Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Observation and Representation

In fallibilism on 31/12/2011 at 10:21 am

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has equipped a deep-space probe with a pictorial message ‘on the off-chance that somewhere on the way it is intercepted by intelligent scientifically educated beings.’ It is unlikely that their effort was meant to be taken quite seriously, but what if we try? These beings would first of all have to be equipped with ‘receivers’ among their sense organs that respond to the same band of electromagnetic waves as our eyes do. Even in that unlikely case they could not possibly get the message. Reading an image, like the reception of any other message, is dependent on prior knowledge of possibilities; we can only recognize what we know. Even the sight of the awkward naked figures in the illustration cannot be separated in our mind from our knowledge. We know that feet are for standing and eyes are for looking and we project this knowledge onto these configurations, which would look ‘like nothing on earth’ without this prior information. It is this information alone that enables us to separate the code from the message; we see which of the lines are intended as contours and which are intended as conventional modelling. Our ‘scientifically educated’ fellow creatures in space might be forgiven if they saw the figures as wire constructs with loose bits and pieces hovering weightlessly in between. Even if they deciphered this aspect of the code, what would they make of the woman’s right arm that tapers off like a flamingo’s neck and beak? The creatures are ‘drawn to scale against the outline of the spacecraft,’ but if the recipients are supposed to understand foreshortening, they might also expect to see perspective and conceive the craft as being further back, which would make the scale of the manikins minute. As for the fact that ‘the man has his right hand raised in greeting’ (the female of the species presumably being less outgoing), not even an earthly Chinese or Indian would be able to correctly interpret this gesture from his own repertory.

The representation of humans is accompanied by a chart: a pattern of lines beside the figures standing for the 14 pulsars of the Milky Way, the whole being designed to locate the sun of our universe. A second drawing (how are they to know it is not part of the same chart?) ‘shows the earth and the other planets in relation to the sun and the path of Pioneer from earth and swinging past Jupiter.’ The trajectory, it will be noticed, is endowed with a directional arrowhead; it seems to have escaped the designers that this is a conventional symbol unknown to a race that never had the equivalent of bows and arrows. (Ernst Gombrich, The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. London: Phaidon (1982), 150-151)


Republican Candidates

In Uncategorized on 10/12/2011 at 11:55 am

[I]t is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history (Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: the Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 18).

I made a bet today with a friend in a coffee shop. I had stopped in to meet up with my housemate and ended up waiting for her at a table. He sat behind me. We immediately began discussing politics, eventually placing a $50 bet on whether Obama would win the general election. I said that he would be reelected, not due to any qualities he may have or policies he may have implemented (of which very few of them I am in favor of — after all, I’m an avid reader of Glenn Greenwald), but simply due to the bumbling cadre of Republican candidates. Of the few that are respectable, they poll low (Gary Johnson routinely polls in the single digits, for instance); of the many that are faux-dominionists that pander for the voting block (Gingrich) or dominionists that are true believers (Perry, Bachmann), they poll comparatively higher. The rest? Either invisible or disappointing.

My friend argued that even if this were the case, Obama was Bush 2.0, and would be abandoned by most of his voting block (as a side-bet, he thought that Obama would have over 85% of the African-American voting public). We were in agreement on every issue, but we disagreed on the outcome. Perhaps I’m not so pessimistic as he as to think that this would be another case of the ‘underworld’ rising once more to become a political power. Who knows? Either way, someone’s getting $50 and we’re both getting another four disappointing years of politics.


Maps and Territories

In fallibilism on 09/12/2011 at 2:46 am

For every judgment in a syllogistic chain, the mind seeks to discover a major premiss; the law of the syllogism requires that we seek a premiss for every premiss, a condition for every condition, until we arrive at that which is unconditional. This maxim is a proper one for the purpose of governing the operations of the mind, but it should not be confused with the erroneous supposition that there is in fact a first, unconditioned link in the chain of premisses. For it is one thing to know that every member of an intellectual sequence has a preceding condition, and quite another to maintain that we can comprehend the sequence in its entirety including a first, unconditioned member. (KoĊ‚akowski, Main Currents of Marxism, 40)


Existence Has its Own Order

In art, fallibilism on 06/12/2011 at 6:06 am

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others (Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian 245).