The Will to Believe

A few years back I went to a lecture intended for professors and graduate students in philosophy. It was open to the public, even minimally publicized, but the second I entered the classroom I realized no other ‘outsiders’ had attended. The lecture turned out to be very technical, chock full of scholarly jargon. But after whispering a few questions to my in-house philosopher (“What’s he talking about? Pascal’s Wager?”) I realized that the thesis could be understood by considering a few statements:

1.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know is not true.

On the surface, this seems fair enough. Boring actually. Yet when you think about it, you realize there are very few instances when you know something is not true. The statement reveals how often we must act without certain or even strong knowledge.

Everything turns on what it means to know something is not true, which is sticky. People seem to be perfectly capable of believing in all sorts of nonsense. Even when challenged with irrefutable evidence, nonsense-believers stick to their guns. The lecturer clarified by saying that all psychological rationalizations and self-deceptions must be excluded (he said this in a rather sticky way, the finer points of which I’m probably missing.) In other words, you can believe in all sorts of crazy things, as is evidenced everywhere, but you can’t say to yourself, “I’m gonna believe in this untrue thing!”

2.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you don’t know to be true.

A slightly different statement, but an entirely different meaning. The lecturer did not make this statement. I only bring it up to clarify the next one:

3.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true.

Now it’s clear we’re dealing with the religious sphere, and the hidden premises that the existence of God, the afterlife, etc., cannot be known. I happen to agree that these cannot be known, but the lecturer concluded that we can’t will ourselves to believe in these cases. I’m not sure. The question that remained for me (and which I was too shy to bring up in the Q&A session) is this:

Can you will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true if believing will make you happy? 

In other words, suppose you believe there is no evidence either way for the existence of God, you are Pascal’s intended audience (as I interpret him)—i.e., really and truly agnostic in heart and mind—can you then will yourself to believe for the sake of your well being? Because you want to?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but it occurred to me that the answer could affect practical scenarios, not just these theological questions. In our personal lives we often have to make decisions based on very little evidence, but we can do some research and make a choice based on probability. But what if we found ourselves in a state of what I’d call “epistemic neutrality” about the issue? Suppose the answer is not something just around the corner, but is in theory answerable. Time limits our query, rendering it somewhat analogous to the question of God’s existence. In other words, we know we can’t know the correct position or action to take, the answer is not likely to come in our lifetime, but we still have to make a choice now-ish. In these cases, suppose one live option will make you happy, the other will not. There is no harm that can come from choosing the “happy” option, and you’ll never know if you’re right or wrong. Can we then will ourselves to believe?


Belief in a bottle! Problem solved.

Is it possible to will yourself to believe? What do you think?

June Gloom in California

I’m in Pebble Beach looking out over the Pacific—peaceful & conciliatory—and I don’t have much to complain about, especially when I think of the triple digit temps back home in Tucson. I don’t mind that I’m in the June gloom, as natives call it. I love the moodiness, the East Coast-ness. IMG_2344.JPGIt’s cold and damp, but people seem convinced that they can catch a tan just because it’s June and it’s California and they ought to be able to sprawl out on a sandy beach in bikinis. I wear pretty much every article of clothing I packed and shake my head with amused incredulity at those kids. They’re all young and hopeful, you see. The sun will come out in a minute.

Here’s the real June Gloom: Another mass shooting. Another round of talking heads discussing gun control and what could’ve been done to prevent this. Another round of nothing getting done. Granted, this time things are different given the nature of the shooting, the number of casualties, and the dreadful message which can’t be ignored. But do I have hope that something will change this time? IMG_2394.JPG

And to top it all off, Bernie loses quite clearly in CA. It’s over for him and all the young hopefuls. I guess I’m a young hopeful myself, having voted for him, although I’m a bit hesitant to flatter myself with that title (the “young” part). In truth, I wanted to see someone really try. I didn’t have hope that Bernie would change much, there’s simply too much in his way. I never expected a revolution, nor did I want one. So what did I want? I have to wonder—given my usual pessimism, a default position for me—did I want nothing more than a spectacle? Did I like him because he’s unique?

On the other hand, I believe in a lot of what Bernie stands for even though I don’t personally have much to gain by his proposed policies. I think his reasoning is sound. I didn’t at first. I think I said, out loud, “Free college? Is he nuts? Why is college suddenly a right?” Then Bernie went on to explain that college now is equivalent to what high school used to be. I’d always argued that college should not be necessary to get a decent job, and that it should not be dumbed down just to include those who don’t really care about anything but the piece of paper. Bernie, on the other hand, is coming at this problem from the other angle. Think of college as high school and everything changes. The solution then would be to make college free, to assume that is now the gold standard of what it means to be a moderately educated citizen. Hm. It works. He changed my mind. He changed my mind! Who does that?

Not to mention healthcare reform which we desperately need, an issue that’s extremely important and affects everyone. Too much to talk about there, certainly more than I can do in a blog post.

The point is, none of what he stood for sounded possible, but it felt good to vote for those ideas rather than some personality. To vote in a straightforward and simple way for what I think is right. Finally liberals get to stand on high moral ground, which is where many are in their hearts. Pragmatism is always the cleverest platform, the indisputable one, but it’s not to the point. When Bernie played nice with Hilary and let the email thing go, we saw someone who had greater schemes in mind, someone with much bigger fish to fry. Someone standing on higher ground. I think this is where Bernie’s strength comes from. Came from.

In fact, I don’t even like Bernie as a personality. He repeats himself to the point of inviting impromptu drinking games or throwing things at the screen, depending on your preference. A guy his age doing what he’s doing must be terribly neurotic. He’d be a ball buster at a dinner party. But so what? I don’t want to be friends with him. I agree with him. His ideas stand alone, on their own merit. And no thanks to the media, but that’s a rant for another day.

Did I feel the Bern on an emotional level? Probably in part. I did harbor a fantasy of watching Bernie verbally push Trump on his duff, rendering him momentarily speechless.

Hilary can do the same. I have to admit she’s a superb debater. But I don’t feel inspired by her, I don’t feel I’m voting for ideas. Her campaign ads feel like Bernie rip-offs. Her debates with Bernie felt like, “Oh what he said. I’ll do that too, but less. Since we all know none of these things will ever happen.” I could put all that aside. Once again, I don’t need to like her. But I feel I’m getting Obama II—the pragmatist. (Except his pragmatism felt real, like he genuinely wanted to heal the wounds of history, did it not?) And her recent victory feels a bit like a canned TV sitcom applause. She’s a woman, yes, fine. Obama’s black. Progress or a milestone? I’d say the latter. Progress comes from ideas, not from skin color or gender. Those external traits can be manufactured, as is evidenced by the Republican party’s endeavors in the past.

That said, unless something extraordinary happens, I’m voting for her. Obama II, fine. I guess. She has experience, she’s very competent and intelligent. She’ll push for women’s rights, but I hope she won’t do it at the expense of more important matters, just to hit that milestone and go down in history. She’ll get things done…and so will the Pacific as it carves out new niches in the shore, small spaces in which to find shelter from the wind. And really this kind of progress is all I could have hoped for with either candidate. There’s only so much one can do in these circumstances.

To end on a positive note, a la the evening news, here’s a dog on the beach trying to sail away with his ears:


Geordie inhales sand and then licks it off.


“Daddy, I’d totally join you if Mean Old Mommy would let me off-leash.”



Note the sudden change of weather from the two photos above, which were taken just moments before this one…happy days are here again.

Going Plotless

In my last post I described the rule-breaking writing exercises I’m working on with my writing group. I promised to post an example:

Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with multiple trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?


Trisha ran.

A mourning dove flew about, ready to lay some eggs, searching. For what? She’d know it when she saw it.

A roadrunner hopped up to the edge of a patio covered in glossy Saltillo tile, recently sealed. It watched the large docile creature sitting at a white bistro table, a man eating a turkey sandwich. The roadrunner didn’t know the turkey was turkey, but that didn’t matter. It wondered in that indistinct animal way whether the tile would be slippery, whether it was trustworthy. The roadrunner made its move.

A woman gazed out her front window over her kitchen sink. She always happened to be doing the dishes. Trisha appeared to her as a flash of sunny blonde hair moving in that smooth manner of golf carts, the ones that seem to glide over the hills, turning without needing to slow, almost liquidly. The girl didn’t have things in her ears, those gadgets they usually have. Good for her. Live a little. The woman went to the pantry and used a wooden spoon to knock down a box of low sodium wheat thins from a high shelf. It fell onto the counter and she dove out of its trajectory. It landed on its side and spun a bit, but stopped at the edge of the counter. A few crackers fell to the floor, and her Yorkie looked up at her with a question in his eyes. Was she wearing a bra? The woman looked down at her own very liberated chest. The Yorkie, being a Yorkie, acted like he wasn’t all that interested, but he circled around, his little paws tap-tapping coyly, always coming back.

The roadrunner hopped up, landing on the hard solid foot of the large docile creature who appeared to be taking in some form of nourishment.

The man did not move a muscle. He tried to stop breathing. He couldn’t believe his luck. What a story this would make, a roadrunner landing on his shoe, begging for food.

“Go on, Yogi. You can eat it,” the woman squealed, pointing at a nearby cracker, snapping her fingers. “C’mon.” Live a little. She didn’t want to bend over to pick up the crackers. Her back hurt.

The roadrunner hopped back down, forgetting its previous concern about the tile. It was only a little harder to walk on the tile.

The Yorkie sniffed at the perfect squares which were somehow not broken from the impact of the fall.

Trisha turned the corner. Easy enough given the perfect curve of the sidewalk, one which widened at turns. This curved bit of sidewalk had been inspected recently for tripping hazards (anything over 1/4”), along with the rest of the street.

The Yorkie’s nostrils flared. Millions and trillions of bits of information flew into a black tunnel that opened into a wet cave. Things we don’t know.

In any case, the sidewalk wasn’t the problem. A palo verde stuck its green claw out into Trisha’s path. It reached for her as if animated by her arrival, but really it dipped in the gust of wind which had just picked up violently for a second. The green claw had smaller green claws, all of which were armed with needles. All this claw-ness would later be masked by thousands or millions or some other high number of flowers, cartoon shapes of crayon yellow. But it wasn’t that time of year. Now the palo verde looked like a massive pile of homogeneously green sticks randomly stacked on top of a wandering trunk. The trunk the same blah-green as the sticks, except for a few brown marks where it’d been scorched.

The microburst of wind and the bob of this palo verde branch sent some number of insects into the uniform blue sky. It was the kind of dusty day that obscured distant mountains.

In a swimming pool in a Santa Fe style house way out on the east side—granite counter! stainless appliances heated pool travertine thru out. Gorgeous Mtn.views a Must See!—a lizard clung to a vertical island, a bit of mineral deposit which had collected on the edge of the pool. Its “fingers” worked best on natural things, not so well on slippery tile, and the lizard just happened to be lucky enough to drop over on a spot where the minerals had deposited themselves over the tile. The lizard eyed the water each time the wind kicked up a slight wave. If it weren’t for the occasional eye movement, this lizard would look exactly like the lizard a few blocks down that had gotten itself stuck in-between a window pane and a screen. A perfect specimen of natural taxidermy, fried in the sun, still clinging to the screen, immortalized forever like a pressed flower. That lizard was about the same size as this one, about the size of two quarters placed side-by-side. A cute little guy. It was that time of year for lizards to be out and about, and for them to be about this size. This lizard clinging to the mineral deposit, it flattened itself into a slit of shade from the overhanging concrete edge of the pool. The overhang saved it from frying in the sun. It also prevented it from escaping. Not in any real way, but in a lizard-brained way. In the same way that the window-fried lizard could’ve theoretically gotten free if it had known how to go out the way it came in.

The man smiled and called out, “Here roadrunner,” tossing out a piece of bread. What a story.

The roadrunner hopped back, dodging an object. It stopped at a safe distance and reconsidered.

The palo verde moved very slowly toward the things that gave it life. What gave this particular palo verde tree life, or more of it, temporarily, was the growth of this branch in this direction.

The HOA had not counted this branch as a maintenance issue since it didn’t obstruct the path.

One hot current of air wanted to go one way, a cooler current wanted to go another way, and there was a sort of atmospheric traffic jam. The palo verde branch got jostled down, out of harm’s way. It bent, but didn’t break.

The pool lizard clung on.

The other lizard clung too.

The endless blue sky so uniform it might as well have been a paint color sample stayed right where it was.

The man threw another piece of bread, bigger this time.

The pool lizard tried to escape, but rediscovered the problem of the overhang. Now it faced the other direction, away from the water.

The roadrunner looked at the bread. It wanted the turkey, not the bread.

The man threw another piece of bread, further away this time.

The roadrunner walk-hopped away.

The man called out to it, but the roadrunner disappeared into a wash, behind some treacherously thorny stuff which the man didn’t feel like getting into.

The mourning dove picked up a stick, flew it to some high-traffic location which she’d picked out for her nest, tried to fit the stick into her nest and noted several big animated creatures moving in the proximity of her real estate. She dropped the stick onto the ground. She stood on the edge of her new digs—the lid of a box filled with garden tools, tools that needed to be used on a regular basis now, since it was that time of year—and looked at nothing for a while with her thoughtless black eyes. The big creatures backed away. She didn’t look at the stick she’d just dropped. She didn’t look at all the other sticks she’d dropped, the ones right there. She flew off in search of a new stick.

Trisha ducked.

The roadrunner came back to the man. The man finally gave him what he wanted, a bit of turkey. The roadrunner gobbled this down and waited for more, which came forthwith. The roadrunner ate as much as he could, then waited for a big one, a nice fat slice. He snapped it up in his lethal beak and ran off with it to find his mate, who waited for him behind some prickly pear. He showed it to her.

The man with the sandwich chased the roadrunner down into the wash to see where it was going with the turkey. He saw the female roadrunner and this confirmed what he’d heard about roadrunner mating rituals. My discarded turkey is like a giant diamond ring. Turkey bling. He couldn’t wait to tell his friends how he helped a fellow male get laid. The female seemed ready to submit, but at the last second she ran away with the Albertson’s deli meat dangling from her beak.

The palo verde got a few of Trisha’s golden hairs, but she got one of its claws, one of the dead ones, one which had dried out and for that reason snapped off easily. She swiped it off her head without missing a step. The stick flew onto some blah beige landscaping rocks and rested there, virtually hidden.

The man with the sandwich tripped and landed in the prickly pear. In his palms there no longer resided a turkey sandwich, but instead a story, one he would not share.

The mourning dove picked up a new stick. This was a perfectly good stick. It caught her eye because shiny things were attached to it. She flew her treasure to her new home. A big featherless biped stood near her space. She didn’t notice until she’d nearly reached her abode, at which point startled, dropped her golden stick, fluttered into a nearby mesquite. Another nest grew under her box, a better nest than her own, but she didn’t know. She flew away, searching for a new stick.

“Get into the fucking car.”

Trisha ran faster. She knew she couldn’t out run a car, but she ran anyways.

A wave of pool water splashed the lizard and cooled its scaly back, but it did not take this as a boon. It twirled frantically, its tail whipping. Then a basket scooped it up. It’s little legs flailed randomly until it fell over the the edge of the basket and into the cool blue.

The Yorkie brought his delicate pink tongue down to a square. The square lifted, stuck to his wet tongue, then dropped. “Yes, you can eat it. Go on.” He looked up with a question in his eyes.


Yogi took the square into his teeth, carefully, so as not to lose a crumb, and absconded with it to his hiding space between the ottoman and the couch.

I never meant to write this much, but I found myself needing a lot of space to include multiple POVs. Another woman in the writing group managed to complete this exercise in less than one page. She used a sort of free-association to tell her tale, but instead of creating a thematic unity the way I’ve done here, she literally linked the story together by referencing the last sentence. I’d never seen that done before. It worked well in a strange way.

Have you ever gone plotless? Was it on purpose? What did you learn? 

Rule-Breaking Writing Exercises

I’m in a writing group that’s been going on for years now. Normally we follow a certain schedule (if you’re interested in how our Garden Group operates, see this), but recently I’ve decided to shake things up a bit. I asked everyone in the group to tell me a rule he or she generally abides by. I explained it doesn’t have to be a rule in a prescriptive sense—I didn’t want this to be something the writer felt must be written in stone, especially since most of us know those rules are rare—but, I said, it can be. Each writer gave the following:

  1. Write from one POV at a time. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Give authenticity of space, sense of place.
  3. Be sure to have a tight plot and believable, likable characters. Write something that can be read on an airplane while at the same time giving a deeper commentary. Shoot for realism…in other words, no idealized characters.
  4. Use all the senses.
  5. Nail the voice first, then worry about the plot.

(The last one was mine.)

Then I proposed that we continue to do our regular novel submissions and critiques, but with these we’ll submit very short rule-breaking exercises based on the above. The point of the exercises is not to write something publishable, but to see what can be learned from rule-breaking and from each other. For example, I feel pretty confident about rule 4, but 5 and 8 (mine) will be really hard.

Here’s the agenda (the third author’s rules had to be broken down into several exercises):

  1. Write in omniscient. Tell, don’t show. (Of course, you must show to some degree, but do a great deal of telling.)
  2. Write in whatever POV or tense you like, but give NO sense of place. You can give other sensory details, or not. Try to think of what would justify doing this.
  3. Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?
  4. Write an evil protagonist. A veritable villain with no redeeming qualities, not even a sad, broken childhood to explain our villain’s character. Pure. Evil.
  5. Write a beach read. Don’t be deep, no greater commentary, nothing intellectual. Imagine you’re writing the next best seller and your agent tells you not to go anywhere near literary. You’re gonna make a ton of money. Movie deals. You might hate yourself a little…or not? Can this work?
  6. Write something with a big point, without any aim to please a general audience. It can be scholarly or not. The tone is up to you.
  7. Don’t use senses in an evocative way. You can let the reader know the story’s taking place in a grocery store, but you have to leave it at that. We’re not looking at the flowers in the grocery store, not seeing the color of someone’s shirt, not hearing the cash register…unless these are crucial for the plot.
  8. Write a tight plot (keep it simple, maybe even cliché, since this is only a quick exercise) and the voice should be not only secondary, but utterly bland. Since “voicelessness” is impossible, think of someone who’s conventional, not someone who bores you to death (since this would actually count as a strong voice).

So far we’ve gone through the first three rule-breaking exercises, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Omniscient + Tell, Don’t Show.

Telling worked best when the telling had either a strong narrative voice and/or told of very specific and interesting details. In longer works, telling is often used to move the story forward without having to read about people opening car doors and doing boring things to get from point a to b. Here, telling served a different purpose, yet it turned out not to be a big problem.

Omniscience, however, creates distance, which was problematic in a short writing exercise. There simply wasn’t room to dip into the inner thoughts of multiple characters without “head hopping.” The way to avoid head hopping is to either avoid dipping into a close third person, or use that close third person to purposefully create a sense of chaos. Controlled chaos. The voices of the characters must be distinct both from each other and from the narrative omniscient voice. I felt we all came close to pulling this off, but we all needed minor tweaks to clarify.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

No sense of place/No authenticity of space

This exercise seemed to be the most difficult so far, at least for me. I tried to use the setting as a minor point of tension, a little question in the reader’s mind: “Where is this person? What is she doing?” I tried to avoid describing the room, sticking closely to my character’s thoughts. I wrote from the POV of a woman involved in the Milgram experiment (banality of evil, compliance to authority.)  Unfortunately, everyone guessed this was the Milgram experiment and they imagined the location/setting without my having to describe it. I imagine if I’d chosen to write something more original, I might’ve gotten away with it. But hey, plots are hard to come by. For an exercise, I figured it’d be all right to steal.

Others chose to establish a setting, then alter it in a way that wasn’t expected. They ended up writing surrealistically, and that led to an unreliable narrator. The two combined can work, but only for short bursts. Surrealism is difficult to pull off, and I find it much easier to take when I know I can trust the character generally, and I know that what I’m reading is an altered state.

Since these exercises were “short bursts,” the writing turned out to be interesting and, in my opinion, new territory for these writers.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

Don’t write a tight plot.

The joke was inevitable: “I do this all the time! This exercise will be easy.” Doing this successfully is a different matter.

What came out of this was interesting. I ended up doing something very similar to another writer—I kept a thematic consistency to make up for the lack of plot. You get the outlines of what could happen with all the dangling threads based on consistent mood and theme.

One writer commented that the imagery seemed richer than our usual writing.

Another writer noted that the reader fills in the gaps, that the lack of plot encourages a more active participation on the part of the reader to make sense of the story.

I ended up writing something slightly out-of-the-box for me. I tend to write about the mundane, and I did it here too, but this time I played around with POV in a way I hadn’t before.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

The common denominator: Dark stuff. We haven’t figured out why. My hypothesis is that, in a writing exercise, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This gives us license to go there.

Another thing I noticed is that many of us wrote way more than a few paragraphs. Some even submitted the exercise as a short story.

What are your writing rules/tendencies? Have you ever tried to break them?

If you feel so moved, feel free to share your rule-breaking exercise in the comments. You can break your own rule or use one of the above as a prompt. (I’ll share one of mine in the next post.)

Eidos and AI: What is a Thingamajig?

To understand this post, you might have to read part I and part II on phenomenology and artificial intelligence.

The question I’m asking is not: Can computers think? Or: Can AI have consciousness? But: Can meaning “run ahead” for AI the way it does for us? Can we program intentionality, the “about-ness” or “directed-ness” toward things, as well as the horizon that makes things/objects possible? And, most of all, does it matter what processes are involved in arriving at the correct response or behavior?

For the last question, I don’t know. I see efficiency in the way we experience, but a specific kind of efficiency. Our efficiency is not in grasping everything equally and honing in on the correct answer or response. When we make mistakes, it’s often not just computational error. Error sometimes comes from grasping meaning and relevance in context, grasping it in a plausible and maybe reasonable way, but not necessarily in the technically or scientifically-correct way. Can a lookup device be designed to act as we do (in a timely manner)?

I’m starting to break free from the well-known philosophers here. If you hope to learn about phenomenology as it appears in the history of thought, in a technically precise way, you might not want to read this. I’d recommend my other post on Husserl as a starting point (which has been checked by the in-house philosopher).

Things might get messy, but hopefully not messy in a pedantic, overly-hyphenated-German-philosophy way.

Also, I’d promised some of you I’d bring up things in this post that I’m not actually going to bring up now. I realized I’d crammed too much into one post and this is not the platform for long discourses. Speaking of brevity…

The Ashtray Example


What do you see above?

This isn’t a trick question. It’s an ashtray. Or you might say it’s a representation of an ashtray, being an image on a blog post. In any case, let’s pretend it’s a physical ashtray sitting before you, one in which you can put out a cigarette if you so desire.

The act of calling an ashtray an ashtray may not seem particularly amazing, but consider this: the ashtray has an infinite number of perspectives. You are looking at it right now from one perspective, and you will never in fact see with your eyes or feel with your fingers the entire ashtray in all of its possible states. (We won’t talk about the smells or tastes…) You could spin the thing around and around all your life, but hopefully you won’t—in this case one glance gives you all you need: ashtray. More importantly, one unified object.

First of all, let me make clear that we are not talking about a priori ideas in the usual way. There is no ashtray-form sitting in your mind and some ashtray-ish-stuff ‘out there’ pushing the impression buttons of your senses, which then get interpreted by the mind. We’re still doing phenomenology and we’re still confining ourselves to experience as it’s experienced. There’s no mind vs. objective mind-independent stuff in our investigation. There’s only experience.

Plus, we needn’t compare various ashtrays and wonder how it is that from this multitude of ashtrays, each one of which is not exactly identical to any other, we are able to label them all the same: ashtray. We’re not looking at what every single possible ashtray has in common. We’re not talking about ashtray-ness. We’re talking about one particular ashtray. This ashtray. (Okay, strictly speaking, the hypothetical physical one before you.) How is it that this ashtray, despite it’s infinity of perspectives, is perceived as one unified self-same object?

Take another example, an object you’ve never seen before. Let’s imagine it’s a solid plastic wad. You have no idea what its function is, but you still experience that nameless plastic as a unified object.

You could argue that we err in leaping to this unity, that we shouldn’t say we actually experience a unified object, but instead particular moments of the ashtray. When we see a particular moment of a particular ashtray in a particular way, we theorize about the rest of the ashtray. The unity of the ashtray is nothing but leaping to conclusions, a story we tell ourselves to get by, a quick synthesis, perhaps subconscious. We impose unity. Since the unity itself is never something we actually see (with our eyes), it’s “just” a theory. Like gravity. Like causality. Like necessity. Completely invisible and possibly not really there. We had a sense impression yesterday that the sun rose, and the same impression the day before that, but who’s to say the sun will rise tomorrow? (If you start having apocalyptic nightmares, you can blame David Hume). In other words, there is no visible or perceivable necessary connection between events/impressions. We see event A, then event B. That’s it. Like constellations in the night sky, it’s we who connect the dots and make up stories about them.

Kant comes in here to say something like: “Wait. The sun’s rising is not just a theory! Necessity, causality, synthesis of the manifold of experience, etc. are indeed ‘in our heads,’ but they cannot be taken off like a pair of sunglasses. We couldn’t experience anything at all without these a priori conditions.”

I’d argue that neither have hit upon experience as it’s experienced. Hume errs in supposing that experience is equal to or derived from sense perception. Kant errs in making this same presupposition, but he adds that knowledge is derived from both experience (sense perception) and the a priori conditions which make experience possible. Kant nobly tried to bridge the rationalist-empiricist divide, but maybe a bridge wasn’t needed. Perhaps experience itself needed to be re-examined. It seems we’ve made ‘experience’ too narrow.

Here is where you must decide for yourself by ‘looking at’ your own experience.

The ashtray’s unity comes first in most ordinary experience, and this entails assuming properties about the object that are not strictly visible with the eyes in the moment (I use the word “assume,” but this is not meant to be taken as an active thought process or a matter of logic…it’s grasped immediately, intuited wordlessly.) The object appears to us all at once in its past and possible states, maybe only in a vague way, but it’s all there in that moment. We don’t experience these disjointed perceptions—a certain temperature + a certain color + a certain shape + a certain weight, etc.—and then add on unification, except when we theorize about experience in analysis. But in that case, when we theorize, we experience a theory, not the disjointed perceptions that we suppose we’ve experienced, at least not directly and “in the order in which they were received” (to quote telephone answering services, which may be a faulty analogy, but I couldn’t resist.)

In other words, when we theorize about experience by analyzing it, we change the experience from a naive ordinary one to a conceptual one. I repeat, this sort of theorizing is also within experience as a certain kind of experience, and therefore it’s possible to study phenomenologically too…but that’s a complex matter that I don’t want to get into. That’s advanced phenomenology, and we’re in phenomenology 101. Here we’ll stay with this: the “adding up” of sense data doesn’t quite fit the bill as an explanation of the ordinary, original experience.

Much of what we experience as we experience it isn’t given as sense data. 


Husserl uses the term “eidos”—literally “seen,” but here we’ll go with: shape, form—in a way that’s similar to what I’ve called “leaping ahead” in previous posts. His term is way better than mine for technical reasons, but I thought “leaping ahead” might make more sense in earlier contexts, as a means of preparation and to avoid scary words.

So, eidos = form, like Platonic ideas. However, Husserl does not use eidos in a fully Platonic sense; he does not (and cannot) posit a world of forms separate from the world we experience, but rather, eidos is constrained by its particular manifestations. I think of Aristotle here, but I hesitate to make that comparison…so take that with a unified self-same grain of salt.

With eidos Husserl seeks to do a different kind of analysis, one which he thought would uncover the basic elements of phenomena.

The Eidetic Reduction is described in the IEP, which I’ll quote here:

The eidetic reduction involves not just describing the idiosyncratic features of how things appear to one, as might occur in introspective psychology, but focusing on the essential characteristics of the appearances and their structural relationships and correlations with one another. Husserl calls insights into essential features of kinds of things “eidetic intuitions”. Such eidetic intuitions, or intuitions into essence, are the result of a process Husserl calls ‘eidetic’ or ‘free’ variation in imagination. It involves focusing on a kind of object, such as a triangle, and systematically varying features of that object, reflecting at each step on whether the object being reflected upon remains, in spite of its altered feature(s), an instance of the kind under consideration. Each time the object does survive imaginative feature alteration that feature is revealed as inessential, while each feature the removal of which results in the object intuitively ceasing to instantiate the kind (such as addition of a fourth side to a triangle) is revealed as a necessary feature of that kind. Husserl maintained that this procedure can incrementally reveal elements of the essence of a kind of thing, the ideal case being one in which intuition of the full essence of a kind occurs. The eidetic reduction compliments the phenomenological reduction insofar as it is directed specifically at the task of analyzing essential features of conscious experience and intentionality.

In other words, in the eidetic reduction, we seek to determine whether the “actual thing” (not thing in itself, remember) qualifies as an instance of the eidos we assign it. What we seek is whether or not the particular instance meets the essential qualifications of, say, a triangle, or a building. The eidetic reduction is a process in phenomenology which is indeed descriptive, but on the more theoretical side, being analysis. So what, then, makes this sort of analysis truer to experience as it’s experienced? I don’t have the answer. The use of the term “eidos” seems fine, but then to go on and try to create a science out of it seems to be a stretch. All I can say is my inner Plato lover is completely biased in favor of such an exploration, but I’ll admit that few have taken this “science of essences” stuff seriously. Perhaps this is the particular juncture at which people turn away from Husserl. It’s not quite Plato reincarnate, but it’s close enough.


Science of Essences: why we should resurrect Husserl

It seems to me that eidetic intuition applies everywhere in ordinary experiences, including those cases in which we experience something novel. Taking this as given, we might then use analysis to find out more about essences, a science of essence for a specific purpose. We might find out general things about essences; for instance, there’s an infinite number of them, given that each particular is unified in eidetic intuition. The plastic wad is a unity by virtue of being one thingamajig, and there can be an infinite number of such thingamajigs (that’s my technical term). Then there are named unified objects that we classify either according to likeness or some other classification system. Trees, bushes, flowers, vegetables, etc. might have a different classification system than plate, chair, ashtray or 3.14, -5, 1/2 or justice, truth, God. Plus, objects that were designed for one purpose can be used for other purposes, and often are (those of you who’ve taken a sip from a beer bottle-turned-impromptu ashtray know this all too well.) The difference may not be so much in the material, but in the function. Function is an important part of the way we classify things. Other times the classification will depend on the material. There are so many ways of adjusting our lenses here to suit our purposes.

For soft AI, perhaps a “science of essences” could be applied in a particular environment in which we can predict and control the objects within that environment according to essence classification alongside image identification (which already exists to some degree.*) The assumption of eidetic intuition is not to be taken lightly in philosophy, but in AI, it seems to make sense of the problems AI research has faced by explaining that there’s this bizarre unity of the manifold in our experience. It’s a tangible problem, regardless of how it arises in the human brain or whether it arises there or whether it has something to do with self-awareness or consciousness. The mere fact of this “transcendence within immanence” might be enough to outline a strategy to be taken in replication.

A quick Google search showed me that algorithms for object identification have come a long way. The difficulty lies in speed of object recognition. I’d guessed that there must be some sort of way to eliminate unlikely possibilities, to cut corners, but apparently that process is not as good as random sampling. Weird.

Claire, the Robotic Maid

Let’s get concrete. Let’s create a maid robot and name her Claire. This way we start small: the confines of a house. We don’t have an infinite horizon—otherwise known as the entire universe—on top of an infinite number of perspectives of each individual object. That’s just too hard.

Also let’s assume either: a) we don’t need an infinite number of perspectives to have Claire identify a self-same object* or b) we can figure out how to replicate an infinite number of perspectives in a unified way, which sounds impossible, but maybe it isn’t.

And let’s assume the robot mechanisms work fine. Maybe she’ll be better than human in terms of mechanics. Now it’s a matter of getting her to see objects as we see them—to know when that plate is not being used as a plate, but as a saucer; to know that a photograph of a human is not a real human; to know that she doesn’t need to water the plastic fern; to know to stay away from the rare book collection and not smoke your stash or rat you out, etc.

If an object appears to us with all possible variances of it alongside the self-same-ness of it, we should want that for Claire…to some degree. After all, she must know that the refrigerator is dirty, not that it’s a new thingamajig that doesn’t need her attention. And she shouldn’t need to know what a refrigerator looks like after it’s been smashed to smithereens at a monster truck rally either. There must be some threshold of experience that mimics our awareness of differences in objects. Claire might have the capacity right now to know what a refrigerator is—the mere name—but she also needs to know what various components do or at least how to deal with them, what to use to clean them, that she doesn’t need to clean the Coke bottle in there, etc. Perhaps for moveable objects she needs to know their function as dictated by the environment, but for other things she doesn’t need to know much. She doesn’t need to know what an escutcheon is in order to clean it (hence our need for a class of objects called thingamajigs). If she wasted her time finding out what an escutcheon is, that would be inefficient.

*I’ve taken Husserl’s object identification—an infinite number of perspectives somehow alongside a unity of this infinity—throughout this post as true. In consulting with my own experience, I wonder if the unity we perceive, while still being a priori in a phenomenological sense, is not quite infinite, but a shadow of the infinite. In other words, perhaps this “infinity” he speaks of is theoretical and not directly experienced, and what we actually experience is openness or possibility, but not quite infinity. Maybe we experience a very larger number of possible perspectives, but at some level there’s a vanishing point. Maybe infinity as we actually experience it in our usual naive way is nothing more than: “A lot more than I wanna count.” Not infinity infinity. (And certainly not infinity times infinity.)

How would you create Claire? What stumbling blocks do you foresee? What is an escutcheon?