Sunday, 2 October 2011

Art, visual perception and ontology

Talk to be given at:
The Shalem Center, Jerusalem
December 11-15, 2011

"Do the operations of the human mind have something to teach us about the fundamental structure of reality?" I propose the answer to this question is 'yes' because, in short, the operations of the human mind are identical with the fundamental structure of reality. There are many ways this argument could be made: from quantum physics, from philosophy, or from religion. In this paper I will make a number of specific points using evidence from art and neuroscience. The main claims are:

1. The mind and reality cannot be separated. Those interested in the nature of the conscious mind often ask how it is that physical processes can give rise to conscious mental experience. Others ask how it is that the mind and reality are related. Both these questions presume a fundamental separation between the mental and the physical, mind and world. If the mind and world are separate then there must be some boundary between them. Yet it is by no means clear where this boundary would be. Any clear line of separation is, at best, arbitrary and contingent. The lack of any determinate boundary between mind and world, I will argue, renders them inseparable and effectively identical.

2. The mind brings reality into being for the perceiver. Numerous proposals have been made as to the nature and function of the conscious mind. For some, the function of the mind (instantiated in the brain) is to give us useful knowledge about the external world and our own situation within it. This again assumes a distinction between an internally operating mental process (in the head) and an external reality (in the body and world). I will propose that one the main functions of the mind (whether located in the head or not) is to bring the world into being. In other words, rather than representing what is determinately 'out there', in some mind independent external realm, our perceptual awareness actively generates what we experience of reality in accordance with the needs of our biological makeup.

3. The primary function of the mind is to create distinctions. Human perception is an enormously complex system that does many things, and much of what it does is still poorly understood. Yet I want to argue here that one of its primary functions is actually rather simple: to register distinctions in perceptual data. The data arriving at our senses is both richly patterned and inherently unpredictable, and our perceptual systems must very rapidly parse it into meaningful information. This process, which occurs seemingly instantaneously and effortlessly, actually involves a huge range of neurobiological processes. The most basic of these, however, is the imposition of boundaries or distinctions on an otherwise continuous stream of data. In fact, the sensory system operates almost entirely by detecting not 'things' in the world but differences. From this we build up an impression of a world that is divided into discrete 'things' rather than a continuous whole. The fundamental role of the perceptual system in imposing distinctions on the world is something that James, Bergson, and Spencer-Brown, among others, have pointed out.

4. Reality is fundamentally indeterminate prior to perception. An ancient philosophical problem concerns the nature of the reality existing outside or beyond the scope of our perceptions. Philosophers have often posited an external reality that lies behind our sensory impressions of the world, full of the material objects upon which our sensory impressions are based. While many have acknowledged that our senses do not necessarily give us 'true' knowledge of the world we perceive, as they are vulnerable to error and illusion, this results from the imperfections of our sensory apparatus rather than any ontological uncertainty about how the world is constructed. Opposing this view, I will argue that we do not perceive a fixed, determinate reality about which we make imperfect judgements, but rather we perceive a world that is profoundly indeterminate in its constitution. To speak of a world 'in itself' as having inherent properties or qualities, which are fixed attributes of the objects we assign them too, is nonsensical when we understand the way the perceptual system operates.

I will support these claims by showing examples from art history, my own work as an artist, and some scientific experiments in which I have collaborated with neuroscientists and psychophysicists to study the perceptual response to art works. My contention is that one of the most important questions now facing us is to understand how it is that our mental apparatus, which is after all part of the world, is able to create determinate states from an inherently indeterminate reality. I will conclude that it is necessary to develop a new cross-disciplinary approach to investigating such questions that draws on insights from art, philosophy and science.