A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

How Does Yellow Brick Road Appear?

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on November 28, 2007

Few posts ago I wrote about what happened when my daughter, my niece and I were watching The Wizard of Oz. The girls noticed that the movie “doesn’t have colors” at the start, then failed to notice the moment when the things in the movie changed from colorless to colored, just to notice that fact few minutes further in the movie.

I wondered what happens to the what-it-is-likeness in the assumed ‘phenomenal experience’ of the girls…

  1. Did the what-it-is like of their experience changed when the movie changed from black and white to Technicolor?
  2. Did the what-it-is like of their experience changed after they noticed that “now the things are in color”?

Maybe the questions phrased in this way are not clear enough though. Because the what-it-is-likeness is taken to be a characteristic of the (phenomenal/conscious/what I called p-sense) experience, it being somehow and not other way, would be a fact about the phenomenal experience – a “phact” (to use the term Pete Mandik coined). Now, if we assume that there are such things as phacts, it is normal that in the ongoing conscious experience there are lot of such phacts. Instead of asking then the questions (1) and (2) in this general manner, we can concentrate on some specific phacts. We may talk about ‘how did the yellow brick road appear to the girls’. Maybe even more specific ‘did the yellow brick road appear yellow to them?’. It seems to me the ‘what-was-it-like to see the yellow brick road’ is related to same phacts as ‘how did the yellow brick road appear to the girls?’ (where ‘appear’ is not in taken in epistemic sense, but phenomenal sense).

You may, as I am, be skeptical of all this (p-sense) experience talk, and hence of existence of any such things as phacts related to the questions asked. But seems to me, even if one phrases the question wrong, there is some underlying thing that we mean to ask by the question, and which is of interest nonetheless. So, I will try to analyze this underlying issue, while I might not really answer it the context of assumptions in which it was phrased.

Let’s forget yellow brick road for a moment, and consider this…

We can talk to a certain person for a long time, and not notice the shape of her brows or shape of her mouth. But even we fail to notice and learn those things, we can in some other case (say, the next day) recognize that person again. I think it is safe to say that the person appeared somehow to us while we were talking. We weren’t aware of the shape of her brows or the shape of her mouth, but were those of different shape she would’ve appeared differently to us (or as we also say she would’ve looked differently).

If we talk about shape of the brows and mouth as aspects of the face, I think we can now say that we didn’t see those aspects. One might find this kind of talk weird, but think of this – would you say that you are seeing the hidden object in a newspaper puzzle (“find the hidden object” type of puzzle), just because you hold it in front of your eyes? I think not! But isn’t the same case where we don’t notice if the brows or the mouth have certain form and not other? Just that we are seeing the face doesn’t mean that we are seeing it’s aspects.

But even if we aren’t seeing those aspects, from another side we know that those aspects affect how the face appears to us! As pointed, given different shape of brows or mouth, person’s face would appear differently to us.

We can apply this kind of analysis to the yellow brick road now. We can say that the girls saw the yellow brick road without seeing its color. But this is not strange as it sounds, because immediately  we say that the yellow brick road still appeared in a specific way due to the fact that it was yellow. So, a yellow brick road whose color girls don’t see wouldn’t  appear to them same as a red brick road whose color girls don’t see (or don’t notice).

So, what would be the interesting conclusions of this kind of analysis? One of them is, I think, that neither the awareness of the aspects like the color of the thing nor possession of color concepts are required for a thing to appear to us in this way which is related to it possessing certain aspects. So, a thing may appear same to us, which have those color concepts and young kids. Of course the kid may be unable to focus merely on the color, and further to determine it, but as pointed this doesn’t mean that it isn’t aware of the gestalt look, which is related to the thing having certain color.
One can point to such things as Vygotsky block tests, where younger children didn’t sort blocks on dependence on one of those aspects (color, size or shape), but apparently based on some kind of holistic similarity. If this is true, it points to the direction of the conclusion that the gestalt appearance of the things is related to it having certain aspect. I’m not sure though there can be any kind of clear measurement of the similarities (what would this ‘holistic similarity’ even mean in terms of something testable?).

The other thing is, that instead of talking about any phacts when we talk about what-it-is-likeness, we can concentrate on the issue about what we are aware of/what we see (and further what we see clearly, vaguely, and so on). In this way we can talk about gestalt looks the things have in objective manner, and ask if the girls saw IT, or they saw some specific aspect and so on… I think phrased in that way we can analyze the issues better.

UPDATE:Richard Brown has a post in part of which he gives overview of Dretske’s distinction between thing-awareness and fact-awareness (which is supposed to explain change blindness). The distinction seems to me parallel the kind of distinction I’m drawing here between gestalt-look awareness and aspect awareness.

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