International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 55 6th April 2003


I. 'The Ineffable "I"' by Chris Jones

II. 'Philosophy of Mathematics: an accountant's view' by John Sartoris

III. 'Unaccompained Yield' an interview with artist Tony Kemplen



Pathways student Chris Jones is a British teacher currently working in Japan.

I take some photons in my hand. I throw them like paint at an eye, at its retinal cells and then I take some more and throw them at a leaf, at its chloroplasts. The retinal cells quickly convert the photons to electrochemical impulses. The choloroplasts convert their photons to energy. I watch both of these marvels of nature and then I ask myself, "Is this 'vision' and where is photosynthesis really?" And if my answer of "right there" is unacceptable then I can give no other. Because 'vision' and 'photosynthesis' in themselves do not exist, but I can see both of them painted on a material canvas.

I like dualism. To me it represents all that is good in literature, poetry and romance. I'm very fond of the idea of souls and the image of a flickering eternal flame gets me every time. It's just that it doesn't seem, hasn't seemed for some time, to be able to answer its own questions. And with that it doesn't seem to hold much sway in modern accounts of consciousness.

The amount of time and energy put into a multidisciplinary, scientific explanation of mind in the last century has led to some very persuasive theory. We don't have to accept it unquestioningly, and dualism helps us to keep in reserve a healthy level of scepticism. However, it does seem to be the best we have at the moment and for that must be taken as fairly robust.

Strip away the 'self'. Do away with al those memories and attendant thoughts, feelings, years of mental habit formation and education. Peel away the layers like an onion and what is left? The ineffable 'I'.

Sit in a silent, empty room and close your eyes. Let all thoughts pass by like clouds. Let all sights and sounds come and go, rolling over like the sea on a pebble beach. Let go of all feelings and look inside your mind and what is left? The ineffable 'I', humming like an idle machine, purring like a cat. And what is it doing? It is regarding itself, watching, treating itself like an object like any other in its environment. With all the chattering sound and light from outside closed out, its environment is itself, it becomes its own environment.

It's easy to get muddled by the 'I'. Our minds tend to switch off fairly quickly when they detect anything in a loop, anything circular or recursive. But throw a spanner in to slow it down, and its possible to see what is going on.

There are two starting points to look at the mind in this state, the 'I' cleared of the mists of 'self'. One is that reported by practitioners of zazen meditation in Buddhism. For now, this is a difficult approach to take if reason is to be used. It defies rational and linguistic definition since it precludes thought if it is to be attained.

The other starting point is at our beginning, as newly borns, as little humans with no notion of self (in the sense of one embedded in long term memory) and possibly no notion of an 'I' as distinct from the environment. Without ego boundaries formed in the first year, its all just a big blur for a newly born, its mind is, at least in part, a tabla rasa.

The newborn quickly learns to recognise objects, to distinguish one thing from another in its environment (this might be done simply in terms of it recognising 'things' which provide for its physical needs at first). However this is done, be it through some form of pattern recognition (neuroscience has gone some way to show this might be done and has led to connectionist models) or something more complex, the newborn must at some point have some form of representation of these objects in its brain.

Just as the eye can hardly stop itself from receiving photons when it is open, the brain can hardly stop taking environmental input in the form of patterns. By pattern here, I mean an object, a situation (internal or external) or anything that can be represented in the mind. We do not need to confer a special ability on the mind to 'seek' patterns; it just does it as a matter of its biological function. Nor does it need to be 'open' like the eye or conscious, since we know the mind is active even when our bodies are not, in sleep etc. I would suggest that the mind _never_ stops seeking patterns.

It's easy to see how simple pattern recognition for a baby fits into this paradigm (indeed so simple that it can be emulated to a degree with a video camera and a personal computer). But how could things as sophisticated as language or thought or a concept of 'I' come into this?

When a crow caws in the early morning what is it doing? If it spots some food or senses danger it announces it. In evolutionary terms it helps to protect itself by helping to protect the group to which it belongs. It has 'meaning' in this sense. The important point is that the crows physiology or sensory apparatus allows it to detect something _first_ and then 'announces' it. The announcement is a side effect, an evolutionary extra.

When a baby makes its first noises and generates a subsequent lexis of gurgles and mewling, how is it different? I would suggest that it isn't. The noises it makes are side effects of its yet fairly simple mental processes, simple pattern recognition. If the mind truly doesn't stop taking in information as I suggested, if it is working around the clock, it wouldn't take long for a newborn to build a sizeable collection.

A big question... which came first, language or thought? I'd answer language (in whatever form) is the predecessor of thought. By this I mean that thought can be seen as an 'announcement' made, as above, only here it is not vocalised but made internally. The system which recognises a pattern, in its environment for example, by some evolutionary quirk, announces it to itself. Interestingly, this then becomes another pattern to be recognised.

This is an important step. At some point our pattern recognition system becomes sufficiently well developed to not only 'seek' (or take in) patterns from its environment but also within itself. It trawls through memory taking in new patterns. It has the ability to combine two or many more patterns in memory for the sake of establishing new patterns. In effect, it 'looks' within itself in its relentless quest for new patterns. Further, this is a seemingly endless source of patterns to be tapped and at its most developed could be how imagination and reasoning work.

This pattern recognition system is not discriminatory. Anything will do; it simply attempts to recognise a pattern and if it fails it stores it as a new one. (Actually this is simplistic since we have sharp attentional filters and not all patterns are new but are variations on old ones, which is where a notion of tolerance and error threshold come in). At some point in its early life this system (being sufficiently complex) comes to 'see' itself as a pattern like anything else. The system itself becomes its own object. This is the early beginnings of a concept of 'I'.

I would suggest that this pattern (or set of patterns) becomes the single most important and best-established pattern within the system's life. And this is simply because once recognised for the first time, it is the pattern that will be most frequently encountered and the one most involved in having needs met. As soon as the system does anything, it is a new pattern to be recognised. It's easy to see how the Russian doll syndrome of self-observation comes about this way.

Clearly a system that took every pattern it came across as new, it would quickly become saturated. It would also be very inefficient. To that end, I would suggest that our minds are designed (have evolved) to 'condense'. They avoid oversaturation and are efficient by having a certain amount of tolerance to error, i.e. they allow for close matches.

This means the system has a notion of constancy in-built. This constancy may not actually exist in the real world; it may be that our minds perceive it that way. Our tendency to generalise is an easily observable mental phenomenon. We tend to 'see' connections.

However, our minds are a good example of nature in flux. At any given tiniest fraction of a second, our brains are in different physical states, and our minds in different mental states. Brains, like all organic substances, are plastic; they grow, die in places, reorganise and regenerate.

Although difficult to accept, our minds are at any given moment in a never to be repeated state. We would never say it but we could see our brains, our minds, our consciousness, as being entirely different entities from one moment to the next. And the reason we would never say it is because of our mental habit, our brain's design, of attributing similarity between and across patterns or, simply, constancy. This is purely because our brains have evolved to tolerate that degree of noise, of patterns not having to be exactly alike to be 'recognised'.

The 'I', our subjective experience, is simply our neural pattern recognition system 'recognising' itself in operation, over and over again in a temporal series of different states. 'I' is an illusion, as side effect of our brain's design.

In my discussion so far I have gone some way to describe how I think the 'I' might come about but I have said little of the actual experience of being an 'I' or how it might be observed. Is it asking too much of materialism to provide an objective account of subjective experience?

If we strip away the self as before and are left with just the ineffable 'I', once quietened we could say that we are left with two concepts, that of 'I' being in this particular place at this particular time, the 'here and now'.

To ask if it is possible for an objective view of subjective experience is to ask if it is possible for something that is not here and now to perceive what it is to be the thing that is here and now. As Sam says ('Possible World Machine' Unit 3, 2nd dialogue) not even God could manage that (though I'm not sure I agree because if He is omnipresent then surely He would be in our minds; if He is in our minds, would He not be being us, since that's all we are in my view).

However, whilst it seems too difficult to see how anything, let alone God (or someone else's mind, which stops us from really seeing what it's like to be someone else), could be in two places at the same time, it's possible to see how something, including minds, can be in no places at the same time.

What I mean to say is that it seems possible, if practitioners are to be believed, to displace one's mind, one's 'I', to allow it to be 'not here', an experience reputedly to be had through various forms of meditation. Whether it also includes a sense of 'not here now', I do not know.

The report of what happens during this kind of experience, though, is that all sense of 'I' is dissolved (this is after the 'self' is dissolved). Without a 'here' (and a 'now'?) to anchor onto, there is no 'I'. But further, some people report that once 'I' dissolves there is a sense of connection to something much greater than a singular 'here and now', perhaps the sum total of all possible 'here and now's.

Clearly, this is difficult to discuss rationally. Zen Buddhist teachings warn against intellectualising the process of zazen, since as soon as one attempts to explain what is happening, the dissolved 'I' returns, and with it a subjective point of view, and it becomes impossible to maintain.

But this does make sense. Either you are 'here and now' or you are not 'here and now'. You can't have your soul and not perceive it.

The question remains whether this experience approximates an objective view of the subjective experience. Well, I would say yes, but there is a catch. Because as soon as we try to formalise it, we lose sight of it. The closest we can get is to catch a glimpse of an objective reality, but since we must let go of subjective experience to do so, we cannot think or talk about it. As soon as we try to grasp it, it vanishes. It exists then less in the realm of the mind, thought and language and more in the realm of feeling. This will always be unacceptable to an empirical approach to the problem such as that made by science.

Whenever I adopt a materialist stance to the mind/ body problem, I always feel like the child who spoiled the party. I can hear the groans of discontent of science robbing us of something most precious. But I would say that knowing how the cells in the epidermal layer can never take away the pleasure of the warm sun on my skin. Nor can the knowledge of how the nose, ears and mouth work to send impulses to my cerebral cortex spoil the pleasure of sitting in a snowy bamboo grove next to a trickling waterfall sipping hot green tea. Nor can an explanation of how our consciousness might derive from neuronal activity take away the joy of the imagination or the attendant feelings to be had from a beautiful concept like the soul or God. If anything it adds to it. I fail to see how I could ever lose that overwhelming feeling of awe when beholding the most complex organic mechanism in our known universe.

Materialism, then, only goes so far. It may help us to ultimately explain how our experience comes about. But it can say nothing about what it is like to have such a rich experience. I think that this is where dualism can take off where materialism falls short.

(c) Chris Jones 2003




See: ../questions/answers19.html#112

Dear Steven Ravett Brown, Rachel Browne and Ken Stern,

It is along time ago now and I really should have written before to thank you all for taking the trouble to reply to my question to 'Ask a Philosopher' last November about certainty in arithmetic. I found your answers very interesting.  Indeed, I have found all your answers to all those hundreds of questions on the database to be stimulating reading. Since I found the website I have  gradually been working my way back through them all.

You may remember that my question was about accountancy and adding things up. I cited the example of accounts clerks who are required to add up column after column of large numbers. The problem for auditors like me is to check whether they have got their additions right. Thirty years ago, when I first entered the accountancy profession as what we then still used to call an articled clerk, we were ordered to check the accounts clerks' arithmetic by re-doing it ourselves. This was an absurd exercise. As innocent young graduates fresh out of university (philosophy departments even!) we could not hope to match what I believe was the accuracy of the accounts clerks - row upon row of them with years of experience of doing nothing but adding up column after column of Pounds, Shillings and Pence all day, every day, day after day, week after week, year after year. They had large mechanical adding machines to help them in those days and were known as 'comptometer operators' or 'comps' but is a profession that has largely died out today with the advancement of computerised accounting.

The point I wanted to make - which I think is a philosophical one - is that there was no useful way of checking the comptometers' addition other than by getting other equally experienced comptometers to re-do it. I was reminded of this when I read a book by the American mathematician Professor Reuben Hersch called 'What is Mathematics Really?' (Jonathan Cape 1997). Hersch says that, in the practice of advanced mathematics, the only way to tell whether you have  a proof is to ask other expert mathematicians to check it. If they say it proves the result then it does. If there is dispute - as there often is - you do not have a proof.  There is just no other way of checking mathematical theorems - in a sense no objective proof in mathematics. Hersch says the same applies in higher physics. The only way to tell whether your theory is right is through the consensus of other experts. It's no good just saying experiments prove your theory because part of the point is whether you have done the right experiment and interpreted the data correctly.

Odd to think that all those professors of physics and mathematics are in the same boat as the accounts clerks and comptometer operators, at least epistemologically speaking. But the conclusion does seem to be that, although in arithmetic we know with certainty that every addition has a definite answer, we cannot always be certain what that answer is. More controversially, we might say that, although the answer to every addition is a necessary truth, we cannot always know what that necessary truth is. Thus we might find ourselves with a correct addition but doubting whether it was true - i.e. doubting a necessary truth; or conversely, justifiably believing that an actually incorrect addition was necessarily true. Both of which possibilities may sound fairly outrageous.

I can see that these points bear more heavily on epistemological status in that they concern similarities between how we come to know and our justification for saying that we know both the necessary truths of mathematics and the contingent truths of science. But it does makes me wonder whether the logical status of mathematics can really be so different from that of science.

I don't know if the work of Imre Lakatos is approved of at all nowadays but, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, his 'Conjectures and Proofs' was seen as an inspired attempt at a quasi-empiricist, fallibilist philosophy of mathematics along the lines of Karl Popper's philosophy of science (again perhaps not too widely approved of today). But there is an undoubted attraction in Lakatos's view that mathematics progresses in the same way Popper says science does; that is through a process of criticism of problems, conjectures and proofs. Especially attractive is the way it eliminates that troubling and troublesome distinction that is supposed to exist between our certain knowledge of the necessary truths of mathematics and our uncertain knowledge of the contingent truths of science. Mathematics and scientific knowledge become the same in kind and confidence in both (albeit provisional) becomes a matter of degree along the same sort of spectral lines. Conjectures, hypotheses and proposed proofs in mathematics can be doubted, criticised, evaluated and established through peer review in the same way as those of science and we can be more confident of some scientific theories than we can be of some mathematical ones. There are interesting comparisons to be made here with Quine - especially his holism and denial of the analytic/synthetic distinction.

As I said in my original question, these points never get made in introductory philosophy books. They always give trivial examples like 3+4=7 to support the view that we have certain knowledge of mathematical truths because they are necessary and we cannot envisage circumstances in which they might be false.  But this is hardly true of mathematical propositions in general. Take, for example, Fermat's Last Theorem. Andrew Wiles proved this in 1995 but it was doubted for 350 years before that and it still seems possible to doubt it in the same way that  for many years some mathematicians doubted Euler's Conjectures, based on Fermat, but applied to 4 and 5 dimensions. The doubters were eventually proved right when actual numerical counterexamples were discovered in the second half of the 20th century - i.e. the conjectures were actually falsified by concrete examples (very Popperian!) [see footnote]. Conversely, Goldbach's Conjecture might actually be false but we may well feel justified in regarding it as a necessary truth, given that no one has ever found an even number that is not the sum of two primes. These examples exhibit mathematical theorems in a different light and, I think, show that they have both epistemological and logical similarities to scientific propositions. On this sort of view we do not have to grant superior status to any kind of knowledge on the grounds that either its objects or our apprehension of them are privileged. Thus is knowledge democratised.

Yours sincerely,

John Sartoris



The actual counter-examples to Euler's Conjectures were:

2682440[4] + 15365639[4] + 18796760[4] = 20615673[4]

where [4] = 'to the power of 4'

27[5] + 84[5] + 110[5] + 13[5] = 144[5]

where [5] = 'to the power of 5'

Additional notes

FERMAT'S LAST THEOREM states that there are no numbers x, y, z such that:

x[3] + y[3] = z[3]

where [3] = 'to the power of 3'

GOLDBACH'S CONJECTURE states that for every even number n, there exist prime numbers x, y such that x + y = n

PYTHAGORAS' THEOREM states that if x, y, z are the lengths of the sides of any right angled triangle, and z is the length of the hypotenuse, then:

x[2] = y[2] = z[2]

where [2] = 'squared' or 'to the power of 2'



Tony Kemplen in conversation with Rebecca Shatwell

"The vision I have for the Web is about anything being potentially connected with anything. It is a vision that provides us with new freedom, and allows us to grow faster than we ever could when we were fettered by the hierarchical classification systems into which we bound ourselves." [2]

"Today... A Library, a museum - in fact, any large collection of cultural data - is replaced by a computer database. At the same time, a computer database becomes a new metaphor that we use to conceptualize individual and collective cultural memory, a collection of documents or objects, and other phenomena and experiences." [3]


RS: Encyclopaedia Mundi is a new form of database. A constantly evolving collection of hundreds of images from the internet generated from an absurd series of software programmes, that process information from a collection of eighteen souvenir objects. Could you describe this series of processes and translations?

TK: The sort of software I am using includes programmes for translating data from one form to another. The first process that you'll see is a sonification programme that takes an image and makes sound out of it. That particular programme (vOICe - was developed as an experimental aid for blind people, where a head mounted camera would give a sound picture of what is in front of them. The sound from that is used as the input to the next software process which is a speech recognition programme. This is something that I've been interested in since they first became widely available about five or six years ago, and what really intrigued me was the sort of texts that are thrown up when they are given sounds to work with that are different to the slowly enunciated speech that they are meant for. After a minute or two the recognition process stops and the computer chooses the last word that it has recognised for the final stage, which is to search the internet for images using that word as a key word. It will potentially download up to several hundred images.

RS: So these images are then collected to make up the Encyclopaedia Mundi database?

TK: Yes, through this process the computer is building up a database of text and image (text that it has recognised and images associated with it). If it's already used the same word in one day it will skip it and choose another word, so you don't end up with lots of duplicate files. There are no restrictions placed on the search, which uses the Google Image Search Programme.

RS: One of the key themes of the work is the parallel you have created between the internet as a search engine and medieval Cabinets of Curiosity as another system of classification. What do you see as the relationship between the internet and the Wunderkammer?

TK: Cabinets of Curiosity have been of interest to me for quite a few years. I'm interested in what happens when things are classified in ways that you wouldn't normally do in everyday life. Cabinets of Curiosity were exclusively assembled by rich Princes as a way of trying to understand the world by labeling, classifying and establishing control over the object and the civilisation it represented. This notion of an obscure collection just seems in a way to be similar to how we use the internet, where we can gather text and information from all over the world. Encyclopaedia Mundi plays on that parallel of historical and contemporary information gathering, classifying and cataloging of data and objects.

RS: Your approach to the collection of objects draws parallels with the acquisition of objects for the Wunderkammer. The eighteen objects which provide the starting point for Encyclopaedia Mundi were collected from charity shops in Leeds, Lancaster and Derby.

TK: Yes that's right. There were various categories which were used by the Cabinets of Curiosity owners - such as naturalia, artificialia and orientalia. I've focused on a particular subclass of objects which I've called charitabilia, that are items donated to charity shops which look to me as if they may well have been souvenirs from foreign holidays that people have disposed of. The idea of using eighteen coloured cabinets is loosely based on the collection of Ferdinand II at Ambras near Innsbruck where there are said to have been eighteen cupboards, colour coded to show their contents, such as green for silver, red for clocks, yellow for coins, that sort of thing.

RS: I'm interested in the association between the original charitabilia objects and the images and texts that result from the software processes. As the work is so processed based, any concluding connection between them seems to be rendered absurd?

TK: Yes, it is very much a process based work, rather than being outcome driven. The database at the end consists of short texts that have been recognized from the images of the objects, it also has folders full of images that relate to those texts, but there's no real, direct connection between any of those things.

RS: So how much control do you have (or want to have) over the ordering of the collection?

TK: The thing at the centre of this collection isn't me, it's the computer. Although obviously I organised the structure of the software and set it up to do it, I don't feel that I'm the controlling force in it. I've set up this process and I'm basically just leaving it alone during the exhibition. Once the Encyclopaedia Mundi starts you can't stop it. It's constantly trying to wring meaning out of these objects, which they don't inherently have. But it's so desperate to try and make sense of its surroundings that it's throwing up images and texts which don't visually seem to have anything to do with the objects. The Encyclopaedia Mundi is highlighting this human need to find meaning in everything, and constantly refers back to the internet as a vast library to be grazed or browsed.

RS: In addition to the installation there is the Encyclopaedia Mundi website, which adds another layer of classification, how does that work?

TK: If you log onto, you'll see the most recent collection of images that the software has found, with the most recent texts scrolling the screen. So there will be some kind of notion of the database being available to search online.

RS: As a new media installation, Encyclopaedia Mundi draws on pre-existing, commercially available software packages. So in a way you are using the technology as a kind of found object or readymade?

TK: I don't write software, all the software I use already exists, I'm not a programmer. I am interested in software doing things unexpectedly, that it's not been designed to do. The first software I used was speech recognition and speech synthesizer software in earlier works such as the audio CD Avocado/Avvocato (1999). This was a site specific work made in response to a domestic environment; I worked with some significant objects in the house (which happened to be a large number of avocado stones and the European Working Times Directive). I reset the entire text of the legal document using only the letters a, v, o, c, a, d and o, and the results were read out by an Italian speech synthesizer (Avvocato is Italian for lawyer).

RS: You've also worked in the past with redundant technology and exploited the restrictions and parameters of the technology itself, like in The End, for example.

TK: I'm quite happy for work to develop depending on what technology is available and what I can do with it. I was in the Redundant Technology Initiative first show and the redundant technology that I worked with was old record players networked together (No Overall Control, 1997). The record players were wired together in such a way that each one was controlled by two other decks, leading to a chaotic system in which cascades of switching combinations worked their way through the system. The End (Site Gallery, 2002) was constructed from plug-in electrical timers, of the sort widely available in DIY shops and supermarkets. Nine plugs with nine leads plugged into nine timers in nine sockets were connected to a neon sign reading 'The End'. The neon light is due to light up in 1000000000000 years. These low tech works were certainly about setting up things which are destined to fail.

RS: Failure is something that comes across in other works, like Polyglot for instance?

TK: Polyglot (Ikon Gallery, 1999) used thirty six animatronic parrots to illustrate the failure of the artificial language movement. I made a classroom of the parrots, arranged on perches, and literally tested them to destruction. Tannoy speakers shouted out the names of several invented languages, Esperanto, Interlingua, Ido, Volapuk, and the parrots repeat them back amongst themselves, the speech becoming ever more distorted until it ends in a meaningless babble. The whole cycle is then repeated with another language, in much the same way as humans have continued to come up with fresh ways to aid communication, which despite the high intentions seem doomed to failure.

RS: In addition to failure as a theme, your work is often explored through imperfections and glitches in technology.

TK: Although Encyclopaedia Mundi is designed to operate online, I have also looked at offline possibilities, so that if a glitch occurs Encyclopaedia Mundi will search its own database of perhaps ten thousand images instead of the internet. It is this idea of imperfections in systems that interest me, and the thought that the work is not necessarily always doing what we think it is.


1. Unaccompanied Yield is the only two word anagram of Encyclopaedia Mundi

2. Tim Berners-Lee, 'Weaving the Web', Texere Publishing, 2000, p.1

3. Lev Manovich, 'The Language of New Media', MIT Press, 2001, p.21

Tony Kemplen's installation Encyclopaedia Mundi opened at Folly, Lancaster, UK and is touring to Q Arts, Derby and Pavilion, Leeds. Exhibition dates 22 March - 26 April. The exhibition is funded through the Arts Council of England National Touring Programme.

Rebecca Shatwell is New Media Curator at Pavilion

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© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020