Monday, September 15, 2008

Programming Human Perception

When posed with the question of whether or not thought can transpire without a body, I would be willing to bet that most people would think of the matter in technical terms. What is considered a body? Can we build a machine that “thinks”? Rather than following such a convention, Lyotard instead focuses on the philosophical aspects of the matter. Rather than simply wondering if it's physically possible to build a machine that thinks, Lyotard first seeks to describe what process goes into human thought in order to make it just that. Lyotard claims that without the human elements, any thinking machine would not actually be thinking. When describing human sensory systems and thought processes, Lyotard made human information processing distinct from animal information processing by saying:

“Most of all: it's equipped with a symbolic system that's both arbitrary (in semantics and syntax), letting it be less dependent on an immediate environment, and also 'recursive' (Hofstadter), allowing it to take into account (above and beyond raw data) the way it has of processing such data.” (12)

When I first read this sentence, I was surprised to find that I had absolutely no clue as to what it meant. My shock stems from the fact that terms like “semantics”, “syntax” and “recursive” are all ones I am familiar with using to describe computer programming. When used in relation to human perception and thought, though, I was mostly baffled as to what Lyotard was trying to get at. How do these aspects I would use to describe code differentiate humans from animals?

Rather than gallivanting off to consult Webster's dictionary, I decided to use my programming background to my advantage and draw parallels for the first part of the sentence. When referring to the semantics of a program, I am referring to the meaning behind a block of code. Semantics would describe how different parts of the code relate to one another to form the overall application. So to say that humans have a system that is arbitrary in semantics means that the overall meaning of any perceived item, be it anything from a witnessed event to spoken words, is at the discretion of the individual doing the perceiving. If an individual witnesses a car wreck, what that wreck actually means to that individual could be different from what that wreck means to another person on the same street beholding the same event. The meaning is subjective because humans give meaning to sensory data after considering their own preferences, thoughts, and feelings. Thus, meaning is not necessarily derived from the incoming data alone.

I found syntax to be a little easier to understand. In programming, syntax refers to what is actually being typed at the keyboard. So for example, the fact that a variable might be given a value in this fashion:

variable X = 100

instead of something like

100 = x.var

is all due to syntax. The syntax depends entirely upon how the programming language's creator decided to make it. For perhaps a simpler example, a “syntactical error” when programming would often times be referred to as a “typo” in most other endeavors. This concept relates rather easily back to language. The syntax of English, for example, would be that a sentence must have a noun and a verb. The rules of grammar and spelling that are drilled into elementary school students for years all comprise English's syntax. Just like semantics, however, syntax is also arbitrary in that any meaning assigned to a particular grammatical structure and choice of words depends to some degree on the person perceiving them.

For a simple example of this, consider if someone from Pittsburgh went to Dallas and tried to order “pop.” Chances are that most people in Texas would have no clue what was meant by “pop.” The meaning given to the word is dependent not upon simply the word itself but on the individual perceiving it. The same rule goes even beyond English. The word “dog” in English refers most commonly to the (typically) furry quadruped. The word “perro” in Spanish refers to the same animal. Just as two pieces of code written into two different programming languages with different syntaxes could be used to achieve the same end, different words in different languages can also mean the same thing. The environment does not naturally assign meaning to the word “dog.” Rather, the meaning is given to it by the individual hearing it.

Last, I come to recursion and, just like with programming, I struggled with it. In programming, recursion is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp. It refers to a block of code that actually executes itself repeatedly. Below is a simple recursive example:

addition (int num) {

num = num + 1;
if(num < 100)

return num;

For whatever value is stored by the variable “num”, it is added to 1. Then if that value is less than 100, the entire function calls itself again. This will repeat up until the point where num is equal to 100. Just as developing complex recursive functions for programming classes twisted my brain in knots, so did trying to figure out how the concept of recursion can apply to human thought and perception. Fortunately for me, Lyotard referenced cognitive scientist David Hofstadter.

The concept of recursion relates to Hofstadter's concept of the Strange Loop, which is a model for consciousness. He defines this as “ interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level.” (Hofstadter 709) So if the top of the loop is awareness of the present and the bottom of the loop is recollection of the past, then the present situation affects an individual's memory of the past. At the same time, the same memories of the past simultaneously affect the manner in which an individual perceives the current situation. In this manner, recursion does not tie into human consciousness quite as directly as semantics or syntactics, but rather it serves as “... a metaphor for organizing the world.” (Kilpatrick 3)

Despite my many difficulties in interpreting Lyotard's message, after doing so I have to agree that such aspects certainly do separate human thought from animal thought, at least to the best of any human knowledge. Furthermore, I can also understand why Lyotard felt the need to phrase this segment of his work in such a cryptic manner. In discerning his meaning, the reader is forced to go through the very process that Lyotard is bringing to light. While considering the segment on semantics and syntactics, I was not simply reading what was on the paper. The universe has not assigned some particular meaning to those phrases which, when accompanied by the term “arbitrary” and used in conjunction with the concept of thought, will automatically bestow understanding. Rather, I had to use both the data coming into my system (the information from the paper) along with my own thoughts and experiences to derive a meaning. Discerning the meaning of recursion required the same thing, only it takes the process one step further by forcing me to step back and actually consider the process that I used to figure out the meaning and how those processes, past and present, played off and affected one another. Indeed, the very genius of this segment is that to come to terms with Lyotard's point, the reader must demonstrate the very aspect to which he is referring.

Works Cited

Hofstadter, D. R.: 1979, Godel, escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Basic Books, New York.

Kilpatrick, Jeremy: Educational Studies in Mathematics, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Feb., 1985), pp. 1-26

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