focus and context, part IIIb: about feeling real

This post is a follow up post to some posts (1,2,3) relating to the question of simulation. It is concerned with the question of how “real” a simulation can “feel”.

In this post I would like to emphasize that for understanding the process that something is perceived as “being real” it may be worthwhile to understand the mechanism of something which I want to call a “semiotic mask”.

I would like to mention again the post about “Les Atrides” from the Theatre du Soleil. Among others I wrote about it also for the reason that Ariane Mnouchkine tried to incorporate eastern theatre traditions in her works. These are very worthwile to look at on their own and in this post here I want to clarify a bit why this may be interesting for understanding the future perception of simulations, virtuality and last not least reality.

In the booklet Ariane Mnouchkine considers the “embodiment” of a feeling as important:

“Ich habe in Frankreich oft das Gefuehl, dass die Darsteller mir mit ihrem Spiel mitteilen: Schau mal wie gut ich meine Gefuehle verstecken kann. Ein Schauspieler aus oestlichen Kulturen arbeitet mit einem anderen Gestus: Schaut wie gut ich die Gef├╝hle meiner Figur zeigen kann. Ich bin dieser zweiten Theaterschule verpflichtet. (citation from the booklet)”

The interesting point in this is that in eastern tradition “feelings” are not really necessary “concrete feelings” such as anger, sadness etc. but rather subtle almost abstract feelings which are purely presented by the play itself.

This “embodiment” of an “irreality” (an “irreality” as being an unspecifyable feeling/perception) is also an important feature of e.g. russian icons and also some buddhistic artworks.

I found that this article by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is giving quite a good overview on the matter.

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein tries to explain how in these eastern iconic traditions the “embodiment” of an “irreality” may constitute a “reality” of its own.

Or in my words: Instead of “simulating” or “re-presenting” something via a play/icon, the play/icon etc. “is” the something, it is “present” in this tradition.

The embodiment or “presentation” is achieved by a kind of “simplification” or “reduction to essential features” or “beautification”, hence a design process. For the case of eastern church icons this means: very strict rules of how to paint and what to depict. Similar for the Noh theatre. For mathematicians it could mean “math for maths sake”.

It was also an important point Andrey Tarkovsky tried to illustrate in his films. He talked about this on a seminar here in Berlin some years ago.
However for him the question of “re-presentation” versus the “presentation” was very much linked to an (I exagerate) “ueber-technologization” or an “western-ueber-thirst-for-explaining(=representing)-everything”. Despite for my admiration for his works this made me angry and as a consequence I was asking him in a seminar break wether he thinks that math or physics have no “presentational” character at all.

His answer was – if I understood correctly – that he considered this to be an unimportant question as long as math and physics/technology do not help humans in an essential way, but often rather have an opposite effect. – Quite a word to a young physics student, who -as every student- questioned wether that what he/she studies was the right thing. But it is and stays a true dilemma of science and technology.

Besides this rather humanistic aspect of doing science – the question of the presentational (as a formal science) versus re-presentational (via physics) character of mathematics keeps being haunting – especially in view of that there is probably not much of a real moral justification of doing math and physics as Tarkovsky pointed out.

The question of the presentational versus the representational character is in my eyes related to the math-matter-mind question which is wafting through the math/physics community.

I am trying to understand this.The question of presentation and representation is touching the area of semiotics and thus it makes sense to look a bit more into that matter.

In an earlier post I was asking the question of how much an e.g. second life avatar is a symbol for the person behind it (a “pixymbol”) and had Charles Peirce definition of a symbol in mind:

“… I had observed that the most frequently useful division of signs is by trichotomy into firstly Likenesses, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves; secondly, Indices, which represent their objects independently of any resemblance to them, only by virtue of real connections with them, and thirdly Symbols, which represent their objects, independently alike of any resemblance or any real connection, because dispositions or factitious habits of theirm interpreters insure their being so understood.” (‘A Sketch of Logical Critics’, EP 2:460-461, 1909) via this link

So what Peirce describes above are the different relations of a sign with respect to an “object” (where “object” can be envisaged as “something” (ranging from physical objects to abstract entities etc.)) with regard to its interpretation. I will shortly sum up the above. For simplicity let’s define a sign as something “perceptable”, i.e. accessible to human senses (this includes smell, visuals etc.). This is not fully the Peirce way to put it, but more or less in his sense (sofar I can tell).

An interpretant is now loosely speaking a brain state (let it be classical or quantum) induced by the perception of the sign (where unfortunately some people assign also a representative (which is unfortunately often also a “sign”) to that brain state, which makes things (in my eyes unnecessarily) complicated).

The sign is thus be seen as something which links the brain state to an object. The above differences between symbol, Index and Icon are the following: an Icon is something with a ressemblance, i.e. where the object can -at least partially- act as a sign (i.e. it is at least partially perceptable) so you have two perceptions, namely the partial perception from the object and that of the Icon (linking to the object) which are related and thus probably inducing a related (whatever this is) brainstate. An Index is a sign which is in a spatio-temporal “physical” relationship to the object, in particular this could be a perceptable physical object which is in a physical relation to the object it is linking to, like a pot with ice to the fact that it is cold. So the corresponding brain state is connected with direct perceptional experiences of physical relationships (like causality) which were made over the years. A symbol is a sign, which had been mediated, like a rule, which is probably resulting in very different brain states than the “direct” ones which were induced by the previous two signs. This is basically the classification of Peirce.

Coming back to the (pixymbol) blog entry – the question was to what extend these second life avatars constitute non-icons, or in other words to what extend are they bearing NO resemblance to the objects (i.e. the humans behind them) which they represent – despite being a 3D-image. In this post I fastly made up the word pixymbol (which may exist somewhere else) in order to give this rather non-iconic picture a name.

Only later it occurred to me that there exists already a word which could be used for what I had in mind and this is the word: mask. A mask can act as a “pictorial template” i.e. as a placeholder in form of an “icon” without any or only few iconic properties. Or in simple words: A (face) mask has often only few ressemblance with its bearer.

A mask is in some strange way a symbol for a person and in the case of the Noh masks or in the case of smilies it may even be a symbol for the feelings of a person (where beautifully the shadows on a Noh mask may indicate different feelings). However since a mask is also a cover in that it hides the “real thing” it leaves maximal space for guesses, phantasy and projections. The design of a mask in the turn is important for “what kind of projections” are invoked and how precise this goal is achieved.

Let’s relate this to the example of a eastern orthodox church Icon and the question of “presence” and the symbolic content of these Icons. This is certainly a rather simplified view (and probably already explained elsewhere) – but the above may say that the virtue of an eastern orthodox church icon is less due to its function as an Icon (in the Peirce sense, as resembling its object) nor as a pure Symbol (bearing a priori no direct (in the perceptional sense) relation to the object) but rather due to its function of being an optimal “mask” in that it guides the interpreter to a more or less definite projection/feeling/thought/brain state (the Interpretant). So a mask bears some direct rich perceptable quality, however there are not necessary any ressemblances on the to the object “behind” it nor is it possible to “define” (assign a symbol) what it should “mean”. Since the collection of the possible brain states which are due to the perception of the “mask” is not arbitrary either this may suggest that a mask is a kind of rough “filter” or “choosing mechanism” (“preparation” ?)** for available brain states (Interpretants). This process will certainly depend on the context in which the brain lives.

Astonishingly this “fuzzy guided perception” via a mask may gain the status of something “being real” or “present” (or in the case of the eastern orthodox church Icon even gain the quality of a “divine presence”). In other words this implies that a sign in a certain cultural/emotional context can (possibly) acquire the status of being real not by its representational function but rather by excluding a multitude of representations (and thus interpretations).

The idea of a mask is not confined to images (let them be 2D or 3D), but could also be e.g. “words, sentences”, i.e. words and sentences which do not need to mean their actual dictionary meaning. A metaphor is an example for such a “wordmask”. An analogy can also have this function of being a mask.
Consequently one may suggest that the exclusion of possible interpretations can be made precise enough that it allows even for a “back-and-forth communication via masks/templates”.

(side remark: I am not a semiotician there may be another expression for a mask, I am thankful for any comments)

A mask which allows for only one (or almost only one) definite brain state may be again either be “almost the same” as an Icon, a symbol or an Index, from a cognitive view point (in the sense of the recognition of the object), but different from a “feel” view point. So there may be a kind of “smooth” transition between icon/mask (like a very realistic avatar) and mask/symbol (like the epsilon in math, see also below).

As I already pointed out the aspect of context is here at this point important (and for me not well understood). Noh masks are differently perceived for Japanese than for e.g. westerners. There is certainly a learning and getting-accustomed-to process involved. A mask is “easier” to comprehend the less context (here in the sense of mediated knowledge) is necessary for relating to the intended interpretants. Or to put it simple: A phallus symbol is recognized in any culture, whereas an integration sign needs explanations.

This phenomenom is not confined to arts. As was mentioned above there are “masks” even in mathematics. Like it is always nice to observe how mathematicians are renaming symbols because they are not accustomed to them (and this is not only a question of economizing memory, but really a question of how present the objects feel!). The greek letter “epsilon” is a good example – it usually denotes something very small and positive – and many mathematicians would feel uncomfortable if someone would use epsilon for a negative number! So epsilon is a “mask” i.e. it doesnt “allow” for other representations in an emotional sense, however it certainly does in a cognitive sense. For math education this implies that there may be other symbols, which are an “easier” mask in the sense that they give a better direct perceptional guidance to their underlying objects.

Experiments with this mechanism, like in artistic or design projects are thus interesting for me. But besides being a Gedankenspiel, why may this discussion about “presence” and “mask” be of any importance for how the future may “feel” as I indicated in the beginning (and thus by the way making the question of presence also a moral question)?

If we assume that it will be possible -in some more or less near future- to produce in-matter-virtual creations – let it be via flying nanobots, which rearrange themselves to a whole virtual being a la the sandman in spiderman III or let it be via creating the right sensorial input or even via manipulating the human brain/body, or by running a simulation run in a brain, etc. then it may get quite important to recreate the feeling of “reality” or “presence” (which is as a matter of fact ultimately linked to conciousness).

The above outline indicated that a “good mask” can impose the feeling of “presence” and the feeling of something to be “real”. I think this could include the perception of such abstract concepts such as a “mind” (which people take for “real”). And hence it may be worthwhile to understand this mechanism a bit better, when thinking about simulations of reality. Or in other words: simulations of reality usually also include artificial “beings” and/or “minds” (which could be well as ourselves in our mid-cyborgian state) – the question when we do accept them as being real (and thus the simulation) is more or less a perceptional question and the above outlined “mask mechanism” may give indications of how to understand this better.

Concluding and by looking e.g at the “uncanny valley discussion” of humanoid robots the discussion displays that the following future perceptional scenarios are possible, when thinking about the “presence” of “minds”:

-artificial creations are not “accepted as real minds/beings” (uncanny, alien) and thus rather be viewed as “artificial” i.e. as an “avatar”, “toy” or “robot”, “mechanical surroundings/houses” (which doesn’t exclude temporary identifications) or
-the feeling for a “present being” is relativized in a profound manner and we may float more and more into rather dream-like (child-like?) states or
-we may completely accept a new reality, which is a mixture of artificially and “naturally” created beings, which have the same status of presence, i.e. of being real and thus natural per se.

**I hereby admit that I see here some parallels to quantum computing.

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