Re: [-empyre-] superficiality and immersion

It's a bit long, but here goes...


For those who have not had a 'Nuremberg Funnel' (university) style of education and are wondering what some people are talking about...

The monumental question is how does the brain construct the magnificent richness of our experience?
The answer to this question emerged from the insight that sensation alone is insufficient for perception.

If this is so, then what does it say about the sensory depravation of virtual reality and the tunnel vision of computer monitors? And, I say, ultimately, what effect does this have on your's and my humanity [relationships]?

Read on...


To Know and to Let Know - An Applied Theory of Knowledge.

On June 11, 1982, Heinze Von Foerster gave the Keynote Address to the 37th Annual Conference of the Canadian Library Association. This presentation was later published under the above title in the Canadian Library Journal, Volume 39, Number 5, October 1982.


... I always believed that thinking of knowledge as packagable, transmittable, marketable commodity was a recent perversion until I ran into a broadsheet printed in the late 16th century that dramatically depicts an elementary educational situation.

A young lad, apparently a student, is seated on a chair and has a funnel inserted through a hole into his head. Next to him stands a teacher with a bucket full of knowledge which he is in the process of pouring through the funnel into the student's head. A few letters, numerals and a simple equation are seen just falling from the bucket. Since this broadsheet was printed in Nuremberg, this remarkable educational device is usually referred to as the 'Nuremberg Funnel'.

From this I learned that some of the present day notions of teaching, for example, computer-aided information, can be traced back to respectable precursors, as funnel-aided instruction. ...

Let me present a perspective opposite to the view just given; it is the constructivist's position. How does one recognize a constructivist? Very easily. If you were to ask one whether something, say, a formula, a notion, an object, order, symmetry, a taxonomy, laws of nature, etc., etc., is discovered or invented, a constructivist would tend to say invented. Moreover, if hard pressed, a constructivist would even say that the world as we know it is our invention. Since whatever we invent is our responsibility the constructivist position contains the seed for an ethic.

I realize that I might not easily get away with such far out propositions. I will, therefore, muster whatever help I can get. One thing I could do is toss a variety of literature at you that ranges from child psychology to the foundations of mathematics.

Another thing I could do is give you a flavor of what constructionism is all about. Let me read a charming vignette written by Gregory Bateson. He packed a lot of epistemology into a minimal space by using the literary device of dialogues between a precocious daughter and her father. He called them 'Metalogues.' I shall give you, along with some of my comments, the one entitled 'Metalogue: what is an instinct?'

Daughter: Daddy, what is an instinct?

Let me interrupt by asking you to stop and think how you would have answered your daughter's (or son's) question. I would have proudly come up with a lexical definition: 'An instinct my dear is the innate aspect of behaviour that is unlearned, complex, etc., etc....' Since the daughter could have found this kind of answer in my dictionary, her father reframes the context of the question by ignoring the semantic significance of the word 'instinct' and shifts to its functional (even political) significance when used by one partner in a dialogue:

Father: An instinct, my dear, is an explanatory principle.

Let me pause again and invite you to reflect on the question of whether a library could accommodate the contextual switch demonstrated by the father. I consider this transition from a monological to a dialogical situation of the greatest importance, and I shall return to this later. Now let us hear what the daughter has to say to this answer.

D: But what does it explain?

F: Anything, almost anything at all. Anything you want it to explain.

Please note that something that explains almost anything at all, most likely explains nothing at all. The daughter senses this:

D: Don't be silly. It doesn't explain gravity.

F: No, but that is because nobody wants instinct to explain gravity. If they did, it would explain it. We would simply say that the moon has an instinct whose strength varies inversely as the square of the distance, and so on and so on.

D: But that's nonsense, Daddy.

F:  Yes, surely, but it was you who mentioned instinct, not I.

I shall not interrupt the dynamics of this dialogue any more but I ask you to pay attention to father's consistent reference to descriptions of observations and not the descriptions per se (e.g., '...if you say... there was a full moon...' and not: '...if there was a full moon...' etc.). Most likely, you, as librarians, would have caught this anyway. Well here we go.

D: But what does explain gravity?

F: Nothing, my dear, because gravity is an explanatory principle.

D: Oh. Do you mean that you cannot use one explanatory principle to explain another-never?

F: Hum, haw, hardly ever. That is what Newton meant when he said hypothesis non fingo.

D: And what does that mean, please?

F: Well, you know what hypotheses are. Any statement linking together two descriptive statements is an hypothesis. If you say there was a full moon on February 1, and another on March 1, and then you link these two observations together in any way, the statement which links them is an hypothesis.

D: Yes, and I know what non means, but what is fingo?

F: Well, fingo is a Latin word for 'to make'. It forms a verbal noun, fictio, from which we get the word fiction.

D: Daddy, do you mean that Sir Isaac Newton thought that all hypotheses are just made up like stories?

F: Yes, precisely that.

D: But didn't he discover gravity? With the apple?

F: No, my dear, he invented it.

The dialogue continues, but I shall stop here because I just wanted you to hear this punch line.

Constructivists would insist that not only do we invent the laws of nature, we construct our realities. Let me support this with two examples, one from neurophysiology, the other from biology that, in the context of this lecture, I intend to be only pointers for where to look. Should you be tempted to look closer, my short reading list may let you do this painlessly. [if anyone wants the pointers, send me a e-mail. DL]

In my neurophysiological example I will appeal to your high school memories. You may recall that all nerve cells, whether in the brain or distributed over the surface of the body (the sensory receptors), consist essentially of a cell body from one end of which grow branch-like ramifications (the dendrites) and from the other emerges a long, thin tube (the axon) which terminates in a small knob close to the surface of some dendrite of another (or sometimes the same) neuron. Only the moto-neurons terminate on muscle fibres. Almost all sensory receptor cells have no axons terminating on them. Neurons are electrically charged (about one-tenth of one volt) and when perturbed, say, at the dendrite, send a short electric pulse along the axon that, upon arrival at its termination, may produce one of two effects on the contingent neuron.

One is to initiate a pulse like the one that triggered it or to inhibit the effect of an arriving pulse from another axon which otherwise would have initiate a pulse. A sustained perturbation will produce a sustained train of pulses whose frequency is commensurate with the intensity of the perturbation. The figure at the left [see below] shows a recording of such a train of pulses that have been measured with an extraordinary small electrical probe placed in the vicinity of the axon of a touch receptor.

Instead of mechanically recording this electrical activity one can connect it to a loud speaker and listen to the 'language of the neurons:' As you may have all ready guessed, what one hears is just a sequence of pips that follow each other, either slowly 'pip-pip-pip...' or quickly 'pippippippippip_ .' depending on the intensity of the perturbation that caused their activity.

The important point to appreciate is that, whatever specific sensory receptors one is listening to - a heat or cold receptor, a touch receptor, light sensitive cells in the eye, the hair cells in the cochlea of the inner ear - they all report only the intensity of their stimulation with no clues whatsoever as to what physical agent caused this activity. This is the principle of undifferentiated encoding. In other words, the signals that stream from the body's surface toward the brain don't speak the language 'hot', 'cold', 'green', 'sweet,' etc.; they say only 'much here,' 'little there,' 'less here,' etc., at these and those points of my body.

The monumental question that arose is how does the brain construct the magnificent richness of our experience from these anonymous pips?

The answer to this question emerged from the insight that sensation alone is insufficient for perception. It is necessary to correlate changes of sensation with one's own motor activity; that is, with one's own control movements, turns of one's eyes or head, changes of one's position, etc. As one of my friends, an eminent neurophysiologist, is fond of saying: 'We see with our legs' or, as another one put it 'Behaviour: the control of perception'

Perhaps a certain circularity in this explanation can already be seen, namely, the need of movements for perception, and, of course, the need of perception for the control of movements. Indeed, it is this sensory-motor loop, its mathematical representation, and the emerging dynamic equilibria that have lately been given considerable attention.

It is these sensory-motor equilibria or, perhaps more to the point, it is these sensory-motor competences that ultimately can be associated with an organism's knowing. I mention this because I wish all of us to see how far we are from an epistemology that considers knowledge a commodity. ...


There is a graph that goes with this text that demonstrates ...

Electrical impulses activity measured with a microprobe on an axon of a sensor neuron under different pressures. High frequency corresponds to high pressure. The electrical activity of a receptor call [and of all nerve cells as well] encodes only the magnitude of the perturbations that caused its activity, and not the nature of the perturbating agent [encoded is only 'That much at this point of my body' but not 'What'].
Art History -

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future.
The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
Eric Hoffer


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