Sunday, February 21, 2016

Similarity: not a given; but, a composition.

a. This is not B. F. Skinner

c. This is a tiny reproduction of a Klee Painting

All concepts within which an entire process has been symbolized, withdraw themselves from definition: anything which has a history is not definable.— Nietzsche, Towards a Geneaology of Morals II, 13. (My translation – EGR}

Teaching Analphabets. I spent twenty years of my professional career teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL) to mostly refugee children whom misfortune had deprived of most schooling experience. (I would even have to teach some how to hold a pencil or pen to write with and to do simple lettering.)

The standard subject teachers, overwhelmed by their ESOL pupils' incapacity to communicate, would voice suspicions that most of them were mentally, or at least, perceptually deficient. On one occasion, a visiting lecturer gave a demonstration for the faculty during which she showed an analphabetic pupil she had brought with her a poster with the letters, N O P, in 144 pt Times Roman Font printed on it. Then, on a blackboard mounted to the side of the poster, she wrote a script form of O, somewhat slanted and with a loop at the end of the upstroke. “Can you tell if there is a letter on the poster like the one like the I just wrote on the blackboard?” she asked the student. He said he couldn’t.

The lecturer turned to the faculty and said, “This shows how severe a discrimination problem this student has. He can’t even tell which letter I have written! Can any of you suggest how you might go about remedying it?”

A teacher replied that the lecturer’s simple test did not prove the student had a discrimination problem. In fact, purely from a visual viewpoint, what the lecturer drew on the blackboard was visually distinguishable from what had been printed on the poster. The student may have been over-discriminating. The lecturer embarrassedly replied, “I’ll have to look into that.” The presentation was brought to a sudden conclusion.

Sometimes You Can’t See the Forest For the Trees. Nor the trees, for the forest. The problem of training discrimination is faced not only by analphabetic children learning a new language, but by native speaking adults researching new material which requires confronting new perceptions and having to learn to communicate their experiences within the framework a terminological tradition. It is not for nothing that university students have to take courses in data analysis. (For a simple data analysis example with an interesting application, see Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development? )

Even experienced practitioners may have to learn to develop interrogatories to systematize their research. (See, for example, Developing Interrogatories to Aid Analysis.)

They may also need learn to apply research protocols using new instrumentation. These practices, i.e. data analysis, interrogatory and protocol development, are not so importantly issues of acquiring new perceptions as of learning standards, i.e. what counts as a relevant perception to develop data bases and to communicate their findings with other researchers. (But, for critical historical variations in the notion of objectivity, see L. Daston & P.Galison [2007] Objectivity New York. Zone Books.)

Nietzsche’s Proposition. In the epigraph above, Nietzsche was commenting on the concept of punishment as an example of one which through translation bridges over centuries and carries with it the baggage of often contradicting traditions and morals. Such a concept, he argues, rightly, I would think, cannot be expected to meet the criterion for a (Platonic) definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Other approaches to definition may work. See, for example, Concept as Abstraction. A hindrance in developing intelligence? However, practically useful definitions for us tend to yield results that clash with moral concerns deriving from historically long-lived and still extant moral systems. (See School Violence, Punishment, and Justice. ).

How is Similarity a Composition? There’s an old joke. It concerns a sculpter who was asked, “How did you make your fantastic statues?” “Simple,” he replied. You just take a block of marble, or whatever, and chip away the stone that doesn’t belong."

Of all the energies that impinge upon the surfaces of our bodies, those that don’t pass through without noticeable effect are filtered by our skin and other organs, which may absorb or transform their energies. We don’t “see” or “hear” or “feel” or “taste” or “smell” those energies as their physical manifestation passing through the universe; but, only as they impinge upon and stimulate certain cells in our body.

“Red” or “Middle-C” or “roughness” or “salty” or “skunk” are already filtered energies, thanks to the evolution which has pre-wired us and many other animals to filter out mostly energies that do not enable us as species to survive and procreate.

This is common knowledge, if somewhat pedanticly expressed. Similarities are not “out there” caroming around the universe:

a. They are composed from the welter of energies that have already been filtered through our skins.

b. they are composed by means of the nervous connections we have developed as species over millions of years.

c. they are further determined by what our attention is drawn to. And finally,

d. they are focused more narrowly by what our socialization brings us to disregard as unimportant.

Similarity is only part of the story. Any two “things” are similar to the extent that we disregard their differences. Most importantly, similarity is not identity. We learn early on in life:

a. Not all that glitters is gold.

b. It may look like a human or a duck, and even talk or walk like a human or a duck. But still be neither.

c. There are such things as counterfeit money, faked emotions, and false promises.

And also photographs, twinkling tiny pointillist stars, and soap operas. Illusions galore, even helpful illusions, similar to many things; but still not the real things.

For further discussion, see Isormorphism Everywhere? 
Imagination, Likeness, and Identity.

Cordially --- EGR