The Horror Of Stuff: On Speaking Unspeakables

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Objects in a scene as detected by an AI system. Image credit: wikimedia commons, MTheiler, CC BY-SA 4.0

The world we inhabit is a world of objects. Wherever we look, we find that it comes to us already disarticulated into cleanly differentiable chunks, individuated by certain properties: the mug on the desk is made of ceramic, the desk of wood; it is white, the desk black; and so on. By some means, these properties serve to circumscribe the object they belong to, wrapping it up into a neatly tied-up parcel of reality. No additional work needs to be done cutting up the world at its joints into individual objects.

Moreover, this fact typically doesn’t strike us as puzzling: objects seem entirely non-mysterious things. I could describe this coffee mug to you, and, if I include sufficient detail, you could fashion an identical one. The same procedure could be repeated for every object in my office, indeed, for the entire office itself.

Certainly: there may be edge cases. Where I see one cloud, you might see two. When the mug is glued to the desk, they don’t seem to become one object; but certain sorts of fastening, such as assembling various electronic components into a computer, seem to beget novel objects over and above mere collections of parts. Still: there are various ways out of these troubles. The computer can be described as various sorts of parts and their arrangement; the cloud by its shape.

Objects seem eminently describable sorts of things. There seems to be no residual mystery beyond an exhaustive specification of their properties. But not everything is so amenable to description, as speakable as objects seem to be. Read more »

How Things Hang Together: the Lobster and the Octopus Redux

by Jochen Szangolies

This is the fourth part of a series on dual-process psychology and its significance for our image of the world. Previous parts: 1) The Lobster and the Octopus, 2) The Dolphin and the Wasp, and 3) The Reindeer and the Ape

Figure 1: Postulated inner workings of the Canard Digérateur, or digesting duck, an automaton exhibited by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739.

A (nowadays surely—or hopefully—outdated) view, associated with Descartes, represents animals as little more than physical automata (la bête machine), reacting to stimuli by means of mechanical responses. Devoid of soul or spirit, they are little more than threads of physical causation briefly made flesh.

It might perhaps be considered a sort of irony that the modern age has seen an attack on Descartes’ position from both ends: while coming to the gradual realization that animals just may have rich inner lives of their own, a position that sees human nature and experience to be entirely explicable within a mechanical paradigm, going back to La Mettrie’s 1747 extension of Descartes’ view to humans with L’Homme Machine, has likewise been gaining popularity.

This series, so far, can be seen as a sort of synkretistic take on the question: within us, there is both a rule-based, step-by-step, inferential process of conscious reasoning, as well as an automatic, fast, heuristic and unconscious process of immediate judgment. These are, in dual-process psychology, most often simply referred to as (in that order) ‘System 2’ and ‘System 1’.

In my more colorful (if perhaps not necessarily any more helpful) terminology, System 2 is the lobster: separated from the outside world by a hard shell, it is the Cartesian rational ego, the dualistic self, analyzing the world with its claws, taking it apart down to its smallest constituents.

System 1, on the other hand, is the octopus: more fluid, it takes the environment within itself, becomes part of it, is always ‘outside in the world’, never entirely separate from it, experiencing it by being within it, bearing its likeness. The octopus, then, is the nondual foundation upon which the lobster’s analytic capacities are ultimately founded: without it, the lobster would be fully isolated from the exterior within its shell, the Cartesian homunculus sitting in the darkness of our crania without so much as a window to look out of. Read more »

The Reindeer and the Ape: Reflections on Xenophanes’ Rainbow

by Jochen Szangolies

This is the third part of a series on dual-process psychology and its significance for our image of the world. Previous parts: 1) The Lobster and the Octopus and 2) The Dolphin and the Wasp

Rudolph, the blue-eyed reindeer

Fig 1: No one knows what it’s like: reindeer eyes, golden-brown in the summer, turn blue in winter. (Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash)

With Christmas season still twinkling in the rear view mirror, images of reindeer, most commonly in mid-flight pulling Santa’s sled, are still fresh on our minds. However, as the Christmas classic The Physics of Santa Claus helpfully points out, no known species of reindeer can, in fact, fly.

That may be so. But reindeer possess another superpower, one that sets them apart from all other known mammals—once the frosty season sets in, their eyes change color, from a deep golden-brown to a vibrant blue (to the best of my knowledge, there are, however, no reports of unusual colors related to the olfactory organs). The reason for this change of color has long been a mystery, until a study by Glen Jeffery and colleagues from the University College London pinpointed a likely reason in 2013: the change in hue serves to better collect light in the dark of winter.

When we think of eye color, we typically think of the color of the iris—but for some mammals, cats most familiarly, another factor is the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind the retina. Due to its color change, reindeer eyes are able to gather more light—thus, the lack of light is offset by an increased capacity to utilize it. The world outside gets darker, but the world the reindeer see, the world they inhabit—their lifeworld, in Husserl’s terminologymay not, or at least, not as much.

The world comes to mind through the lens of the senses. The lifeworld is never just an unvarnished reality, nor even an approximation to it—it is the world as transformed in our experience. A change in this lifeworld then may herald both a change in the world, as such, as well as a change in our perception—or reception—of it. Read more »

The Dolphin and the Wasp: Rules, Reflections, and Representations

by Jochen Szangolies

Fig. 1: William Blake’s Urizen as the architect of the world.

In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.

At least, that’s how the current state of knowledge is summarized by the great Terry Pratchett in Lords and Ladies. As far as cosmogony goes, it certainly has the virtue of succinctness. It also poses—by virtue of summarily ignoring—what William James called the ‘darkest question’ in all philosophy: the question of being, of how it is that there should be anything at all—rather than nothing.

Different cultures, at different times, have found different ways to deal with this question. Broadly speaking, there are mythological, philosophical, and scientific attempts at dealing with the puzzling fact that the world, against all odds, just is, right there. Gods have been invoked, wresting the world from sheer nothingness by force of will; necessary beings, whose nonexistence would be a contradiction, have been posited; the quantum vacuum, uncertainly fluctuating around a mean value of nothing, has been appealed to.

A repeat motif, echoing throughout mythologies separated by centuries and continents, is that of the split: that whatever progenitor of the cosmos there might have been—chaos, the void, some primordial entity—was, in whatever way, split apart to give birth to the world. In the Enūma Eliš, the Babylonian creation myth, Tiamat and Apsu existed ‘co-mingled together’, in an unnamed’ state, and Marduk eventually divides Tiamats body, creating heaven and earth. In the Daoist tradition, the Dao first exists, featureless yet complete, before giving birth to unity, then duality, and ultimately, ‘the myriad creatures’. And of course, according to Christian belief, the world starts out void and without form (tohu wa-bohu), before God divides light from darkness.

In such myths, the creation of the world is a process of differentiation—an initial formless unity is rendered into distinct parts. This can be thought of in informational terms: information, famously, is ‘any difference that makes a difference’—thus, if creation is an act of differentiation, it is an act of bringing information into being.

In the first entry to this series, I described human thought as governed by two distinct processes: the fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, unconscious, neural network-like System 1, exemplified in the polymorphous octopus, and the slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious, step-by-step System 2, as portrayed by the hard-shelled lobster with its grasping claws.

Conceiving of human thought in this way is, at first blush, an affront: it suggests that our highly prized reason is, in the last consequence, not the sole sovereign of the mental realm, but that it shares its dominion with an altogether darker figure, an obscure éminence grise who, we might suspect, rules from behind the scenes. But it holds great explanatory power, and in the present installment, we will see how it may shed light on James’ darkest question, by dividing nothing into something—and something else.

But first, we need a better understanding of System 2, its origin, and its characteristics. Read more »

The Lobster and the Octopus: Thinking, Rigid and Fluid

by Jochen Szangolies

Fig. 1: The lobster exhibiting its signature move, grasping and cracking the shell of a mussel. Still taken from this video.

Consider the lobster. Rigidly separated from the environment by its shell, the lobster’s world is cleanly divided into ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘subject’ and ‘object’. One may suspect that it can’t help but conceive of itself as separated from the world, looking at it through its bulbous eyes, probing it with antennae. The outside world impinges on its carapace, like waves breaking against the shore, leaving it to experience only the echo within.

Its signature move is grasping. With its pincers, it is perfectly equipped to take hold of the objects of the world, engage with them, manipulate them, take them apart. Hence, the world must appear to it as a series of discrete, well-separated individual elements—among which is that special object, its body, housing the nuclear ‘I’ within. The lobster embodies the primal scientific impulse of cracking open the world to see what it is made of, that has found its greatest expression in modern-day particle colliders. Consequently, its thought (we may imagine) must be supremely analytical—analysis in the original sense being nothing but the resolution of complex entities into simple constituents.

The lobster, then, is the epitome of the Cartesian, detached, rational self: an island of subjectivity among the waves, engaging with the outside by means of grasping, manipulating, taking apart—analyzing, and perhaps synthesizing the analyzed into new concepts, new creations. It is forever separated from the things themselves, only subject to their effects as they intrude upon its unyielding boundary. Read more »