Reflection 170: Categorization

January 5, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Excerpts from Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Earth Observations and Photography Experiment, July 1975. Object: To utilize the special capabilities of trained observers (American astronauts of the joint mission) in visually studying and photographing specific Earth features and dynamic phenomena. Personnel: Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, Donald K. (Deke) Slayton. From Farouk El-Baz, Astronaut Observations from the Apollo-Soyuz Mission, Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space, Number 1, 1977.

Revolution 17. Slayton: That looks beautiful there. Just look at those clouds down there. Fantastic. . . . Stafford: There’s a bunch of plankton out there to the east. I can hardly see that from under it. Slayton: Yeah, sure, and you can see the tourists down there, Tom. Brand: I’m not sure I see plankton. I see bottom. . . . Brand: I don’t think it’s the time of year for plankton. It looks too cold down there. Stafford: It’s not there now. Brand: Oh, I see something. Okay, I’ve got one shot of some scum on the water. But it went by so fast, it looked more like trash to me. But we’ll see what it is later. It could be plankton. So much for New Zealand. (132f.)

Revolution 56. Slayton: There it is. Boy! Oh, great! . . . We got everything we want. Say, that stuff’s pretty . . . right there. Brand: See the pyramids? Slayton: Yeah! [laughter] Brand: My God! I think I did. I’ve got to get a map though. . . . Brand: Gosh, look at that! Look at that water. Slayton: I know where we’re supposed to be, but I’m not sure. We’re going too fast. . . . Slayton: Hey, that’s Israel right down there. There’s the Sea of Galilee . . . goddam. . . . Brand: . . . I think I might have seen the pyramids. And now I’ve got to see a picture or a layout of how the pyramids are laid out when we get back, but I saw two specks that might have been pyramids. (137)

Revolution 75/76. Stafford: We’re seeing the coast of Florida go past pretty fast. Capcom [Capsule Communicator]: You should be passing over actually the coast of Mexico there, and Florida should be coming up in just a few minutes. (144)

Revolution 80. Stafford: Dick, where are we at now? Are we heading across Africa? Capcom: No, you’re on ascending pass; you’re just crossing the coast of southwestern Australia. And then you’ll be, of course, crossing Indonesia. Then you’ll get another long pass over the western Pacific. (149)

The astronauts were traveling as such high speed, features on the Earth were visible for only seconds at a time. It is little wonder they were often unsure where they were or what they were looking at. Though they had been trained as competent observers, once in Earth orbit they were frequently demoted from competent to naive observers, especially when confronting features seen from a novel perspective high above a land- or seascape racing past beneath them. To recognize features under such circumstances often proved extremely difficult.

Consciousness is the mental domain within which recognition emerges when a relevant concept is mapped from memory onto a passing percept, giving it—in a fraction of a second—an identity and a name. Since Aristotle, that kind of perceptual recognition has been called categorization. Aristotle thought of it as an objective process, as if a person or thing could objectively declare its own identity; it was what it was. Kant saw characterization as a subjective process through which an observer made sense of his world by bestowing an identity upon it; it was what he said it was. The Kantian view leaves room for metaphor in cases where an observer deliberately casts a novel and surprising identity upon a familiar percept, calling it by other than its literal name to heighten a particular facet of its conventional definition or identity.

A competent observer has a vast repertoire of labeled concepts to cast, like a net, upon her world. Whatever language she speaks, the labels clearly reside in her memory (or her culture’s memory) rather than in objects themselves. Nature is not the labeler; humanity is. Kant wins over Aristotle.

In early posts to this blog, I told stories of mistaking a windblown trash bag for a dying crow, a swept-back TV antenna for a crashing jet, a total stranger for my friend Fred. These are examples of category errors, of matching inappropriate concepts in my repertory of familiar images to a particular percept in my experience. In looking for mustard in its familiar jar, I never though it would be lying on its side on the refrigerator shelf, presenting its round, red top to my gaze when I was actually looking for a jar with a trademark shape seen in profile. The world we see (or don’t see) is the world we look for. That is, the inner, categorical world guides our expectancy as, time after time, we seek to fulfill the unique set of values that makes us who we are as individuals. If astronaut Brand thought he saw two specks below him as the pyramids, it was because he wanted to see the pyramids. In a subsequent debriefing, he said:

I don’t believe now that I saw them. I had the benefit of two passes. The first pass, I saw two little dots that I thought possibly were pyramids. At that point, I wished I had a map of the pyramids on the ground so I could see what they’re supposed to look like. I think probably what I saw were fields or something like that. So, I would say, no, I didn’t see them. (187)

Consciousness is always consciousness of one thing or another. That is, recognition or categorization is simultaneous with perception. We live in a world of significant objects made salient by our respective needs at the time as heightened through the agency of personal attention. If the figure of my friend Fred emerged on a crowded, New York sidewalk in front of me, it was because that figure was lodged in my mind from long acquaintance in Seattle. Knowing he was moving to New York, I transported that figure in my mind and projected it outward onto Fifth Avenue. Voila, that must be him up ahead. Except, as it turned out, it wasn’t Fred.

Intentionality is the term for seeing (hearing, etc.) things with recognition at first glance. It is one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness because, unlike paintings on museum walls, things do not bear identifying labels in the natural world. Recognition clearly implies memory being mapped onto sensory patterns as experience flows through us, much as Vance Brand mapped “the pyramids” onto two dots in the landscape of Egypt.

Intentionality, then, depends on recognition, that in turn depends on a form of conceptual memory by which myriad sensory experiences are synthesized into a kind of schematic or overall pattern derived from what such experiences share in common. In other words, intentionality is seeing the sensory now in terms of a schematized or conceptual then. Receiving Jesus as the messiah depends on familiarity with certain Old Testament prophesies, and mapping the one onto the other, “recognizing” or assuming them to be the same. They are taken to be the same to the extent the perceiver wants them to be the same, as astronaut Brand wanted two dots to be the pyramids. As I am fond of saying, for personal consciousness, expectancy is destiny.

Intentionality is made possible by classes of concepts sorted into bins of personally relevant concepts bearing such labels as Who?, What?, Whom?, Where?, When?, How?, and Why? These categories of categories are the stuff human situations are made of, and in terms of which they can be described and understood. To give one example:

On December 11th, 2009, Jenny Sanford filed for divorce from Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who had claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail over Father’s Day when he was actually shacked up with his lover in Argentina for five days.

If things are seldom what they seem, it is because personal consciousness, in presenting itself to the world through overt acts, is truly serving the values, comfort, and self-interest of the individual person. Consciousness, that is, mediates between the individual, biological person and her sensory world. Percepts, concepts, and consciousness itself are meaningfully categorized to suit the survival interests of the person herself as she views them—which is always a subjective judgment call.

Gerald Edelman depicts consciousness as arising from the interactive correlation between conceptual memory and current perceptual categorization. The memory aspect of consciousness is driven by fulfillment or frustration of values resident in the self, the perceptual categorization by sensory patterns similar in some ways to such memories, resulting in a sense of salience or biological significance. “Primary consciousness,” he writes, arises “as a result of reentrant circuits connecting special memory functions to those mediating current perceptual categorization” (The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness, Basic Books, 1989, page 64). Elaborating later on:

The idea that I attempt to refine here is that consciousness is the result of an ongoing categorical comparison of the workings of two kinds of nervous organization. This comparison is based on a special kind of memory, and is related to the satisfaction of physiologically determined needs as that memory is brought up to date by the perceptual categorizations that emerge from ongoing present experience. Through behavior and particularly through learning, the continual interaction of this kind of memory with present perception results in consciousness. (page 93)

What we learn, that is, reflects significant relationships between prior and current aspects of experience as relevant to homeo-stasis and survival. In addition to perceptual categorization, memory, and learning, Edelman discovers a need to place additional emphasis on a fourth dimension of consciousness, “the idea that two parts of the nervous system differ radically in their evolution, organization, and function,” parts which he calls “self” and “nonself” (page 94):

In richly endowed nervous systems, these portions must be organized differently but also be in com-munication. While neural parts of the first kind . . . operate within developmentally given parameters, those of the second kind . . . operate largely through ongoing exteroceptive sensory interactions with the world, that is, through experience and behavior. The operation of the first set of neural regions is . . . essential to define self within a species by assuring homeostatic regulation in each individual. The second set operates mainly to define nonself [or the world]. (page 94)

As Edelman explains, “It is the discrimination between the self and the nonself portions of the nervous system mediated by the mechanisms leading to primary consciousness” that assigns salience to some sensory events and not others in a situation as perceived by a given individual. Which is why, in the examples I gave at the head of this post, astronaut Brand “sees” the pyramids, and astronaut Slayton next to him scoffs at the idea. In Edelman’s words, “When categorized behavior [seeing or not seeing “the pyramids”] satisfies a value. . . , the inter-actions of self and nonself systems lead to altered synaptic efficacies. . . .” providing “one of the necessary bases for storage in the special memory, correlating value with category and discriminating self from nonself.” (page 98f.)

This is but a smattering of Edelman’s writing on categorization, but an important smattering in connecting self to nonself, concepts to percepts, memory to sensory events, abstract summations of experience to concrete experience in the here and now. I will conclude with one last quote from The Remembered Present:

Primary [non symbolic, non linguistic] conscious-ness may thus be briefly described as the result of the ongoing discrimination of present perceptual categorizations by a value dominated self-nonself memory. Inasmuch as such a memory is built by relating previous perceptual categorizations to values, primary consciousness is accomplished by continual bootstrapping of current perceptual states into memory states. (page 102)

Edelman is talking here about astronaut consciousness as well as your consciousness and mine. Go back and read this post again. And again. It will surely crop up on the final exam—which is none other than life itself. Even if you’re not an astronaut, it may help to be able to tell plankton from bottom from scum from trash.

Categorize this.



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