Sunday, 6 April 2014

Optic Universe

“What it means and what it is are not separate, as we have been led to believe” (Gibson, 1972, p. 410)

I read this article by Harry Heft concerning J. J. Gibson’s work a number of weeks ago. While it is always a treat to read iterations of Gibson’s writings it was the first time I had come across the above quote. Throughout all of the weeks since, this quote has stuck with me. I think there is a deep message here that is necessary for all scientific and theoretical endeavors to embrace.

While the idea that humans are the centre of the universe was expelled a few centuries ago I still feel there are trace elements of this ideology in all of us. Perhaps religion is a cause of this, perhaps genetics. Whatever the cause, it does seem that at a very deep level we are biased towards the human-centric. We have a tendency to view our conceptions of reality, of science, of whatever, as being the absolute factual. For us of course humanity plays a central role in our understanding and rightly so our explorations into science will be molded by this bias. Yet as amazing as all of the progress we as a species have made, we are still subservient to the greater force that is nature.

The labels and theories we have developed are often not enough to encompass all of the different approaches within a given, specific field. Science after all is agreement. How then can these fickle labels be expected to encompass facets of objects (conceptual or actual) entirely, let alone a construct as complex as human behaviour? This idea is an echo perhaps of von Uexküll’s work: we must understand an action in context in order to fully appreciate it. Yet this quote from Gibson extends beyond this: the meaning is right there, we just need to be able to see it to understand it.

Steven Hawkins, in a recent talk, addresses this idea somewhat. He spoke of how new theories “…lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it”. How then can we ‘see’ these objects, move towards this new picture of the universe? This is the real question perhaps. If we can begin to grasp the true nature of objects, behaviours, the flight of birds, then perhaps we can begin to develop a natural language. This natural language would be the final evolution of the idea captured in Gibson’s quote, a language which would have a description and a meaning as one. With such a tool we could perhaps move our understanding from its human-centric base to one akin with the actual language of nature and in doing so, perhaps, begin to address some of the core questions of not only science but of the whole human experience.

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