On Sunday, I came across the tale of the Yellow Submarine, and was sucked in. The graphics are breathtaking: a true work of art. Released in 1968, it features psychedelic colours, a wide variety of animation effects and graphic elements. The story in screenshots*:
The idyllic and colourful Pepperland.
Drained of colour, its people frozen to statues by the Blue Meanies.
Sailor Fred sets out in the Yellow Submarine to fetch help.
He calls upon the Beatles, as the only thing the Blue Meanies fear is music.
They travel to Pepperland in the Yellow Submarine
To save Pepperland and restore its colours with their music.
The voyage in the Yellow Submarine is peppered with colourful adventures, and of course, songs, like Nowhere Man, and All You Need Is Love. A must see for anyone interested in art or design, …and anyone who likes colours. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the varied backgrounds, and the vibrant colours of the submarine’s interior.
In 1995, David Chalmers stated what he calls the hard problem of consciousness: why do we feel alive, why do we experience the world? He separates this from what he terms the “easy” problems or functions like reportability, attention focus etc. He answers his own question by positing a new fundamental unit, not part of the physical universe. In Red Mary I explained why I disagree with the answer, but I do think it’s a good question.
A detractor of Chalmers’, Daniel Dennett, maintains that the functions of consciousness alone are the explanation of subjective experience. That’s clearly nonsense. We can replicate all the functions in computers or other machines without these being aware. Therefore the functions alone do not explain our subjective awareness.
It’s not a bug, it’s a feature
Chalmers’ list of “easy” problems
The ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli
“Incorrect password. Please try again.”
The integration of information by a cognitive system
The reportability of mental states
“Insufficient memory. Please free up some disc space.”
The ability of a system to access its own internal states
Going into sleep mode due to low battery.
The focus of attention
Allocation of processors.
The deliberate control of behavior
Control processes on production systems.
The difference between wakefulness and sleep
Delight and dismay*
Motor running smoothly vs. motor makes weird screeching noises.
Distraction and concentration
Allocation of processors
Feelings of foreboding*
“Are you sure you want to delete this?”
Disregard of perceptual details
Cache not cleared
Do you know how often an SAP run reads the company code customising? Talk about OCD!
Allocation of processors
Inability to hold more than a few items in consciousness
My ability to be moved to tears by X.*
Plant watering automat – the rest is subjective “feeling”.
Inability to catch myself in the act of Y.
“An unexpected error has occurred.”
*Delight, dismay, sinking feeling of foreboding, being moved to tears: these are subjective emotions, not functions.
I’ve given parallels to what we may do functionally when these states occur.
Some of my own
Bad hair day / Getting out of bed on the wrong side.
Processes stuck in loops, caches not cleared. This is why IT support tells you to “turn it off and on again” – a new day for the computer.
We’re stuck because we want to eat our cake and have it.
Two processes are waiting for each other.
Now, I don’t believe my laptop is conscious. Nor will it become conscious when I add an app that measures things like available disc space, CPU capacity, and battery state, and says: “I’m feeling stressed out!” when the CPU is at more than 98% capacity, “I feel sick” when it’s out of disc space, and “I’m hungry” when the battery’s going. Actually, my iPod already does this: “Low battery,” it says mournfully.
But, I hear myself saying, that’s not how I work. I have no idea how high my blood-sugar is. But when it’s too low, I feel hungry. And that’s where the “extra” bit comes in. I feel.
Emotions have a function, or quite a few different functions. And we “feel” them. This is not a necessary consequence of the functions – we can write computer programmes that fulfill these functions without the computers suffering. But the path nature took to solve these issues is one that made us aware.
I just read a blog-post taking up the story of Red Mary, a philosophical thought-experiment. Mary is a neuroscientist who has never seen colours, but has studied them scientifically. For the sake of the argument Mary is taken to have learnt everything that can be learnt about colours, without ever seeing them. The question philosophers now debate is whether Mary learns anything new when she is released from her monochrome prison and sees colour for the first time.
Intuitively, we agree Mary “learns” something new, namely “what it’s like” to see red etc. A similar conundrum “What is it like to be a bat” discusses the fact that we may know much about bats, but not what it’s like to be one. Both are intended to prove dualism, or the idea that there is something non-phyiscal in the world, the carrier of the so-called qualia – from qualis est or lat. what / how is it, or “how-ness”.
Reading these things feels a bit like watching a dog trying to catch its own tail. Of course, dogs eventually learn the trick of leaning against something…
Seeing is a skill
To make it easier, suppose Mary’s new experience is not seeing colour, but riding a bike, where she has no previous experience with anything wobbly on wheels. It’s fairly obvious that the outcome would simply be that she cannot ride a bike.
I would argue it’s the same with seeing colour. After a lifetime in monochrome Mary’s eyes might “see” the colours, i.e. the photo-sensitive cells might still be there, and they might react to the photons, but her visual apparatus would simply not have developed a reaction to it. Neurons that have never fired will not be connected to the visual cortex: she will not visualise or experience red at all.
We are not passive spectators of our experience; consciousness is a process, a skill that has to be learnt, just like riding a bike. We start with something quite basic and build it up as we develop. If we never use it, particularly in childhood, it atrophies and disappears.
This in itself is a fantastic quality of our brain. This is how we each develop an ear to detect and differentiate the sounds characteristic of our own language – how marvelous is that? And this is why our eyes are attracted to writing, as we’ve learnt this carries meaning, yet we ignore scratches on the pavement. In former times we’d have learnt to watch out for traces of sabre-toothed tigers…
Mental filing cabinet
An independent point is that seeing colour is a physical sensation. Neurons carry impulses to the part in my brain that maps information onto a body outline, to tell me what’s going on where. Knowing something theoretical, like “my phone number is 431234” is also an electrical impulse in my brain, but it’s in a completely different circuit. Everything I learn by reading, say, is put into the top mental drawer, body information is in the bottom one. This is brain-hardware.
No piece of information Mary can learn about colour is the same as “seeing” it in her visual cortex. Nothing you put in the top drawer is then in the bottom one. On a smaller scale there is no colour seeing which is “like” having a toothache (though some modern artists do try), and no smell is “like” a butterfly kiss. And no piece of information I learn about your height will make me believe you are a good cook (this one is brain software: I could, illogically, have learnt that the best cooks are 5’7” and vice versa).
That doesn’t mean we need to multiply metaphysical entities as carriers of the how-ness of smells, of colours, of touch etc. Not to mention of height and of being a good cook. If we have separate drawers in our mental filing cabinet, that is a quality of our brains, and it doesn’t imply that there is a top-drawer world separate from a bottom-drawer one, any more than the world we hear must be separate from the world we see.
Similarly, the reason I can’t know what it’s like to be a bat is simply that I don’t have a bat’s body. My body-feeling brain circuits are not built the way a bat’s are, nor are my cognitive processes.
What I find telling, is that in trying to prove the existence of “more than” the physical world, the dualist philosophers manage to ignore so much about the physical world. In particular the physical, very much awe-and-wonder-inspiring bodies we are so lucky to have.
P.S. Bats and colours
Bats obviously don’t see colours (different wavelengths of light) as they “see” by ultrasound echoes, i.e. sound waves. Biologist Richard Dawkins once speculated that bats might use what in our brains is used to visualise colours, to represent different textures of surfaces. I find this idea totally fascinating: would blue be smooth, and red be rough?
She wasn’t sure what the attraction was. It had always been there: even as a girl, she’d stood for hours at the railings of a high bridge. There was some indefinable quality, a thrill she couldn’t explain.
She looked down into the depths knowing it would take just one little step, one little push. A frisson ran down her spine. Did she want to die? No. She loved life far too much.
Was it the risk? That maybe somewhere inside her there was a little rebel who just might push her over? To fly through the air, only the once?
The most common of everyday articles for the Weekly Photo Challenge: Have you ever really looked at a glass of water? Try painting one!
How not to do it.
Paint the outline slowly to make sure it’s crooked, and do it in a highly staining colour, so it can’t be fixed.
Forget about perspective and paint the oval closest to your eye (here: top) with the strongest curve.
Worst of all: try very hard to leave out fiddly little bits of lighter colour from the very start. This results in the confused lines that you see on the water surface and the bottom here.
So how do you do it?
Artist and blogger Dayna Bordage often posts beautiful paintings of transparent water containers: bottle, vases, reflections, more. Recently she created this 7-step guide with step-by-step illustrations. What I learnt was this.
Instead of identifying the light edges and trying to paint around them, try to identify areas larger areas of at least a little colour, and paint those.
Then in the next step identify areas that are at least a little darker. Repeat. This way the pattern of highlights and shadows emerges naturally.
Finally add highlights with gouache, or if you’re a purist, sprinkle gum or dab a white oil-pastel crayon before you start.
I’ve often read about the principle of painting from light to dark, but I never understood that it also means painting from large areas to small. I guess in order to learn, you have to do it … wrong.
Emotions are the source of empathy and connection. We cannot read each others thoughts, but we can feel each others feelings. This can work in different ways.
1. Feeling and form
We show what we feel in our posture, our gestures and facial expressions, even our voice. This also works the other way round: smile and you will feel slightly more relaxed, let your spine droop and your morale will drop a little too. When we look at someone we unthinkingly mirror their general demeanor. Sometimes we can’t help smiling when someone smiles, or yawning when we hear someone yawn.
So we have a chain here. You feel, you express, I copy your expression (a tiny little bit), and I feel what you are feeling (at least a little bit).
Incidentally, this is what makes portraiture so difficult. Painting a face is not intrinsically more difficult than painting a tree, but we look at the result far more critically because so much brainpower is dedicated to “reading” each other’s faces.
2. Imagination, or “as if”
If you tell me, your neighbour has just won a major award, I can imagine he must be feeling happy and proud. If you tell me he’s just been fired from his job, you don’t need to tell me he’s upset.
We can put ourselves in another person’s situation, and imagine what we would be feeling if we were in their shoes. It’s not accurate, as in many situations our feelings can differ, but it gives us a starting point.
We can learn to interpret signals. I remember a teacher whose jerseys came in two colours: red and …mud-coloured. When he was happy, he wore red. When the mud-colour came out, we knew he was in a foul mood.
And we can interpret language, such as journals or blog-posts, to understand what the person writing them is feeling.
* * *
When we look into someone’s eyes, when we imagine their situation, we can feel what they are feeling. Not only every man’s death diminishes me, but every person’s – every creature’s – pain is in a way mine and their joy also. This is where our sense of connection, and of oneness comes from.
To my mind this is what makes us human. Not that it separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom – e.g. dogs and dolphins share this trait – and why would we want it to? Being fully human is also being part of the big animal family.
I do not think we are rational creatures, but regardless of that I’ve always rejected the tag of “thinking thing”. As sentient beings, I think we are far more than that.