Thursday, May 12, 2005

Alan Cook on ineffability, ultimates, etc.

Alan Cook responds to my post on ineffability and ultimates here. Very enlightening. I'm enjoying the responses I've received.

Mr. Cook takes the word "ultimate" to be an adjective; I take it to be, grammatically and therefore conceptually, a substantive as well.

The t'ae-geuk, for example, is written as two characters that can be translated roughly as "very/surpassingly great [or supreme]" and "Ultimate." That second character, geuk, can also be translated as "pole" or "antipode." In Chinese and Sino-Korean, geuk can be found in words like nam-geuk and buk-geuk-- South and North Poles, respectively. The t'ae-geuk is a single (nondualistic?) pole.

In Chinese, a given character can have several grammatical valences-- adjectival, verbal, adverbial, nominal, etc. For Sinitic thinkers, what geuk is depends on context. Perhaps this isn't as obvious in English, but I would be hesitant to view "ultimate" only as an adjective, and I'd also want to explore those English-language writers who use the phrase "the Ultimate" in a religious or philosophical sense. For them, "ultimate" is a noun.

Mr. Cook rightly points out that ineffability is ascribed to more than just core religious terms. It often comes back to this in discussions of philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism: no amount of explanation can substitute for direct experience of something, including-- or maybe especially-- an everyday something (the Buddhists I've read seem prone to using food-related examples-- the taste of watermelon or apple juice, for example). According to this view, the taste of chocolate is therefore ineffable insofar as it cannot be rendered into words that properly transmit the direct gustatory experience.

In a digital age, though, it's appropriate to question whether we might not be on the verge of launching "language" into another dimension of experience. Right now, for example, it's devilishly hard to search for a tune or a particular picture on Google, because you have to rely on written text for the search. What if language were expanded beyond the textual to include units of raw sense data?

If I want to find a nice closeup picture of a soccer ball, I have to go to the Google Images section and type "soccer ball." I can't simply visualize a soccer ball as something round, covered in a pattern of white and black hexagons (or whatever), and then expect Google to produce soccer-ball images. The same goes for a piece of music. Maybe I know a few bars of a certain tune, but when I'm on Google, I can't search the tune by humming those bars (another problem: I may hum off key; I'd want the computer to recognize I was off key and offer alternatives). Google isn't equipped to handle that kind of search.

It's possible to render certain sense impressions as text, but a search engine like Google isn't sophisticated enough to handle anything not directly textual. For example, let's say I want to search the following image in Google:

Show me a scene inside Notre Dame in Paris where an old man in a trenchcoat is lighting a votive candle.

At present, I'd have to do image searches on things like "votive candle," "Notre Dame," "Paris," etc., and then I'd have to flip through the mountain of extraneous data generated by those searches to find what I wanted, assuming such an image exists. Google isn't sophisticated enough to do a search that synthesizes all the details I've noted mainly because, as far as the search engine's concerned, an online image's only special features are its filename and location. Google is blind as to whether a certain Notre Dame interior shot contains a votive candle or a man or neither.

But all this is going to change soon, I think. As computers become capable of higher levels of "cognition," they'll be able to analyze photos, classify features found in the images, and render synthetic judgements about them. Imagine a search engine that could search for a tune you hum, or for a particular type of photo you either visualize or "talk about" as I did above re: Notre Dame. A search engine with true powers of discernment.

Imagine the accompanying technology, which would allow people to give the computer their sense impressions-- in essence, cyber-engrams-- without having to describe verbally what's being searched for. Imagine applying that technology in a person-to-person way-- the birth of true "mind-reading."

What then happens to the idea that "the chocolate that can be talked about is not the true chocolate"? Sci-fi writers anticipated this sort of technology long ago: devices, large or small, that enable us to convey experience to one another. Such a device would erase the now-clear boundary between textuality and direct experience by making units of experience part of a conversation-- i.e., wordless words. If two people using such a technology can transmit gustatory data about chocolate back and forth, where does chocolate's ineffability go? In a society wired for such communication, you'd almost never have a conversation like this:

Bill: What does chocolate taste like?
Jane: Well, it's usually sweet, maybe a bit bitter...
Bill: Yeah, but what does it taste like?

Instead, you'd have conversations like this:

Bill: What does chocolate taste like?
Jane: It tastes like [thought].

End of conversation. Bill would know exactly how chocolate tasted, without ever having to taste the real thing*.

DIGRESSION: I wonder what a stand-up comic in such a society would be like. If the audience were wired into his thoughts and feelings, what shape would his art take? What personal facts would he have to train himself to hide? What digital tools would be available to him to exaggerate certain thought processes and engrams to make his performance funny? Would people want the option of being able to unplug from such interconnectivity? If they did, would this be a reflection of where they stood on a political spectrum? For example, would rugged individualists be the unplugged rebels? Would there be degrees of wired-ness, and would this imply some sort of social stratification? If we assume that the rich would have the newest technologies available to them first, what would the trickle-down effect look like over the course of a decade? How much would this inter-wired-ness affect the acceleration of cultural evolution?

What I need now is a response from a dour engineer-- someone to tell me that "it just ain't possible" because, as Mr. Scott constantly notes, "Ye canna break the laws o' physics."

DIGRESSION 2: This reminds me-- no one's answered my previous challenge re: the question of theistic philosophers who denigrate logical paradox but allow for the possibility of nature-defying miracles. As I noted when I blogged about this previously, if physical laws are a subset of the laws of logic, then violations of those laws are violations of logic, and therefore just as ridiculous as round squares and all the other absurdities despised by paradox-deniers. How consistent is it to believe that God is both constrained by logic and able to perform nature-defying miracles?

*This leads to another discussion about the nature of subjectivity and whether "transferred/uploaded subjectivity" would necessarily "translate" directly between separate human skulls. If each brain is biochemically unique, might not the taste of chocolate be somehow distorted in the transmission? Would uploaded subjectivity require some third element in the process-- a kind of "neutral" field in which sense data and engrams from the sender are translated into a more "objective" set of data, then sent to the receiver, whose own faculties have been calibrated to receive the "objective" data properly?

Some have argued for something similar were we ever to construct a universal translator program: a "neutral" language into which the sender's language would be translated, and from which a translation could be made into the receiver's tongue. I'm not sure such a translator could ever be built, or even whether the concept is sound, but it's fun to speculate.


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