The Martian Standpoint

31 March 2016

Thursday


Mars 0

Red Planet Perspectives

It is difficult to discuss human habitation of Mars scientifically because Mars has for so long played an disproportionate role in fiction, and any future human habitation of Mars will take place against this imaginative background. Future human inhabitants of Mars will themselves read this cultural legacy of fiction centered on Mars, and while some of it will be laughable, there are also likely to be passages that start heads nodding, however dated and inaccurate the portrayal of human life on Mars. And this human future on Mars is seeming increasingly likely as private space enterprises vie with national space agencies, and both public and private space programs are publicly discussing the possibility of sending human beings to Mars.

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

A human population on Mars would eventually come to identify as Martians, even though entirely human — Ray Bradbury already said as much decades ago — and it would be expected that the Martian perspective would be different in detail from the terrestrial perspective, though scientifically literate persons in both communities would share the Copernican perspective. There would be countless small differences — Martians would come to number their lives both in Terrestrial years and Martian years, for example — that would cumulatively and over time come to constitute a distinctively Martian way of looking at the world. There would also be unavoidably important differences — being separated from the bulk of humanity, having no large cities at first, not being able to go outside without protective gear, and so on — that would define the lives of Martian human beings.

Wernher von Braun's Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

Wernher von Braun’s Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

At what point will Martians come to understand themselves as Martians? At what point will Mars become a homeworld? There will be a first human being to set foot on Mars, a first human being born on Mars, a first human being to die on Mars and be buried in its red soil, a first crime committed on Mars, and so on. Any of these “firsts” might come to be identified as a crucial turning point, the moment at which a distinctively Martian consciousness emerges among Mars residents, but any such symbolic turning point can only come about against the background of the countless small differences that accumulate over time. Given human settlement on Mars, this Martian consciousness will surely emerge in time, but the Martian conscious that perceives Mars as a homeworld will differ from the sense in which Earth is perceived as our homeworld.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

Human beings lived on Earth for more than a hundred thousand years without knowing that we lived on a planet among planets. We have only known ourselves as a planetary species for two or three thousand years, and it is only in the past century that we have learned what it means, in a scientific sense, to be a planet among countless planets in the universe. A consequence of our terrestrial endemism is that we as a species can only transcend our homeworld once. Once and once only we ascend into the cosmos at large; every other celestial body we visit thereafter we will see first from afar, and we will descend to its surface after having first seen that celestial body as a planet among planets. Thus when we arrive at Mars, we will arrive at Mars knowing that we arrive at a planet, and knowing that, if we settle there, we settle on a planet among planets — and not even the most hospitable planet for life in our planetary system. In the case of Mars, our knowledge of our circumstances will precede our experience, whereas on Earth our experience of our circumstances preceded our knowledge. This reversal in the order of experience and knowledge follows from planetary endemism — that civilizations during the Stelliferous Era emerge on planetary surfaces, and only if they become spacefaring civilizations do they leave these planetary surfaces to visit other celestial bodies.

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

What is it like, or what will it be like, to be a Martian? The question immediately reminds us of Thomas Nagel’s well known paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (I have previously discussed this famous philosophical paper in What is it like to be a serpent? and Computational Omniscience, inter alia.) Nagel holds that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” A generalization of Nagel’s contention that there is something that it is like to be a bat suggests that there is something that it is like to be a conscious being that perceives the world. If we narrow our conception somewhat from this pure generalization, we arrive at level of generality at which there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being. That there is something that it is like to be a bat, or a human being, are further constrictions on the conception of being a consciousness being that perceives the world. But at the same level of generality that there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being, there is also something that it is like to be a Martian. Let us call this the Martian standpoint.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

To stand on the surface of Mars would be to experience the Martian standpoint. I am here adopting the term “standpoint” to refer to the actual physical point of view of an intelligent being capable of looking out into the world and understanding themselves as a part of the world in which they find themselves. Every intelligent being emergent from life as we know it has such a standpoint as a consequence of being embodied. Being an embodied mind that acquires knowledge through particular senses means that our evolutionary history has furnished us with the particular sensory endowments with which we view the world. Being an embodied intelligence also means having a particular spatio-temporal location and having a perspective on the world determined by this location and the sensory locus of embodiment. The perspective we have in virtue of being a being on the surface of a planet at the bottom of a gravity well might be understood as a yet deeper level of cosmological evolution than the terrestrial evolutionary process that resulted in our particular suite of sensory endowments, because all life as we know it during the Stelliferous Era originates on planetary surfaces, and this precedes in evolutionary order the evolution of particular senses.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Mars, like Earth, will offer a planetary perspective. Someday there may be great cities and extensive industries on the moon, supporting a burgeoning population, but, even with cities and industries, the moon will not be a world like Earth, with an atmosphere, and therefore a sky and a landscape in which a human being can feel at home. For those native to Mars — for eventually there will be human beings native to Mars — Mars will be their homeworld. As such, Mars will have a certain homeworld effect, though limited in comparison to Earth. Even those born on Mars will carry a genome that is the result of natural selection on Earth; they will have a body created by the selection pressures of Earth, and their minds will function according to an inherited evolutionary psychology formed on Earth. Mars will be a homeworld, then, but it will not produce a homeworld effect — or, at least, no homeworld effect equivalent to that experienced due to the origins of humanity on Earth. The homeworld effect of Mars, then, will be ontogenic and not phylogenic.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

If, however, human beings were to reside on Mars for an evolutionarily significant period of time, the ontogenic homeworld effect of individual development on Mars would be transformed into a phylogenic homeworld effect as Mars became an environment of evolutionary adaptedness. As the idea of million-year-old or even billion-year-old civilizations is a familiar theme of SETI, we should not reject this possibility out of hand. If human civilization comes to maturity within our planetary system and conforms to the SETI paradigm (i.e., that civilizations are trapped within their planetary systems and communicate rather than travel), we should expect such an eventuality, though over these time scales we will probably change Mars more than Mars will change us. At this point, Mars would become a homeworld among homeworlds — one of many for humanity. But it would still be a homeworld absent the homeworld effect specific to human origins on Earth — unless human beings settled Mars, civilization utterly collapsed, resulting in a total ellipsis of knowledge, and humanity had to rediscover itself as a species living on a planetary surface. For this to happen, Mars would have to be Terraformed in order for human beings to live on Mars without the preservation of knowledge sufficient to maintain an advanced technology, and this, too, is possible over time scales of a million years or more. Thus Mars could eventually be a homeworld for humanity in a sense parallel to Earth being a homeworld, though for civilization to continue its development based on cumulative knowledge implies consciousness of only a single homeworld, which we might call the singular homeworld thesis.

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The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

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Tuesday


One of the most famous thought experiments of twentieth century philosophy of mind is presented in Thomas Nagel’s paper “What is is like to be a bat?” Nagel’s point was that consciousness involves a point of view, and that means that there is something that it is like to be in being some conscious organism. Here is the opening paragraph of Nagel’s paper:

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.

Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979

The choice of a bat for this thought experiment is interesting. As a mammal, the bat shares much with us in its relation to the world, but its fundamental mechanism of finding its way around — echolocation — is sharply distinct from our primate experience of the world, dominated as it is by vision. Thus while what it is like to be a bat overlaps considerably with what it is like to be a hominid, there are also substantial divergences between being a bat and being a hominid. A bat has a different sensory apparatus than a hominid, and the bat’s distinctive sonar sensory apparatus presumably shapes its cognitive architecture in distinctive ways.

bat echolocation

As a philosopher I have a great fascination with the sensory organs of other species, which seem to me both to pose epistemological problems as well as to suggest really interesting thought experiments. In my post on Kantian Critters I argued that if human beings must have recourse to the transcendental aesthetic in order to sort out the barrage of sense perception that the brain and central nervous system receive, then other terrestrial species, constituted as they are much like ourselves, must also have recourse to some transcendental aesthetic of their own (or, if you prefer Husserl to Kant, and phenomenology to idealism, other species must employ their own passive synthesis). This interpretation of Kant obviously presupposes a naturalistic point of view, which Kant did not have, but if we grant this scientific realism, the Kantian insight regarding the transcendental aesthetic remains valid and may moreover be extrapolated beyond human beings.

Can the Kantian transcendental aesthetic be reinterpreted in the light of contemporary natural history?

Can the Kantian transcendental aesthetic be reinterpreted in the light of contemporary natural history?

Distinctive transcendental aesthetics of distinct species would follow from distinct sensory apparatus and the distinctive cognitive architecture required to take advantage of this sensory apparatus. This implies that distinct species “see” the world differently, with “see” here understood in a comprehensive sense and not in a purely visual sense. Although bats rely on sonar, they “see” the world in his comprehensive sense, even if their eyes are not as good as our hominid eyes, and not nearly as good as the eyes of an eagle. A couple of ethologists, Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, have written several books on the Weltanschauung of other species, How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species and Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind.

how monkeys see the world

Does a primate have more in common, Weltanschauung-wise (if you know what I mean), with a flying mammal such as a bat (since any two mammals have much life experience in common) or with a terrestrial reptile such as a serpent? Primates don’t know what it is like to fly with their own wings, but they also don’t know what it is like to move along the ground by slithering. Does a primate have more in common, again, Weltanschauung-wise, with a reptile that has given up its legs or with an octopus that never had any legs? We might be able to refine these questions a bit more by a more careful consideration of particular sensory organs and the particular cognitive architecture that both is driven by the development of the organ and makes the fullest exploitation of that organ for survival and reproductive advantage possible.

Pit Viper 2

Among the most intriguing sense organs possessed by other species but not by homo sapiens is the pit of the pit viper, which is a rudimentary sensing organ for heat. Since pit vipers are predators who typically eat small, furry animals with a high metabolism and presumably also a high body temperature, being able to sense the body heat of one’s prey would be a substantial selective advantage.

pit viper pit

Because the pit of the pit viper represents such a great selective advantage, one would expect that the pit will evolve, driven by this selective pressure. To paraphrase what Richard Dawkins said of wings, one percent of a infrared sensing organ represents a one percent selective advantage, and so on. Thus a one percent improvement of an existing pit would represent another one percent selective advantage. While it would be difficult to observe such subtle advantage in the lives of individual organisms, when in comes to species whose members number in the millions, that one percent will eventually make a significant difference in differential survival and reproduction. A statistical study would reveal what a study of individuals would likely obscure.

pit viper triangulation

There is a sense in which the pit of the pit viper is like an eye for perceiving infrared radiation. The infrared radiation spectrum lies just beyond the visible spectrum at the red end, so having a pit like a pit viper in addition to color vision would be like being able to see additional colors beyond red. Having a slightly different visible spectrum is not uncommon among other species. Many insects see a little way into the ultraviolet spectrum (at the opposite end of our visible spectrum from red) and flowers are said to present colorful displays to insects in the ultraviolet spectrum that we cannot see (except for the case I heard about some years ago about a man whose eye was injured and as a result of the injury was able to see a little way into the ultraviolet beyond the visible spectrum).

em spectrum

The eye itself, whatever portion of the electromagnetic spectrum it accesses, is a wonderful example of the power of an adaptation. The eye is so useful that it has emerged independently several times in the course of evolution of life on earth. I don’t know much about the details, but insect eyes, mollusc eyes, and vertebrate eyes (as well as several other instances) are each the result of separate and independent emergence of the eye. The mollusc eye and the vertebrate eye represent an astonishing example of convergent evolution, since the structure of the two instances of eyes is so similar. The eye is of course a provocative evolutionary example because of a famous passage from Darwin himself, who wrote about “organs of extreme perfection”:

“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.”

Of this quote Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion:

“Darwin’s fulsomely free confession turned out to be a rhetorical device. He was drawing his opponents towards him so that his punch, when it came, struck the harder. The punch, of course, was Darwin’s effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees. Darwin may not have used the phrase ‘irreducible complexity’, or ‘the smooth gradient up Mount Improbable’, but he clearly understood the principle of both.”

Partly due to this Darwin quote, the evolution of the eye has been the topic of some very interesting research that has helped the clarify the development of the eye. There is a wonderful documentary on evolution, the first episode of which was titled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (presumably intended to echo Daniel Dennett’s well known book of the same title), which an excellent segment on the evolution of the eye which you can watch on Youtube. In this documentary the work of Dan-Eric Nilsson of the University of Lund is shown, and he demonstrates in a particularly clear and concrete way the step-by-step process of improving vision through the increasing complexity of the eye. When I was watching this documentary recently I was thinking about how the pit of the pit viper resembles the early stages of the evolution of the eye.

eye evolution

The pit of the pit viper is a depressed, folded area lined with infrared sensitive nerve endings that allows limited directional sensitivity. In the long term future of the pit of the pit viper, which at present seems to correspond to the earliest stages of the evolution of the vertebrate eye, sometimes called a “cup eye,” there would seem to be much room for improvement. Of course, the details of infrared (IR) perception are different than the details of human visible spectrum perception, but not so different that we cannot imagine a similar series of stepwise improvements to the infrared pit that might, in many millions of years, yield sharp, clear, and directional infrared vision. If this infrared vision became sufficiently effective, it is possible that brain and body resources might be redirected to focus on the pits, and the eyes could eventually degrade into a vestigial organ, as in bats and moles. After all, snakes gave up their legs, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t also give up their eyes if they have something better to fall back on.

eye_evolution

There is another possibility, and that is the evolutionary advantage that might be obtained through adding a pair of fully functional IR “eyes” to a pair of fully functional visible spectrum eyes. Such a development would be biologically costly, and it would be much more likely that a pit viper would chose one evolutionary path or the other and not both. Yet there are some rare instances of biologically costly organs (or clusters of organs) that have been successful despite the cost. The brain is a good example — or, rather, large complex brains that evolve under particular selection pressures but which later are exapted for intelligence.

Encephalization Quotient

Encephalization Quotient

Natural selection is a great economist, and often reduces organisms to the simplest structure compatible with their function. This is one of the reasons we find the shapes of plants and the bodies of animals both elegant and beautiful. The economy of nature was resulted in the fact that a large brain, and the intelligence that large brains make possible, are rare. Despite their rarity, and their biological expense, large complex brains do emerge (though not often), and, like the eye (which has emerged repeatedly in evolutionary history), large brains have emerged more than once. Interestingly enough, complex eyes and large complex brains are found together not only in primates but also in molluscs.

The octopus (among other molluscs) is bequeathed a large, complex brain because the octopus went down the evolutionary path of camouflage, and the camouflage of some molluscs became so elaborate that almost every cell on the surface of the organism’s skin is individually controlled, which means a nerve connected to every spot of color on (or under) the skin, and a nervous system that is capable of handling this. It requires a lot of processing power to put on the kind of displays seen on the skin of octopi and cuttlefish, and an evolutionary spiral that favored the benefits of camouflage also then drove the development of a large, complex brain that could optimize the use of camouflage.

The octopus also has remarkably sophisticated eyes — eyes that are, in some respects, very similar to yet more elegant in structure than primate eyes. Our eyes are “wired” from the front, which gives us a blind spot where the optic nerve passes through the retina; mollusc eyes are “wired” from the back and consequently suffer from no blind spot. (“Wired” is in scare quotes here because it is a metaphor to refer to eyes being wired to the nervous system; while electrical signals travel down nerves, the connection between distinct nerve cells is primarily biochemical and not electrical.)

cephalopod eye

How an octopus sees the world is as fascinating an inquiry as what it is like to be a bat — or a serpent, for that matter. Both the octopus and an arboreal primate live in a three dimensional habitat, and this may have something to do with their common development of sharp eyesight and large brains, although there are vastly greater number of organisms in the sea and in trees with far smaller brains and far less cognitive processing power. (A recent study reported in The New York Times suggests a link between spatial ability and intellectual innovation, and while the study was primarily concerned with the ontogenesis of creativity, it is possible that the apparatus of spatial perception and the cognitive architecture that facilitates this perception is phylogenetically linked to intellectual creativity.) This simply shows us that intelligence is one strategy among many for survival, and not the most common strategy.

Life in an arboreal niche would make spatial ability a significant selection pressure.

Life in an arboreal niche would make spatial ability a significant selection pressure.

A large, complex brain is very costly in a biological sense. In a typical human being, the brain represents less than three percent of total body weight, yet it consumes about twenty percent of the body’s resources — that’s a very big chunk of metabolism that could be directed toward running faster or jumping higher or reaching farther. Nothing as unlikely as the brain’s disproportionate consumption of resources would come about unless this expenditure of resources bequeathed some survival or reproductive advantage to the organism possessing such a high cost of ownership. The brain isn’t a luxury that produces poetry and art; it is a survival machine, optimized (in hominids) by more than five million years of development to make human beings effective hunters and foragers. The brain was so successful, in fact, that it made is possible for human beings to take over the planet entire and convert it to serving human needs. Thus the relatively rare and costly strategy of developing a large, complex brain paid off in this particular case. (One may think of it as a high risk/high reward strategy.)

brainEvolution

If the evolution of the brain and the exaptation of intelligence to produce civilization did not result in the disproportionate evolutionary success of a single species, it seems likely that we would see intelligence emerge repeatedly in evolutionary history, much as eyes have evolved repeatedly. On other worlds with other natural histories, under conditions where intelligence does not allow a single species to dominate (possibly due to some selection pressure that does not operate on Earth), it is possible that evolution results in the repeated emergence of intelligence just as on Earth evolution has resulted in the repeated emergence of eyes. On Earth, intelligence preempted another developments, and means that not only human history but also natural history were irremediably changed.

Mass extinctions have repeatedly preempted developments in terrestrial life, and now it seems that an anthropogenic mass extinction event is again preempting the development of life on Earth.

Mass extinctions have repeatedly preempted developments in terrestrial life, and now it seems that an anthropogenic mass extinction event is again preempting the development of life on Earth — further demonstrating human dominance of the planet.

In The Preemption Hypothesis I argued that industrialization preempted other developments in the history of civilization (for more on this also see my post Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection). This current line of thought makes me realize that purely biological preemption is also a force shaping history. Consciousness, and then intelligence arising from biochemically based consciousness, is one such preemption of our evolutionary history. Another preemption of natural history that has operated repeatedly is that of mass extinction. But whereas historical preemptions such as the development of large, complex brains or industrialization represent a preemption of greater complexity, mass extinctions represent a preemption of decreased complexity.

Some weedy plant species...

Some weedy plant species…

It seems that “weedy” species that are especially hearty and resilient tend to survive the rigorous of mass extinctions; the more delicate and refined productions of natural selection, which are dependent upon mature ecosystems and their many specialized niches, do not fare as well when these mature ecosystems are subject to pressure and possible catastrophic failure. One could think of mass extinctions, and indeed of all historical preemptions that favor simplicity over complexity, as a catastrophic “reset” of the evolutionary process. Events such as mass extinctions can favor rudimentary organisms that are sufficiently hardy to survive catastrophic changes, but, as we have seen, there is also the possibility of historical preemptions that favor greater complexity. The Cambrian Explosion, for example, might be considered another instance of an historical preemption.

The Cambrian explosion, or Cambrian radiation, was a preemption of historical continuity.

The Cambrian explosion, or Cambrian radiation, was a preemption of historical continuity.

There is a tension in the structure of history between continuity and preemption. In the particular case of the earth, the continuity of natural history has been interrupted by the preemption of intelligence and then industrialization. These preemptions of greater complexity — in contradistinction to preemptions of lesser complexity, as in the case of mass extinctions — may provide for the possibility of the continuity of earth-originating life beyond the terrestrial biosphere. In the case of an otherwise sterile universe, the intelligence/industrialization preemption would be a basis of a new explosion or radiation of earth-originating life in the Milky Way. In the case of a universe already living, it may be only intelligence and industrial-technological civilization that is a novelty in the natural history of the universe.

Milky Way

Whatever happens on the largest scale of life, as long as life continues to evolve on the earth, its development is likely to be marked by both continuity and preemptive developments. In thinking about the pit viper, I suggested above that the pit viper might eventually, over many millions of years, develop a fully functional pair of IR eyes in addition to its visible spectrum eyes. This suggestion points to an interesting possibility. In so far as complex life is allowed to develop in continuity, with a minimum of preemptions, specialization and refinement of existing mechanisms of survival may give rise of species of greater complexity than what we know today. While mass extinctions have repeatedly cleared the ground and given a more or less blank slate for the radiation of resilient weedy species, this may not always be the case.

An event of this magnitude becomes less likely as the solar system ages and settles down into a routine.

An event of this magnitude becomes less likely as the solar system ages and settles down into a routine.

As our earth and the solar system of which it is a part becomes older, catastrophic events may become less common. For example, stray bodies in the solar system that might collide with the earth, while once common in the early solar system, eventually end up colliding with something or getting swept out of the path of the earth’s orbit by the gravity of Jupiter. If, moreover, civilization expands extraterrestrially and seeks to protect the earth as an existential risk mitigation measure, life on earth may become even more secure and even less subject to disruption and preemption than in the past. New species might eventually come into being with a delicate complexity of sensory organs and accompanying cognitive architecture that facilitates these senses. Imagine species with a whole range of sensory organs that complement each other, without former mainstay sensory organs being reduced to vestigial status, and this might possibly be the future of life on Earth.

pit viper striking

Eventually the most interesting question may not be, “What is it like to be a serpent?” but, “What will it be like to be a serpent?”

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The reader can compare my earlier post, The Future of the Pit Viper, which was the origin and inspiration of this post.

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Sunday


There is an ancient parable from India about several blind men who encounter an elephant. The story is well known in many different versions, in all of which the blind men disagree as the nature of the animal — one touches its leg and says that an elephant is like a tree; another touches its ear and says that an elephant is like a fan; another touches its trunk and says an elephant is like a snake, and so forth.

We know that the elephant is one and whole, but the blind men of the parable do not know the elephant as a single reality; they are blind in more than one sense.

The same problem — the problem of appearance and reality — has been central to Western metaphysics since the beginning of philosophy to the present day. I have previously written about the philosophical antipathy and rivalry between Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell in the early part of the twentieth century (in Epistemic Space: Mapping Time). Both of these antagonistic figures treated the same problem. Here is Bergson’s version:

There is in this something very like what an artist passing through Paris does when he makes, for example, a sketch of a tower of Notre Dame. The tower is inseparably united to the building, which is itself no less inseparably united to the ground, to its surroundings, to the whole of Paris, and so on. It is first necessary to detach it from all these; only one aspect of the whole is noted, that formed by the tower of Notre Dame. Moreover, the special form of this tower is due to the grouping of the stones of which it is composed; but the artist does not concern himself with these stones, he notes only the silhouette of the tower. For the real and internal organization of the thing he substitutes, then, an external and schematic representation. So that, on the whole, his sketch corresponds to an observation of the object from a certain point of view and to the choice of a certain means of representation.

Now beneath all the sketches he has made at Paris the visitor will probably, by way of memento, write the word “Paris.” And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, with the help of the original intuition he had of the whole, to place his sketches therein, and so join them up together. But there is no way of performing the inverse operation; it is impossible, even with an infinite number of accurate sketches, and even with the word “Paris” which indicates that they must be combined together, to get back to an intuition that one has never bad, and to give oneself an impression of what Paris is like if one has never seen it.

Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics

And here is Russell’s version (which I previously quoted in Appearance and Reality in Cosmology):

With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.

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Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.

Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter 1

Bergson later goes on to add, after his exposition of the problem:

“Both empiricists and rationalists are victims of the same fallacy. Both of them mistake partial notations for real parts, thus confusing the point of view of analysis and of intuition, of science and of metaphysics.”

It is almost as though Bergson realized that his own “empiricism” (after a fashion) might be contrasted with Russell’s “rationalism.” This is where the problem of appearance and reality meets the problem of the one and the many. Reality is one; appearance is many. How are we to understand how the one presents itself as many, and how the many are unified in the one?

Bertrand Russell as a young man, when he was engaging in polemics with Bergson.

Bertrand Russell as a young man, when he was engaging in polemics with Bergson.

There are times when the many perspectives on one and the same world seem unproblematic. The case of the blind men and the elephant can be resolved by bringing the blind men back to the elephant and directing them to feel the continuity of the various parts of the elephant with each other. And when many different scientific experiments confirm one and the same theory by testing different aspects of that theory in different ways, but all independently (and reproducibly) confirm one and the same theory, we know that we have one scientific theory that despite its many predictions concerns itself with one and the same world.

Henri-Louis Bergson, 18 October 1859 to 04 January 1941, philosopher and time and duration, very famous in his time but little read today.

Henri-Louis Bergson, 18 October 1859 to 04 January 1941, philosopher and time and duration, very famous in his time but little read today.

There are other times when the unity of the world and of the diverse perspectives upon the world are more problematic. Everyone, I think, is well familiar with the problems posed by competing and incommensurable narratives of what is believed to be the same sequence of events. This difficulty is encapsulated in the pop-culture dichotomy of, “he said/she said,” where the incommensurability is the incommensurability of gendered perspective.

Thomas Nagel's famous paper, 'What is it like to be a bat?' considered the particular perspective that bats have on the world and how it differs from our perspective.

Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ considered the particular perspective that bats have on the world and how it differs from our perspective.

I have elsewhere cited Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (in Addendum on the Origins of Time and What is it like to be a serpent?) and noted that Nagel chose the example of a bat because, as a vertebrate and a mammal it is not all that different from primates (and presumably has experiences of the world not unlike those that primates have of the world), but the bat primarily experiences the world through sonar rather than through sight. That makes the bat very different from a primate, and presumably results in a dramatically different experience of the world — hence, there is something that it is like to be a bat, and this “something” is significantly different from what it is like to be a primate.

There are many ways of seeing the world, and some of these ways do not even involve “seeing.”

There is a sense in which organisms that relate to the world through fundamentally different sensory mechanisms experience a different world. The bat’s world constructed from sonar, the pit viper’s world constructed from infrared-sensing pits, the shark’s world constructed from electroreceptors, and the primate’s world of stereoscopic color vision are, in a sense, different “worlds.” But only “in a sense,” because in another sense these diverse senses reveal the same world, as is apparent when these different organisms with their distinct sensory mechanisms interact — sometimes recognizing each other (which I attempted to describe in The Eye of the Other), sometimes just avoiding each other, while at other times preying on each other or fleeing from predation.

Biodiversity means perceptual and epistemic diversity.

If we can find a way to put these different perceptions of the world together, we will have a much more comprehensive account of the world that that based on the observations of a single species. That is to say, the perspectives of other species, if only we could tap into them, would provide countervailing evidence to lessen our anthropic bias. We can think of these other perspectives as narratives, with each narrative of the world being ontologically derived from the structure of the organism, which involves both the peculiarities of its sensory organs and its functional relationship to its environment.

If we take a naturalistic perspective and assume that the natural world is, unproblematically, as it presents itself to be, with a variety of many distinct species involved in relationships of cooperation and competition, we know that these radically distinct perspectives on the single natural world that hosts us all are in fact fully commensurable. Although no one individual, and no one species, has the synoptic perspective that includes all radically distinct forms of sensory perception, the distinct perspectives have a unity in the unity of nature. (And indeed also a unity of mind, such as I elaborated in Kantian Critters.)

Naturalism, then, implies the commensurability of radically distinct world-narratives that are ecologically integrated even if we cannot understand this integration or experience the world from any perspective other than that common to our species.

That the perspectives of distinct species possess a de facto commensurability despite their profound differences puts the supposedly incommensurable theoretical views of human beings into perspective. It is, of course, the position of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that different theoretical models of the world constitute distinct paradigms, and that these paradigms are incommensurable.

The “theories” implicit in the sensory apparatus of any two distinct species are far greater than the difference between any two theories maintained by the same species, though we must entertain the possibility that our ideas give us a dimension of differentiation that does not exist for all species, just as not all species possess sensory organs (as, for example, with micro-organisms), so that the possession of sensory organs also involves a dimension of differentiation from species lacking sensory organs.

The primate brain devotes much of its capacity to the heavy processing demands of stereoscopic color vision. The mollusk brain also processes fairly sophisticated visual stimuli, but it also devotes a significant amount of its capacity to the control of the cells on the surface of its skin, which allows octopi and cuttlefish to produce both brilliant displays and effective camouflage on demand. Given brains structured around these very different cognitive demands, I imagine that primates think and view the world very differently from the way that mollusks think and view the world — though these differences do not prevent the species from interacting, though primates and mollusks don’t interact all that much because of their distinct ecological niches.

If species possessing a cognitive architecture as profoundly different as that represented by primates and mollusks can achieve a de facto commensurability through their common participation in a single biosphere, then the incommensurability of different human points of view does not seem all that bleak.

Ecology is the master world-narrative that unifies that sub-narratives employed by individual species in virtue of their perceptual and cognitive architecture. Ultimately, astrobiology would constitute the universal narrative that would unify the ecological narratives of distinct worlds.

The naturalistic narrative has the power to unify even across species and across worlds. This power may not be particularly evident at present, but in the long term future of our species (if our species does in fact have a long term future) this power will prove to be crucial.

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Thursday


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Yesterday’s longish post The Origins of Time occupied me for quite some time. Parts of it appeared in fragmentary form on my Tumblr blog, Grand Strategy Annex, in the posts on The Experience of Innocence and Innocence and Time Consciousness. I also made notes and occasional sketches in my notebooks as I was working on these ideas.

Below is one sketch that I made last summer in order to try to sum up the idea of the construction of ecological temporality in a way that would appeal to geometrical intuition.

While this drawing is too schematic and too simple to be quite true, it nevertheless has a certain value, as all abstractions have a certain value. And that’s what this is: a sketch of an abstraction.

This is an attempt to delineate the large scale structures of space and time from the standpoint not of physics or cosmology (which is how we are accustomed to seeing exposition of the large scale structure of space and time) but from a philosophical perspective. What I was trying to show with this image was how time has its origins in micro-temporal interactions, and is predominately a temporality of micro-temporality until larger structures emerge along with the larger temporal structures entailed by these larger structures. As larger structures emerge, micro-temporality becomes less central to the way the world works, and the less comprehensive forms of temporality fall away as the center of cosmological history migrates to the larger structures.

In my closing speculation of yesterday’s The Origin of Time I suggested that the ultimate telos of civilization is for humanistic temporality and cosmological temporality to merge, and if this should come to pass, it would come to pass at the farthest reach of metaphysical temporality.

I have also incorporated in the drawing above what should have been obvious to me earlier, which is to abbreviate metaphysical temporality as meta-temporality (the same thing can be done with metaphysical ecology rendered as meta-ecology). The abbreviation of “metaphyscial” to “meta-” is then readily assimilated to the familiar ecological levels of mirco-, meso-, exo-, and macro-, to which we now add meta-.

An interesting lesson to take away from the relation of this drawing to my ideas about ecological temporality and the origins of time is that an image can express an abstraction as readily as can words, though we do not ordinarily think of pictures, sketches, videos, illustrations, and so forth as abstractions. Indeed, we typically think of images as giving concrete embodiment to an idea that was difficult to grasp on the basis of a text alone. But this is not so. Illustrations are not easy to understand because of their concreteness; illustrations are easy to understand because of the role of geometrical intuition in human thought.

Vision plays a disproportionate role in human knowledge. We know that, for other species, the relative contribution of the senses constitutes a different mix in each case. For dogs, smell plays a very large role; for bats and dolphins, hearing plays a disproportionate role; perhaps eagles are in a similar boat with us, relying as they do on particularly keen eyesight to detect prey on the ground from flying altitude.

We don’t even have electro-receptors like a shark or pits like a pit viper, so we can’t know what it is like to be a shark or a viper (to borrow a phrase from the famous Thomas Nagel essay, What is it like to be a bat?). Since we have ears and noses we can at least make a guess as to what it is like to live a life in which these senses play a disproportionate role in experience.

While we can augment our senses with instrumentation, we are more or less stuck with the cognitive architecture that evolved under selection pressures directly bearing upon those senses crucial to our physical survival and reproduction. Because the ancestors of human beings took the path of relying on our vision — probably binocular stereoscopic vision for swinging through the branches of trees and color vision for distinguishing the ripeness of fruit — we have a cognitive architecture that is heavily integrated with visual processing power.

So, we have the minds we have, and while we have learned to help them along a bit with languages and ideas, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I take it that this is one reason that Wittgenstein said Nothing contrasts with the form of the world.

The form of our world is a visual world, and in a visual world geometrical intuition counts for a lot. And since geometrical intuition counts for a lot, geometrical abstractions — i.e., images that illustrate abstractions — also count for a lot.

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