world!  In fact, von Uexküll even calls them “phenomenal worlds” that arise from the unification of a “perceptual world” and an “effector world”, or from the unification of perception and action.  How good is that!

But it gets better.  He pegs and discusses the subject/object distinction in many places.  He produces an early cybernetic model showing the reciprocal relations between subjective experience and environment, and says “the subject and the object are dovetailed into one another, to constitue a systematic whole”.  His beautiful description of the Umwelt of a tick has been reproduced in Andy Clark’s “Being There”.  He points out how each animal encounters an entirely subjective form of space and time, and how the activity of the animal is related to the experience of time.  “Without a living subject, there can be no time”. Mind you, he makes the questionable assumption that there is something like a quantum of experience that in humans is about 1/18 sec, and that is modality independent.  But that is more than compensated for by his delightful Fig 14 showing a snail held atop a large rubber ball carried by water.

This ought to sound familiar: “As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence.”

Where I speak of a “phenomenal bubble”, he says “We may therefore picture all the animals around us, be they beetles, butterfliesm flies, mosquitoes or dragonflies that people a meadow, enclosed within soap bubbles, which confine their visual space and contain all that is visible to them….Only when this fact is clearly grasped shall we recognize the soap bubble which encloses each of us as well.  Then we shall also see all our fellow men in their individual soap bubbles, which intersect each other smoothly, because they are built up of subjective perceptual signs.  There is no space independent of subjects.  If we still cling to the fiction of an all-encompassing universal space, we do so only because this conventional fable facilitates mutual communication”.

He has a view of nervous system activity appropriate to his time.  He considers central organization, and the relative independence of reflex arcs, when he says: “when a dog runs, the animal moves its legs; when a sea urchin runs, the legs move the animal”.  That’s a nice quote for later use in discussing agency!

Long before Gibson’s theory of affordances, we see von Uexküll saying: “How do we manage to see sitting in a chair, drinking in a cup, climbing in a ladder, none of which are given perceptually?  In all the objects that we have learned to use, we see the function which we perform with them as surely as we see their shape or color.”

There are limitations.  He reminds me of Dennett in his ability to drive a whole wagonful of arguments up to the edge of a cliff, but he then refuses to jump off.  Thus, at one point toward the end we read: “…Thus we ultimately reach the conclusion that each subject lives in a world composed of subjective realities alone, and that even the Umwelten themselves represent only subjective realities… Whoever denies the existence of subjective realities, has failed to recognize the foundations of his own Umwelt.”  And yet earlier, he commits just this error when he says: “The Umwelt of any animal that we wish to investigate is only a section carved out of the environment which we see spread around it-and this environment is nothing but our own human world.”  Aarghh, how did he not notice that error?

He comes across as a well meaning pantheist at the very end: “And yet all these diverse Umwelten are harbored and borne by the One that remains forever barred to all Umwelten.  Behind all the worlds created by Him, there lies concealed, eternally beyond the reach of knowledge, the subject – Nature.”

Thomas Nagel does not cite him.  Hang your head in shame, Thomas!

Here’s the article, in two scans: [Part 1] [

I found the following po-faced discussion on a Wikipedia community page: 

 rather than proposing that Notability (people), (pornographic actors) and (academics) be merged into Notability, it is proposed that (pornographic actors) and (academics) are merged into (people). The reasoning being that porn actors and academics are people, so one tidy set of guidelines can be drawn up to accommodate them. 

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