Posts tagged ‘phenomenology’

nostrilsSmell is the most elusive of the senses. Sight is beautifully structured and amenable to analysis in terms of consistent geometry and a coherent domain of colours. Smells… how does one smell relate to another? There just seems to be an infinite number of smells, all one of a kind. We can be completely surprised by an unprecedented smell which is like nothing we ever experienced before, in a way we can’t possibly be surprised by a new colour (with some minor possible exceptions). Our olfactory system effortlessly assigns new unique smell experiences to substances that never existed until human beings synthesised them.

There don’t even seem to be any words for smells: or at least, the only way we can talk about them is by referring to “the smell of X”, as in a “smoky smell” or “the smell of lemons”. We don’t have to do that to describe shapes or colours: they can be described as “blue”, or “square” without our having to say they are “sky-coloured” or “the shape of a box”. (Except perhaps in the case of orange? Is “orange” short for ‘the colour of oranges’?) Even for taste we have words like “bitter” and “sweet”. The only one I can think of for smells is “nidorous’, which is pretty obscure – and in order to explain it I have to fall back on saying it describes the “smell of” burning/cooking meat. All we have to describe smells is “strong” and “faint” (my daughter, reading over my shoulder, says what about “pungent”? She does not consider “pungent” to be merely a synonym of “strong” – you may be indifferent to a strong smell, but not to a pungent one, she claims).

With that by way of preamble, let me introduce the interesting question considered here by William Lycan: does smell represent? When we smell, do we smell something? There is a range of possible answers. We might say that when I smell, I smell sausages (for example). Or that I smell a smell (which happens to be the smell of sausages). Or I might say I just have a smell experience: I may know that it’s associated with sausage smells and hence with sausages, but in itself it’s just an experience.

Lycan (who believes that we smell a gaseous miasma) notes two arguments for something like the last position – that smell doesn’t represent anything. First, introspection tells us nothing about what a smell represents. If I were a member of a culture that did not make sausages or eat meat, and had never experienced them, my first nose-full of sausage odour would convey nothing to me beyond itself. It’s different for sight: we inherently see things, and when we see our first sausage there can be no doubt we are seeing a thing, even if we do not yet know much about its nature: it would be absurd to maintain we were merely having a visual experience.

The second argument is that smells can’t really be wrong: there are no smell illusions. If a car is sprayed with “new car” perfume to make us think that it is fresh off the production line, we may make a mistake about that inference, but our nose was not wrong about the smell, which was real. But representations can always be wrong, so if we can’t be wrong, there is no representation.

Lycan is unimpressed by introspective evidence: the mere fact that philosophers disagree about what it tells us is enough, he feels, to discredit it. The second argument fails because it assumes that if smells represent, they must represent their causes: but they might just represent something in the air. On getting a whiff of my first sausage I would not know what it was, but I might well be moved to say “What’s that appetising (or disgusting) smell?”  I wouldn’t simply say “Golly, I am undergoing a novel olfactory experience for some opaque reason.”  I think in fact we could go further there and argue that I might well say “What’s that I can smell?” – but that doesn’t suit Lycan’s preferred position. (My daughter intervenes to say “What about ‘acrid’?”)

Lycan summarises a range of arguments (One is an argument by Richardson that smell is phenomenologically “exteroceptive”, inherently about things out there: Lycan endorses this view, but surely relying on phenomenology is smuggling back in the introspection he was so scathing about when the other side invoked it?). His own main argument rests on the view that how something smells is something over and above all the other facts about it. The premise here is very like that in the famous thought experiment of Mary the colour scientist, though Lycan is not drawing the same conclusions at all. He claims instead that:

I can know the complex of osphresiological fact without knowing how the rose smells because knowing is knowing-under-a-representation… that solution entails that olfactory experience involves representation.

That does make some sense, I feel (What about “osphresiological”! we’re really working on the vocabulary today, aren’t we?). You may be asking yourself, however, whether this is a question that needs a single answer. Couldn’t we say, yes sometimes smells represent miasmas, but they can also represent sausages; or indeed they can represent nothing.

Lycan, in what I take to be a development of his view, is receptive to the idea of layering: that in fact smells can represent not just a cloud of stuff in the air, but also the thing from which they emanated. That being so I am not completely clear why we should give primacy to the miasma. Two contrary cases suggest themselves. First, suppose there is a odour so faint I don’t even perceive it as such consciously, but have a misty sense of salsiccian (alright, I made it up) presence which makes me begin to think about how agreeable a nice Cumberland sausage for lunch might be. Wouldn’t we say that in some sense the smell represented sausages to me: but we can’t say it represented a miasma because no such thing ever entered my mind?

Second, if we accept layering we might say that the key point is about the essential or the minimal case: we can smell without that smell representing a sausage, but what’s the least it can represent and still be a smell? Can it represent nothing? Suppose I dream and have an odd, unrecognisable experience. Later on, when awake, I encounter a Thai curd sausage for the first time and find that the experience I had was in fact an olfactory one, the smell of this particular kind of comestible. My dream experience cannot possibly have represented a sausage, a miasma, a smell, or anything but itself because I didn’t know what it was: but, it turns out, it was the smell of curd sausage.

I think your reaction to that is likely to depend on whether you think an experience could be a smell experience without being recognisable as such; if not, you may be inclined to agree with Lycan, who would probably reiterate his view that smells are sensing-under-a-representation. That view entails that there is an ineffability about smell, and Lycan suggests this might help account for the poverty of smell vocabulary that I noted above. Interestingly it turns out that this very point has been attacked by Majid and Burenhult, albeit not in a way that Lycan considers fatal to his case. Majid and Burenhult studied the Jahai, a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe on the Malaysian peninsula, and found that they have a very rich lexicon of odour terms, such as a word for “the smell of petrol, smoke and bat droppings” (what, all of them?). It’s just us English speakers, it seems, who are stuck with acrid nidors.

kiss… is not really what this piece is about (sorry). It’s an idea I had years ago for a short story or a novella. ‘Lust’ here would have been interpreted broadly as any state which impels a human being towards sex. I had in mind a number of axes defining a general ‘lust space’. One of the axes, if I remember rightly, had specific attraction to one person at one end and generalised indiscriminate enthusiasm at the other; another went from sadistic to masochistic, and so on. I think I had eighty-one basic forms of lust, and the idea was to write short episodes exemplifying each one: in fact, to interweave a coherent narrative with all of them in.

My creative gifts were not up to that challenge, but I mention it here because one of the axes went from the purely intellectual to the purely physical. At the intellectual extreme you might have an elderly homosexual aristocrat who, on inheriting a title, realises it is his duty to attempt to procure an heir. At the purely physical end you might have an adolescent boy on a train who notices he has an erection which is unrelated to anything that has passed through his mind.

That axis would have made a lot of sense (perhaps) to Luca Barlassina and Albert Newen, whose paper in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research sets out an impure somatic theory of the emotions. In short, they claim that emotions are constituted by the integration of bodily perceptions with representations of external objects and states of affairs.

Somatic theories say that emotions are really just bodily states. We don’t get red in the face because we’re angry, we get angry because we’ve become red in the face. As no less an authority than William James had it:

The more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be. Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth.

This view did not appeal to everyone, but the elegantly parsimonious reduction it offers has retained its appeal, and Jesse Prinz has put forward a sophisticated 21st century version. It is Prinz’s theory that Barlassina and Newen address; they think it needs adulterating, but they clearly want to build on Prinz’s foundations, not reject them.

So what does Prinz say? His view of emotions fits into the framework of his general view about perception: for him, a state is a perceptual state if it is a state of a dedicated input system – eg the visual system. An emotion is simply a state of the system that monitors our own bodies; in other words emotions are just perceptions of our own bodily states.  Even for Prinz, that’s a little too pure: emotions, after all, are typically about something. They have intentional content. We don’t just feel angry, we feel angry about something or other. Prinz regards emotions as having dual content: they register bodily states but also represent core relational themes (as against say, fatigue, which both registers and represents a bodily state). On top of that, they may involve propositional attitudes, thoughts about some evocative future event, for example, but the propositional attitudes only evoke the emotions, they don’t play any role in constituting them. Further still, certain higher emotions are recalibrati0ns of lower ones: the simple emotion of sadness is recalibrated so it can be controlled by a particular set of stimuli and become guilt.

So far so good. Barlassina and Newen have four objections. First, if Prinz is right, then the neural correlates of emotion and the perception of the relevant bodily states must just be the same. Taking the example of disgust, B&N argue that the evidence suggests otherwise: interoception, the perception of bodily changes, may indeed cause disgust, but does not equate to it neurologically.

Second, they see problems with Prinz’s method of bringing in intentional content. For Prinz emotions differ from mere bodily feeling because they represent core relational themes. But, say B&N, what about ear pressure? It tells us about unhealthy levels of barometric pressure and oxygen, and so relates to survival, surely a core relational theme: and it’s certainly a perception of a bodily state – but ear pressure is not an emotion.

Third, Prinz’s account only allows emotions to be about general situations; but in fact they are about particular things. When we’re afraid of a dog, we’re afraid of that dog, we’re not just experiencing a general fear in the presence of a specific dog.

Fourth, Prinz doesn’t fully accommodate the real phenomenology of emotions. For him, fear of a lion is fear accompanied by some beleifs about a lion: but B&N maintain that the directedness of the emotion is built in, part of the inherent phenomenology.

Barlassina and Newen like Prinz’s somatic leanings, but they conclude that he simply doesn’t account sufficiently for the representative characteristics of emotions: consequently they propose an ‘impure’ theory by which emotions are cognitive states constituted when interoceptive states are integrated with with perceptions of external objects or states of affairs.

This pollution or elaboration of the pure theory seems pretty sensible and B&N give a clear and convincing exposition. At the end of the day it leaves me cold not because they haven’t done a good job but because I suspect that somatic theories are always going to be inadequate: for two reasons.

First, they just don’t capture the phenomenology. There’s no doubt at all that emotions are often or typically characterised or coloured by perception of distinctive bodily states, but is that what they are in essence? It doesn’t seem so. It seems possible to imagine that I might be angry or sad without a body at all: not, of course, in the same good old human way, but angry or sad nevertheless. There seems to be something almost qualic about emotions, something over and above any of the physical aspects, characteristic though they may be.

Second, surely emotions are often essentially about dispositions to behave in a certain way? An account of anger which never mentions that anger makes me more likely to hit people just doesn’t seem to cut the mustard. Even William James spoke of striking people. In fact, I think one could plausibly argue that the physical changes associated with an emotion can often be related to the underlying propensity to behave in a certain way. We begin to breathe deeply and our heart pounds because we are getting ready for violent exertion, just as parallel cognitive changes get us ready to take offence and start a fight. Not all emotions are as neat as this: we’ve talked in the past about the difficulty of explaining what grief is for. Still, these considerations seem enough to show that a somatic account, even an impure one, can’t quite cover the ground.

Still, just as Barlassina and Newen built on Prinz, it may well be that they have provided some good foundation work for an even more impure theory.

 

Picture: Martin Heidegger. This paper by Dotov, Nie, and Chemero describes experiments which it says have pulled off the remarkable feat of providing empirical, experimental evidence for Heidegger’s phenomenology, or part of it; the paper has been taken by some as providing new backing for the Extended Mind theory, notably expounded by Andy Clark in his 2008 book (‘Supersizing the Mind’).

Relating the research so strongly to Heidegger puts it into a complex historical context. Some of Heidegger’s views, particularly those which suggest there can be no theory of everyday life, have been taken up by critics of artificial intelligence. Hubert Dreyfus in particular, has offered a vigorous critique drawing mainly from Heidegger an idea of the limits of computation, one which strongly resembles those which arise from the broadly-conceived frame problem, as discussed here recently. The authors of the paper claim this heritage, accepting the Dreyfusard view of Heidegger as an early proto-enemy of GOFAI .

For it is GOFAI (Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence) we’re dealing with. The authors of the current paper point out that the Heideggerian/Dreyfusard critique applies only to AI based on straightforward symbol manipulation (though I think a casual reader of Dreyfus  could well be forgiven for going away with the impression that he was a sceptic about all forms of AI), and that it points toward the need to give proper regard to the consequences of embodiment.

Hence their two experiments. These are designed to show objective signs of a state described by Heidegger, known in English as ‘ready-to-hand’. This seems a misleading translation, though I can’t think of a perfect alternative. If a hammer is ‘ready to hand’, I think that implies it’s laid out on the bench ready for me to pick it up when I want it;  the state Heidegger was talking about is the one when you’re using the hammer confidently and skilfully without even having to think about it. If something goes wrong with the hammering, you may be forced to start thinking about the hammer again – about exactly how it’s going to hit the nail, perhaps about how you’re holding it. You can also stop using the hammer altogether and contemplate it as a simple object. But when the hammer is ready-to-hand in the required sense, you naturally speak of your knocking in a few nails as though you were using your bare hands, or more accurately, as if the hammer had become part of you.

Both experiments were based on subjects using a mouse to play a simple game.  The idea was that once the subjects had settled, the mouse would become ready-to-hand; then the relationship between mouse movement and cursor movement would be temporarily messed up; this should cause the mouse to become unready-to-hand for a while. Two different techniques were used to detect readiness-to-hand. In the first experiment the movements of the hand and mouse were analysed for signs of 1/f? noise. Apparently earlier research has established that the appearance of 1/f? noise is a sign of a smoothly integrated system.  The second experiment used a less sophisticated method; subjects were required to perform a simple counting task at the same time as using the mouse; when their performance at this second task faltered, it was taken as a sign that attention was being transferred to cope with the onset of unreadiness to hand. Both experiments yielded the expected results.  (Regrettably some subjects were lost because of an unexpected problem – they weren’t good enough at the simple mouse game to keep it going for the duration of the experiment. Future experimenters should note the need to set up a game which cannot come to a sudden halt.)

I think the first question which comes to mind is: why were the experiments were even necessary?  It is a common experience that tools or vehicles become extensions of our personality; in fact it has often been pointed out that even our senses get relocated. If you use a whisk to beat eggs, you sense the consistency of the egg not by monitoring the movement of the whisk against your fingers, but as though you were feeling the egg with the whisk, as though there was a limited kind of sensation transferred into the whisk. Now of course, for any phenomenological observation, there will be some diehards who deny having had any such experience; but my impression is that this sort of thing is widely accepted, enough to feature as a proposition in a discussion without further support.  Nevertheless, it’s true that it this remains subjective, so it’s a fair claim that empirical results are something new.

Second, though, do the results actually prove anything? Phenomenologically, it seems possible to me to think of alternative explanations which fit the bill without invoking readiness-to-hand. Does it seem to the subject that the mouse has become part of them, part of a smoothly-integrated entity – or does the mouse just drop out of consciousness altogether? Even if we accept that the presence of 1/f? noise shows that integration has occurred, that doesn’t give us readiness-to-hand (or if it does, it seems the result was already achieved by the earlier research).

In the second experiment we’ve certainly got a transfer of attention – but isn’t that only natural? If a task suddenly becomes inexplicably harder, it’s not surprising that more attention is devoted to it – surely we can explain that without invoking Heidegger? The authors acknowledge this objection, and if I understand correctly suggest that the two tasks involved were easy enough to rule out problems of excessive cognitive load so that, I suppose, no significant switch of attention would have been necessary if not for the breakdown of readiness-to-hand.  I’m not altogether convinced.

I do like the chutzpah involved in an experimental attempt to validate Heidegger, though, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that bold and ingenious experiments along these lines might tell us something interesting.