Friday, July 07, 2006

"I am a consciousness, a strange creature which resides nowhere and can be everywhere present in intention."

Ever since I started working with computers I've developed a somewhat latent, yet nevertheless recurrent interest in philosophy and psychology. I always found asking questions (and reading them) about the nature of the mind most inspiring and helpful creatively, as well as for finding and questioning my own personal way(s). For the past few weeks I've been feeling the need to satisfy my appetite once more and finally got hold again of a book which I simply had to put down after the first few pages when studying Philosophy at A-levels, some 14 years ago.

The book is "Phenomenology of Perception" by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Written in 1945, it starts with an incredibly dense cross-examination of the definitions and supposed acts of perception, the role of reflection, as seen by different schools of philosophy — before developing a radical definition of perception around the "embodied mind", by using (amongst others) studies of brain damaged survivors of WW1 (which did remind me of similar experiences reported in Oliver Sacks' books).

In any way, I'm still only near the beginning and this is not a review of the book (due to lack of qualifications), but I did already find some very inspiring quotes, which also do prove the fact the text is still timely and relevant today.

Even though the below quote is slightly taken out of context (from a much wider definition of "data"), yet I think there's some truth in there in respect to developments in information/data visualization:
"It would follow... the mind runs over isolated impressions and gradually discovers the meaning of the whole as the scientist discovers the unknown factors in virtue of the data of the problem. Now here the data of the problem are not prior to its solution, and perception is just the act which creates at a stroke, along with the cluster of data, the meaning which unites them — indeed which not only discovers the meaning which they have, but moreover sees to it that they have a meaning." (p. 42, not my emphasis)

I find that last statement certainly fitting for some of my own work and also to art in general. We can create anything and our minds will always find ways to project some meaning onto (into?) it... We construct meaning, and not "aquire" it from data directly.

Here're some more of his thoughts for your perusal:
"Pure sensation, defined as the action of stimuli on our body, is the 'last effect' of knowledge, particularly of scientific knowledge, and it is an illusion (a not unnatural one, moreover) that causes us to put it at the beginning and to believe that it precedes knowledge. It is the necessary, and necessarily misleading way in which a mind see its own history." (p.43)

"[But] in reality I would not know that I possess a true idea if my memory did not enable me to relate what is now evident with what was evident a moment ago, and, through the medium of words, correlate my evidence with that of others[...] For never, as Descartes and Pascal realized, can I at one stroke coincide with the pure thought which constitutes even a simple idea. My clear and distinct thought always uses thoughts already formulated by myself or others, and relies on my memory, that is, on the nature of my mind, or else on the memory of the community of thinkers, that is, upon the objective mind. To take for granted that we have a true idea is to believe in uncritical perception." (p.46)