Unreal Nature

February 22, 2009

Canine E-Qualia

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:41 am

phenomenology   When wind happens it happens in the ears. When rain happens all the smells are hidden. When thunder happens it happens inside the heart and head and there is no hiding from the fear.

That’s from a pitch-perfect article in Geist magazine, Words Dogs Know by J.R. Carpenter (Winter 2008). Here is more:

 infinity In the time between sleep and waking there is the great nothingness of the nap.

conquest  The ball is a living thing. It is not enough to give chase, catch the ball in mid-air and bring it back for another throw. A victory lap is in order. And then give it a good shake to make sure it knows it has been conquered.

contingency  If an orange ball has just been lost, under a fence, say — look around. Maybe there’s a busted tennis ball nearby. Maybe there’s a stick just waiting to be found.

consumption  If it is put in front of you, eat it. If it is on the floor, eat it. If it is on the ground, eat it. If it is dead, sniff it carefully, and then eat it. Even if it smells like shit, eat it. Even if it is shit, eat that too.

And, I must add, if you can’t eat it, pee on it.

trust  When they say: “We’ll be right back,” they may not come right back, but they always do come back eventually. When they say: “It’s all right,” it may not be all right yet, but it will be soon. When they say: “Stay,” for no apparent reason, it’s best to just do it. Who knows, maybe there’s a car coming.

phantasmagoria  Dog-shaped blurs dot the distant horizon, man-shaped shadows move through the night time, footsteps fall down from the ceiling, disembodied voices float up through the floorboards, ghost scents waft on the wind.

transfiguration  When the woman puts mascara on, it means she’s leaving the house. When the man puts big boots on, it means the alley has been erased by snow. When the black cat has a white strip on its back, be careful! The world can change in an instant.

melancholia  When playtime is over and the long nap in the dark is over, and the early morning walk is over, sometimes in a hurry, sometimes even in the rain, the people shut the door behind them and the dog is left to his lonesome.

I’ve left out a few that are almost as good as those quoted. If you love dogs, be sure to read them all. [ link ]



My New Camera

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:33 am

I just got a point-and-shoot camera to take with me on long hikes. I got tired of trying to wrestle with a DSLR on the treacherously steep footing of the mountains I walk through — which big, heavy cameras are either smashing me in the ribs or being, smashed, themselves onto rocks that I am clambering over. I got a Canon G10, which is a pretty neat little booger. However, while working, laboriously through its seemingly endless settings, I had a Buridan’s Ass moment.

You can choose a shutter sound, or you can turn the shutter sound off altogether. I was dumbfounded. Flabbergasted. Dumbgasted. How can a picture be made without a “click”? The “click” is what makes the picture. A picture without a shutter sound breaks all the laws of physics. Doesn’t it? Am I wrong? I tried it, and I felt like I had died. There was a picture. And there was no sound. Like one hand clapping. But it gets worse.

The two shutter sounds, from which I had to choose one, were perfectly, exactly equally attractive. One is a single “chunk” that sounds very decisive and satisfyingly final, while the other is a “ker-chunk” that sounds more complicated, sophisticated … advanced. I could not decide. I listened to the sample (in settings, you can preview the sounds) until the camera’s battery died. Finally, somehow, someway, after putting in the backup battery and fortifying myself with an a nutritious snack, I made a choice. Don’t ask me which, but a choice seems to have been made because I’m not still sitting there listening to the damn thing.

Anyway, I love the camera. With the strap around my neck and behind/under one arm, the camera lies snug against my side. It has a self-opening lens cover that pops open when you turn it on — and pops contemptuously shut if you dilly-dally too long over a shot, which I tend to do. It has auto-everything, which is good because truth be told, I couldn’t make head nor tail of most of the settings. This photography stuff is hard.

Expect to see lots of incredibly boring pictures of 1) woods and 2) dogs; all in that wide-wide-angle point-and-shoot view that reduces anything that might be of interest to a minuscule blurry dot. (Yes, it has a zoomer, but I’m not there yet.)

Here are some of both, freshly snapped, yesterday:






February 21, 2009

The Evolution of Life in 60 Seconds

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:10 pm

From Seed magazine. Go here and click anywhere on the video box (it says “click Play” but there is no Play …). Awesome.

Also in Seed, there’s an excellent slide show, “a series by Justine Cooper taken inside the scientific collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.” Very cool.



Moral Realism

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:20 am

I don’t want to get into discussions of moral philosophy in this blog, but in trawling through the archives of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, I am often running across interesting reviews of treatments of morality. I found this one, Moral Realism: A Defense, by Russ Shafer-Landau; reviewed by Hallvard Lillehammer to be somewhat different, and more engaging than most. I’ll give you just one snip and leave it to you to investigate further, if you’re interested:

According to Shafer-Landau, there is an intimate connection between moral knowledge so acquired and practical rationality. On his view, you are practically rational only to the extent that you are motivated in accordance with moral reasons. This is moral rationalism with a realist twist. According to Shafer-Landau, moral facts are ’intrinsically normative’, or necessarily reason giving, regardless of their relation to our beliefs, desires or other forms of response to the world.



Vehicle for Intentional Communication

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:14 am

[Gregory Currie says,] “an interpretation of the work cannot be legitimate unless it provides us with a way of seeing the text of the work as an appropriate vehicle for the intentional communication of that very interpretation.” Works can support various interpretations, but any interpretation, if it is to be legitimate, must be something that the author could have intended.”

That is taken from a review of a book,  Arts and Minds, by Gregory Currie; reviewed by David Osipovich in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Intent in the making of photographs (what part does it play?) is a frequent topic of dissent. The role that the artist’s intent should play in an audience’s interpretation of his work is a perennial source of disagreement throughout art criticism. Currie’s views are useful, as are reviewer Osipovich’s dissents. First, Currie’s positions:

… Currie’s argument in this essay is based on recent work in the philosophy of language which seeks to explain the way we process communicative acts as a function of efficient stimuli processing in general. We have “evolved to be seekers of relevance: [we] seek to process stimuli so as to get the maximum cognitive effect for the minimum effort.” Since the aim of a communicative act is the transmission of some cognitive content from speaker to hearer, the most efficient way of dealing with communicative acts — the way to get the maximum cognitive effect with the least effort – is to ascertain the speaker’s intended meaning. Since works of art are a species of communicative act, interpreting these works must also be a matter of ascertaining the speaker’s, i.e. the artist’s, intentions.

Currie further refines his argument by differentiating two basic claims made by author-intentionalism: “1) We use the text, together with various other things, to come up with the best ideas we can about what the author intended to convey; 2) legitimate interpretations are exactly those that correspond with what the author intended to convey.” His position is a “revised” author-intentionalism because he endorses the first claim but rejects the second. Currie also embraces a pluralistic, as opposed to a monistic, theory of interpretation, which means that he believes that there can be at least two contrasting, equally legitimate interpretations of the same work. So his view is not the nearly universally rejected, rather naïve view that appreciating art means figuring out what the author had in mind when she created the work — a view that reduces aesthetic activity to a kind of puzzle solving. Rather, he argues that “an interpretation of the work cannot be legitimate unless it provides us with a way of seeing the text of the work as an appropriate vehicle for the intentional communication of that very interpretation.” Works can support various interpretations, but any interpretation, if it is to be legitimate, must be something that the author could have intended. Currie clarifies this point by appealing to the distinction between utterer and utterance. The aim of interpretation is not to figure out what was in the mind of the utterer — the artist — but to find a meaning in the utterance that is supported by the linguistic properties of that utterance. The discussion is rounded out with references to recent studies in experimental psychology with normal and autistic children that establish various links between language skills and the ability to decipher the intentions of speakers.

Now, some of Osipovich’s criticisms:

… Assuming that narrative, and especially literary, art works should indeed be viewed as communicative acts (though I personally am sympathetic to this view, Currie never provides an argument for it, at least in this book), and conceding that a legitimate interpretation must indeed be supported by the linguistic and stylistic properties of the text, it is not clear to me where an author’s intentions come into play. Isn’t it simply enough to say that a legitimate interpretation must be supported by the text? Why is it necessary to add that an author must have been capable of reasonably intending any legitimate interpretation? What does talk of intentions gain us here?

This is a good point, but I think it’s only partially true. I think that, even though the audience does not have to figure out the artist’s precise intent, we (the audience) are, nevertheless usually aware of what the artist might have intended and, in particular, of the limits of what that intent would include.

… Another problem with Currie’s account is its ambivalence between the ontology and axiology of interpretation. Appealing to the empirically verifiable mechanism of interpretation — to the way people actually interpret what they hear and read — seems to signal an ontology of interpretation. And yet Currie talks about distinguishing “legitimate” interpretations from “illegitimate” ones, which is clearly an axiological concern. Does the empirical study of how people really interpret the things they hear and read explain what interpretation is and must be, or does it help us distinguish good interpretations from bad ones?

Without having read the book, I tend to agree with Osipovich on that one.

One last quote from this review, which is not so much about this particular book as about philosophy in general. It’s relevant to my post of yesterday, “Why?”

… it is a truism that while many philosophical theories need the empirical sciences to provide them with context and limits, the reason we have philosophy at all is that third-person scientific discourse, while very good at providing the what and the how, has very little to say about the why. In other words, our philosophical theories have to operate within the realm of the possible, which is determined by empirical science, but they must also go beyond empirical science if they are to be in any way useful.

Read the full review if you’re interested in the argument about intent in art. [ link



February 20, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:08 am

In The Growlery’s contribution to the discussion on free will, started by Dr. C (and supposedly ended by Dr. C but it seems to have zombied onward …), Felix Grant says:

There are two possibilities. Either free will exists or it does not exist.

Why? Who says it’s not there sometimes and absent other times? Who says it’s not a matter of degree? Who says it does or does not apply to certain things, certain dimensions, certain times, certain types of beings, certain interactions? Who says it’s not an infinitely varied chameleon, yin-yang with determism and logical causality?

While on the subject of Why, I think we should also consider:

The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, is a good candidate for being philosophy’s most profound and disturbing question. Is it not a complete and utter mystery that there should be anything at all? That there should be nothing seems prima facie more plausible than that there should be something in view of the greater simplicity and naturalness of nothingness as compared to somethingness. And yet there is something.

That’s from a review of the book, Why there is Something rather than Nothing, by Bede Rundle; reviewed by Erik J. Olsson in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

… Rundle presents his own positive proposal according to which, although there is no particular being whose existence is necessary, there nonetheless has to be something or other.

… How does Rundle defend his central claim that nothingness is not a genuine possibility? The general idea is that the expression “There is nothing” fails to express a genuine claim unless something more is added that completes it but that any such completion leaves us with something. One way of completing the expression is by specifying where there is nothing, as in “There is nothing in the cupboard”. But as soon as we say where there is nothing, we thereby also grant that there is something, namely, the place in physical space which is claimed to be unoccupied. One might think that “There is nothing at all” would do the job, but this statement, too, raises the question of where the state-of-affairs that is described obtains (where there is nothing at all), at least this is what I think Rundle would say in response.

So does this explain why there was nothing in Felix’s trolley … and then there was a fruit loaf in it? This is indeed, “philosophy’s most profound and disturbing question.”



February 19, 2009

What I Want for My Birthday

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:53 am

If you are having trouble deciding what to get me for my Birthday — or for Christmas or if you simply wish to make an offering to the Unreal goddess — this is what I want. From an article in the Los Angeles Times, Major cache of fossils unearthed in L.A. by Thomas H Maugh II (Feb 18, 2009):

Workers excavating an underground garage on the site of an old May Co. parking structure in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park got more than just a couple hundred new parking spaces. They found the largest known cache of fossils from the last ice age, an assemblage that has flabbergasted paleontologists.

… Because of its need for haste, the team also is pioneering a new technique for extracting the fossils. Most paleontologists spend days to weeks carefully sifting through the soil at the site of a dig. In this case, however, huge chunks of soil from the site have been removed intact and now sit in large wooden crates on the museum’s back lot. The 23 crates — ranging in size from that of a desk to that of a small delivery truck — are responsible for the excavation’s informal name, Project 23.

… There were 16 separate deposits on the site — an amount that, by her estimate, would have taken 20 years to excavate conventionally. But with LACMA officials prodding her “to get those things out of our way” so they could build their garage, she had to find another way.

… Her solution was a process similar to that used to move large living trees. Carefully identifying the edges of each deposit, her team dug trenches around and underneath them, isolating the deposits on dirt pedestals. After wrapping heavy plastic around the deposits, workers built wooden crates similar to tree boxes and lifted them out individually with a heavy crane. The biggest one weighed 123,000 pounds.

… The team also has begun digging through the largest crate but has so far excavated only an area about 6 feet by 4 feet and about 2 1/2 feet deep. From that small area, they have so far removed a complete saber-tooth cat skeleton, six dire-wolf skulls and bones from two other saber-tooth cats, a giant ground sloth, and a North American lion. The tar has yielded more than 700 individual plant and animal specimens, 400 of which have been cataloged, Shaw said.

Get me one of those big wrapped-up crates and I would be in heaven. Bones! Bugs! Dirt! Raisins! Maybe a yak! Damn, I would not eat, sleep or stop until it was fully “unwrapped.”

When is my birthday? Lately, they seem to occur about once a week (though not this week). If you have a present for me, I could arrange to have one tomorrow at, say, 3:00?



In This Particular Picture

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:45 am

Making sense of a sentence, map, or diagram always can and often must proceed from the bottom up; making sense of a picture, by contrast, characteristically proceeds from the top down. Advocates of pictorial syntax and semantics ignore this difference at their peril.

That’s a baited hook to try to interest you in a very long, but excellent review of the book, Richard Wollheim on the Art of Painting: Art as Representation and Expression, Rob Van Gerwen, (ed.); reviewed by David Hills in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. As the book title indicates, it’s centered on discussion the theories of the philosopher, Richard Wollheim.

Here are some fragments to whet your interest:

… Like his predecessor E.H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion, Wollheim advocates an account of pictorial meaning that is psychological and broadly Gricean (or “retrievalist”) in flavor.

… Wollheim thinks the experiences that go to constitute pictorial meanings belong to kinds of experience that would be in our repertoire even if painting had never been invented. In the case of representation, they are experiences of seeing something that isn’t literally before one’s eyes in a surface that literally is — as when we see absent, fictitious, or merely generic people or animals in the mud spots on a moldering wall. In the case of expression, they are experiences of finding a stretch of our visible environment to be of a piece with and ready to accommodate an already familiar kind of feeling or emotion, in a sense I’ll attempt to explain below. In the case of internal spectatorship, they are experiences of imagining from within what it might be like to inhabit a particular corner of the world, equipped with particular designs on and feelings about the corner in question. Pictorial meaning is what becomes of such pre-existing kinds of experience when they fall under the sway of an ongoing cultural practice, within which:

(a) experiences of a painted surface count as correct only insofar as they accord with the painter’s retrievable intentions, and

(b) would-be painters, would-be spectators, and interested third parties collaborate in keeping the retrieval of painters’ intentions durably feasible and durably authoritative for how spectators try to view paintings.

Skipping down a ways:

… Andrew Harrison is impressed with the fact that pictures are structural analogues of the things they represent: the representation of a whole is typically built from representations of various of its salient parts, where the representations of the parts are assembled in the representation of the whole in ways that at least roughly parallel the ways in which the parts are assembled in the thing itself.

… Harrison thinks this allows us to view pictures as assemblages of separately meaningful atomic elements meaningfully arranged, where the meaning of the whole is a function of the meaning of its minimal separately meaningful atomic elements (on the one hand) and the various particular meaningful manners in which these separately meaningful elements have been arranged (on the other). So we can at least begin to account for representation in terms of a “pictorial syntax” and “pictorial semantics,” bypassing reference to the intentions of painters and the experiences of spectators.

Like semiotic proposals about pictures and picturing made by Goodman and others back in the seventies, this proposal ignores deep disanalogies between pictures and natural language. Suppose we allow that each new picture includes its own stock of minimal separately meaningful elements: each of these elements is such that it in particular represents some determinate part of a scene, given its context in this particular picture, where this can’t be said of any of its proper parts. Suppose we even allow something that is in general much less plausible: that each new picture also includes its own finite stock of ways of assembling representationally meaningful elements to representationally meaningful effect, such that whenever one of these modes of assembly is employed in this particular picture, the representational meaning of the resulting arrangement is a fixed function of the individual representational meanings of the individual arranged pictorial elements. The trouble is, the minimal separately meaningful elements don’t bring determinate representational meanings with them to a given picture as something settled prior to their concrete deployment in this very picture. To miss this is to lose track of what “separately meaningful” comes to in the present context. Nor do modes of assembly for pictorial elements bring any determinate representational effect with them to a given picture as something already settled. To miss that is to confuse an after-the-fact functional dependence with before-the-fact causal-explanatory dependence. Making sense of a sentence, map, or diagram always can and often must proceed from the bottom up; making sense of a picture, by contrast, characteristically proceeds from the top down. Advocates of pictorial syntax and semantics ignore this difference at their peril.

From much later in the review:

3. Expression and Correspondence. Sometimes we find ourselves in a state of mind we abhor and experience as threatening to us, or a state of mind we prize but experience as threatened by us. In either case we are anxious. Our anxiety is relieved if we manage to picture our state of mind as so much relocatable corporeal stuff and imaginatively re-house it in a perceivable external object, thereby rendering ourselves safe from the state (in the first case) or the state safe from us (in the second). Wollheim calls this complex projection; the idea comes from psychoanalytic theories of mental activity in the Kleinian tradition. Almost any state of mind can be rehoused in almost any perceivable object, but the effect will be unstable and the relief from anxiety short-lived unless the chosen object is accommodating — such as to stablely sustain the projection of the particular state of mind we rehouse in it. Eventually we become disposed to experience objects in terms of their sensed readiness to stably accommodate the projection of (say) melancholy in the circumstances at hand, much as we eventually become disposed to experience objects we call fragile in terms of their sensed readiness to break in the circumstances at hand. (The analogy is mine, not Wollheim’s.)

Experiencing a thing as fragile isn’t simply a matter of taking it to be prone to break on the basis of how it looks. Fragility is itself part of how things look (or feel or sound), a sensible quality in its own right, one we acquire the ability to see and feel and hear as we gain experience with objects that from time to time break on us. Fragility is a proneness to break made sensibly manifest in a certain familiar way. Sensing a thing’s fragility is an experience we must learn to undergo, an experience which mobilizes affect-laden memories of what we did and suffered in past episodes of breaking things or letting them break. Similarly, Wollheim urges, there is such a thing as a sensibly manifest readiness to accommodate the projection of melancholy, and this is a sensible quality in its own right. He calls this quality corresponding to or being of a piece with melancholy, and he takes it to be what we report when we say of a landscape that it has a melancholy look to it or a melancholy air about it. Sensing such a correspondence is an experience we must learn to undergo, an experience mobilizing affect-laden memories of what we did or suffered in past episodes of projecting our own melancholy onto things, an experience which “intimates a history” involving past projective activity.

This is a very long review, but truly excellent and therefore well worth the time it takes to work ones way through it all. Highly recommended. [ link ]



February 18, 2009

On Being Wayward and Incalculable

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:54 am

In the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Philisophy Now there is an essay by Mark Cyzyk about the book, The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang. It’s a mildly interesting piece, but I’ve been entertaining myself by considering, on its own, the list of the book’s topics in the middle of it:

On Having a Stomach
On Having Strong Muscles
On Playful Curiosity: The Rise of Human Civilization
On Dreams
On Being Wayward and Incalculable
Man the Only Working Animal
This Earth the Only Heaven
What is Luck?
Celibacy a Freak of Civilization
On Sex Appeal
On Lying in Bed
On Sitting in Chairs
On Smoke and Incense
The Inhumanity of Western Dress
On House and Interiors
On Rocks and Trees
On Going About and Seeing Things
Good Taste in Knowledge
Why I Am a Pagan

The only one that doesn’t do much for me is “On Sitting in Chairs.” That’s strongly associated, in my mind, with the worst word in the English language — ‘wait,’ or as I discreetly refer to it, the W word.

(I don’t smoke, but smoke and fire are interesting, so that one is okay.)



The Irretrievable Absence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:39 am

History is a recurring theme in this blog because photography is so closely tied to it, and, because photographs, even of the most obviously artistic kind, are instinctively, on first look, read as a presentation of something that ‘really’ happened — though, recently, on second look, with ever more (healthy) skepticism.

Today’s quotes are from a review of the book, Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography, by Aviezer Tucker; reviewed by John H. Zammito in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

I have added bolding to two phrases within this first bit because I find them simply astonishing, given Tucker’s claim that history is “modern historiography is “scientific,” and Bayesian probability theory explains why”:

… Tucker insists: “The form or style of historiography do not affect its relation with the evidence, its epistemic status” (92). For Tucker, the proper object of study is the practice of historical inquiry, not its ultimate product, hence historical “textbooks” are irrelevant. His stress on evidence is certainly important, and sophisticated “textualist” theorists like Ankersmit have no interest in dismissing it. But the converse dismissal is unwise. The construction of working historical texts (monographs, articles, review essays) is not irrelevant to the epistemology of history.

The discipline of history is faced with the irretrievable absence of the past. There are only traces in the present which become “evidence” only under a theory. “Explanations of descriptions of events in paradigmatic historiography are … the best explanation of a range of evidence, given background information and theories” (188). Consequently “the actual theories and methods that historians use habitually are about the transmission of information over time, from event to evidence” (21), i.e., “inference from evidence to a common cause” (21). “Historians are interested only in particular types of causal chains, the ones that preserve information” (94), but “the selection of evidence according to its information-preserving qualities is theory-laden” (106); only theory elucidates how evidence shows information-preservation or fidelity. “Historians must use theories to know where to search for relevant evidence, to recognize relevant evidence once they discover it, and to interpret nested evidence to generate the kind of evidence that is useful for them” (95). Thus, “confirmation and explanation require more than historiography and evidence; they require theories that connect historiography with evidence and identify the evidence as such in the first place” (93).

Later in the piece:

… In fact, Tucker recognizes that “most practicing historians are not grand theoreticians. They confront a limited range of evidence and attempt to explain it while being inspired in their precise ad hoc modeling by their interpretation of a vague theoretical background” (163-4) drawn largely from philosophy and social science.

And, from the concluding paragraph of the review:

… Philosophers often express impatience with historians for not being interested in their treatments of history. They complain that “historians who deny the use of theory are unaware of the theoretical underpinnings of their own practices” (83). To call historical practice scientific “is not to imply that all historians who have practiced successfully the critical method have understood the theoretical foundations for their methods” (83). “It is possible to use a method with confidence both following an understanding of the theory behind it, and because it has worked thus far” (83). This second, guild-practice model is distasteful to Tucker: the contention that historiography might be an art to be learned by a prolonged apprenticeship rather than through theoretical inculcation he dismisses as “esotericism” (19). Since “the professional self-consciousness of historians … is often false,” philosophy must always ask “what historians or scientists are doing, not what they think they are doing,” lest the “meek acceptance of historiographic self-consciousness” make the practice appear “more rational and coherent that it actually is.” Philosophy undertakes not a “phenomenology of disciplinary practitioners,” but a description of “what [the discipline is] actually like.” (4-5) Actual historiographical disputes often fail to satisfy the rigorous requirements for competing explanations (192). “Historians do not realize that their opponents explain a different topic and use different comparison situations” (194). With so much that we don’t understand about what we are doing, how fortunate for us that we have philosophers to make it all clear!

Heh. I love that last sentence. (Yes, you are supposed to laugh at it … )

I hope you remembered to consider this reference photography. There is considerably more of interest in this review. Recommended. [ link ]



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