Landscape perceptions and experiences

The aims of this blog is
1) to gather material which helps us to view 'Landscape' from many different perspectives (Science, Phenomenology, Aesthetics, Ethics etc)
2) and secondly to record 'Landscape experiences' from our workshops (Reports) and my own experiences (Diary).
For our workshops see our website

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Owen Barfield, Michael Polanyi and Marjorie Grene

The main subject is; Who does the  thinking and what does our brain do.

How I came to today's subject was reading an article by Richard A. Hocks, called The “Other” Postmodern Theorist: Owen Barfield’s Concept of the Evolution of Consciousness
wherein he compares Polanyi's thoughts and Barfield's and finds many correspondences.

As it also mentions that Owen Barfield knew Marjory Grene and Michael Polanyi and spoke highly of them I became very interested. I knew already some of her works (The Understanding of Nature, Essays in the Philosophy of Nature) and had heard about her working together with Polanyi on his book 'Personal Knowledge' which led me look in to have a look at Polanyi's book and the comments and there I found an interesting discussion although it is partly 'old hat' for me.

 'A Customer' talks very positive about the work and he received some very positive reactions, so here follows his comment. 
Where Philosophy needs to go
I have read this book numerous times over the last ten years and I think it offers the only truly hopeful path for the current impasse that exists between philosophy/religion and the numerous popularizers of contemporary science. What Polanyi shows (himself a chemist turned philosopher) is the way that in reality scientific knowledge, like all knowledge, has an ineradicably personal element to it. That is, you learn to be a scientist not by studying test tubes but by being an apprentice to someone who already is a scientist, who teaches you, disciples you, so to speak, trains you in how to know things in a scientific way. The key element is personal trust, you must trust them, have faith in what they are teaching you, believe in them and the truth, the reality of what they're teaching. This trust aspect is the 'tacit dimension' to all scientific (and every kind of human)knowing. Not only is it interpersonal at the start, all of our knowledge also includes our involvement in a community of fellow knowers (not unlike a church!). They help to validate our knowledge, they correct us, they serve to adjudicate our discoveries. Polanyi's point is that this personal knowledge is the only kind of knowing there is, even though it is not the kind routinely set forth by scientists in their own accounts of what they're doing and what they know. The force of his description is to take away the false dichotomy between supposedly objective 'factual' knowledge and purportedly subjectively impure 'beliefs.' All knowing has a faith-based foundation to it and we're all on the same ground when it comes to arguing for coherent views of the world, of what is and what's not. It's a great book, far from easy, but as important as any book of the last century. Read it!

Then there is negative reaction from 'Magellan' entitled
  Okay for its time, but...
I don't think much of personological/subjective explanations of science, such as Kuhn's and Polanyi's, but I think their views should be heard and considered nevertheless. Western writers seem to have an odd fascination with this sort of approach, for reasons that are understandable historically but that I believe are still untenable, most of which is related to the west's obsession with the individual ego and individual consciousness and with the phenomenological and existential approaches to reality that grew out of that.
While I respect Polanyi as a scientist (he was a noted physical chemist), unfortunately I think he's pretty much gone off the deep end in terms of his subjectivistic interpretation of scientific method and of the work of the scientist, which amounts to a form of neo-Kantianism.
The first problem I have with this is that by making the human mind the final arbiter of all knowledge and sense data, a systematic ghost of an illusion pervades Polanyi's, and indeed, all Kantian theories, because there is no strong connection to external reality anymore. While I would agree with Polanyi in regard to Kant's basic thesis, that the mind is actively involved in organizing the data of the senses, and that ideas about the external world could not exist unless there were corresponding mental capabilities and constucts to match, this idea, although fine for its day, really doesn't buy you much anymore in my opinion. This is for two reasons, which is the problem of illusionism which I just mentioned, and the second is the approach that has now emerged from the last 75 years of work in neurobiology and the brain sciences, of which these writers seem blissfully unaware.
Although we still have a lot to learn, the picture that has emerged so far is both fascinating and impressive. For example, there are 60 trillion cells in a human brain organized into 14,000 major and minor brain centers, and they are all networked together. Each individual neuron has between 3,000 and 100,000 connections with other neurons, producing a neural web of unbelievable complexity.
Most sensory neurons are devoted to using feature-detecting algorithms that require advanced calculus to understand, as David Marr has shown. For example, to mention just a few of his important ideas, Marr's demonstrations that retinal receptive field geometry could be derived by Fourier transformation of spatial frequency sensitivity data, that edges and contours could be detected by finding zero crossings in the light gradient by taking the Laplacian or second directional derivative, that excitatory and inhibitory receptive fields could be constructed from "DOG" functions (the difference of two Gaussians), and that the visual system used a two-dimensional convolution integral with a Gaussian prefilter as an operator for bandwidth optimation on the retinal light distribution, showed that the level of mathematical sophistication as well as just brute computational power that is being devoted to sensory information processing is beyond anything we could have imagined.
Since Marr's time, there has been further progress in this area, such as the Bela Julesz's demonstrations that the visual system can extract and compute binocular disparity cues point-by-point for depth information from abstract, non-representational pictures such as random-dot stereograms. There is also the extension of Marr's ideas about monochromatic edge detection into color edge detection, the mathematical theories of nonlinear visual field distortions present in optical illusions, and many other areas.
Finally, consciousness itself may yield to research on the brain. In the last few years, consciousness has been shown to be composed of many different separate mechanisms in the brain that are being coordinated in time in order for consciousness to occur. It isn't a single process or central program that runs in the brain, nor is there a "master" brain center that one can point to where it can be said that consciousness resides, contrary to classical philosophical models which regarded it as unitary and indivisible.
Hence, there is very little reason anymore to insist on the fundamental subjectivity of perception in the Kantian sense. It is true that there are visual illusions at the higher levels of sensory perception, but those are now regarded as special cases, and they are being shown to be explainable in terms of mathematical visual field-distortion theories of these mechanisms that can be quantified just like the basic sensory processes, as I mentioned above.
Another reason neo-Kantian theories don't buy you much is to consider the work of cognitive psychologists and psychometricians like J.P. Guilford. Guilford has evidence for 120 different, discrete mental abilities. We have only just started to find out how all these areas and abilities actually work, but the resulting theories will far surpass in detail and complexity the simplistic philosophical generalizations of previous centuries about how knowledge is acquired and ideas are formed.
The bottom line at this point is that classical ideas like Kant's really aren't wrong, but they are like what classical Newtonian physics was after Einstein, correct as far as it goes, but just a piece of a much more profound, bigger picture. And the rest of that picture will be filled in by work in neurobiology and cognitive psychology, not by further vague philosophical speculation, which can only propose the most general explanations about these epistemological questions, rather than demonstrate in detail how the mind and the brain actually perceive and extract information from reality and then use the information from sense data to generate ideas about the real world. 
 Then there follows a reaction again from 'A Customer' entitled

 In response to "Good for it's time, but..."
"Personal Knowledge" by Michael Polanyi is still a valuable contribution, even now.
"Magellan" has said that subjectivist investigations don't buy you much anymore, but consider this:
Objectivist investigations don't tell you anything about how to use your own mind- the only tool you have for understanding Science to begin with. Yes, our brain is incredibly complex- yes, it has scientifically-investigatable structures which may be responsible for our consciousness- but without the actual, unavoidably personal use of your brain, you have nowhere to begin. I have all the structures that Magellan discussed in my brain, serving me at this very moment- but their function is underneath even what Polanyi calls "subsidiary knowledge". We can be aware of how our mental processes appear to behave to our conscious mind, but we are not aware of the work and usage of our individual neurons. If Magellan can show me how to become aware of the individual structures in my brain with all their individual neurons, and consciously micro-mangage their function in a way that results in me obtaining a better understanding of the world than I have only through the subjective perspective of my conscious mind, then I will say Polanyi is useless.
Until then, exclusively Objectivist investigations of the conscious mind won't buy you much, in terms of understanding how you (necessarily working out of the perspective of your own state of consciousness) comprehend the world we live in. If you want to learn something, anything, from science-- and still retain a sense that you can legitimately use your own subjective mind (albiet carefully) as you learn-- then it is worth reading Polanyi.
I don't want to criticise 'Magellan' as later he does say that he might have gone too far, but the way he thought is so typical for those who don't think further then their nose or only see what they think is outside them (matter) that they don't reflect that they make constantly judgements with their minds.(or their neurons?)

I would like to end with two quotes
"if one is of the opinion that the brain thinks instead of ourselves, then
one also transfers the problem to the next question; namely how does the brain come to think?"
by Rudolf Steiner in his 'Philosophy of Freedom'
 “Either there is no knowledge (including the knowledge of philosophical
atomism) or there is at least the knowledge that philosophical atomism is false.”
         by Marjorie Grene in  'The Understanding of Nature '.

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