Some technological worldviews

David Hockney – A Bigger Grand Canyon (Low resolution, fair use image)

In our attempt to understand our universe and our place within it, thinkers of all periods and regions have deployed models borrowed from technological frameworks.  In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad of ancient India, Yajnavalkya successively describes the human spirit as the sun, the moon, the light of a fire and the light within the soul, starting with the concrete entity and then progressing in the direction of abstraction through metaphor.  The seventh century Indian Vedānta philosopher Śankara elaborated on this by explaining that, like light, consciousness illuminates both itself (as self-consciousness) and the non-conscious objects within its ambit.  In ancient China, the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi  used the analogy of the butcher Ding cutting meat for how we should engage with reality in a state of flow and attain the Daoist Way.

In recent times, the latest technologies have continued to inform out understanding of the human mind and its relation to reality.  As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book ‘Homo Deus’ –

“In the nineteenth century, scientists described brains and minds as if they were steam engines.  Why steam engines?  Because that was the leading technology of the day … Such thinking had a deep influence even on Freudian psychology, which is why much of our psychological jargon is still replete with concepts borrowed from mechanical engineering … we often complain about the pressure building up inside of us, and we fear that unless we ‘let off some steam’, we might explode.”

Harari goes on to explain –

“Today we know of a far more sophisticated technology – the computer – so we explain the human psyche as if it were a computer processing data rather than a steam engine regulating pressure.  But this new analogy may turn out to be just as naïve.”

Indeed, contemporary psychologist Donald Hoffman has used the metaphor of the desktop interface to describe our perception of reality.   According to Hoffman, evolution has shaped us with perceptions that maximise survivability rather than truth.  Further, neural network models that can be used by machine learning processes are taken to be an accurate description of salient features of human thought processes.  And some entrepreneurs even hope to create a brain-computer interface so that human consciousness can merge with Artificial Intelligence.

In his short work Ᾱlambana-Parīkṣā (“investigation into the basis [of our perceptions]”), the sixth century Indian Buddhist logician and epistemologist Dignāga asks why we should assume that the causes of our conceptual perceptions should be anything like the conceptual forms that appear within our perception.  Dignāga’s own view is that the reality we perceive in itself, independent of our concepts about it, is completely unknowable.  In that Dignāga distinguishes between our conceptual models of reality on one hand, and reality in itself on the other, this constitutes a proto-scientific approach.  At the same time, however, Dignāga’s view is a radically pessimistic one as compared to the epistemic optimism of modern science.  Whereas scientists attempt to understand reality in itself by defining new and unfamiliar concepts, Dignāga believes that any kind of human conceptualisation can only falsify reality, and thus reality in itself is ineffable, unknowable and mysterious.

Although Dignāga denied any conceptual component to reality in this way, he stopped short of denying that we do in fact have some perception of reality itself.  Dignāga addressed his works to a variety of Buddhist thinkers who held a range of different views on what was and was not metaphysically real.  Four major Buddhist positions flourished in India during this period, known as sarvāstivāda, sautrāntika, yogācara and mādhyamaka, differing in part as to the range and reach they ascribed to the process of conceptualisation.  These four positions were influential in shaping the course of Buddhism across Asia.  For the mādhyamaka thinkers, who particularly influenced the development of Buddhism in Tibet, the very notion that there may be reality in itself underlying our perceptions is itself part of the illusion created by conceptualisation.

Addressing these schools, then, Dignāga allowed that the raw act of perception in itself may be non-conceptual (nirvikalpa) and devoid of the human conceptualisations that falsify reality.  The problem would then be that, following on immediately from perceiving, our human psychology instinctively starts up the process of conceptualising our perceptions to form conceptualised (savikalpa) perceptions.  For some Buddhist thinkers, if we can unlearn this instinctive process of conceptualisation, we can undo the falsification of reality and stop at just perceiving reality.

David Hockney is an artist who has engaged deeply with the question of how we actually see the world around us.  For Hockney, the activity of making pictures, depicting the world, is a crucial means for training our way of seeing.  Throughout most of his career, Hockney has focused on a fundamental challenge to an artist or anyone who is interested in making pictures, which is the question of how to represent the world we see on a flat two-dimensional surface.  Hockney expresses this problem as follows –

“How do you as an artist represent the world of three and four dimensions, feeling and emotion, on a two-dimensional surface?”

For Hockney, photography provides one particular answer to this challenge, but an answer which is in a crucial respect unsatisfactory.   As Hockney explains –

“Most people feel that the world looks like the photograph.  I’ve always assumed that the photograph is nearly right, but that little bit by which it misses makes it miss by a mile.  This is what I grope at.”

Specifically, for Hockney, photography uses optical projection with a single fixed vanishing point, thus freezing one particular view at one particular point in time, whereas our perception is something that takes time to take in a scene, and involves moving our eyes, constantly changing the angle and perspective from which we are taking in the scene.  More humorously, then, Hockney has written about photography –

“It’s all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops—for a split second.”

In general terms, this problematic about how to depict reality can be seen as an example of a more general conundrum about how we represent the world that we see around us, in physical form, or in our thoughts and imaginations.  That is, our first-person perspective on reality is something that is essentially informed by the fact that we are embedded in a world of space and time, feeling and emotion.  Indeed, contemporary psychology has emphasised the crucial role of the imagination in perception, and that we cannot know something that we have not previously imagined. 

Humans are embodied creatures, embedded in space and time in ways that are not fully transparent and we are creatures of feeling and emotion.  Our way of being intelligent creatures reflects this.  In contemporary times, as we contemplate the significance of developments in Artificial Intelligence, and as some entrepreneurs even work on interfacing the brain with AI, it is important to strive for conceptual clarity about the fundamental features of the human condition. 

Perhaps engaging with pictures and depictions can help us move forward from overly technological models and frameworks towards perspectives that reflect what is distinctive about the human condition. As Hockney explains –

“I think in the end, it’s pictures that make us see things.  We need pictures; we need them in our imaginations, but first you have to have something down on a surface.  Pictures have been helping us see for at least 30,000 years.”

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