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Fig. – Knight, Death and the Devil (1513). This is one of three metal engravings by Albrecht Dürer in a series called Meisterstiche (since I have started this blog, I have also chosen a woodcut engraving done by Dürer, – his Rhinoceros – for several reasons, one being that it appeared in Europe for the fisrt time trough Lisbon in 1515). The others are Melancholia I and Saint Jerome in His Study. The engraving is dated 1513, two hundred years after the dissolution of the Knights Templar in 1313. We see a skull in the bottom left corner; the night in full armour (shining armor?) carries a lance; behing him is a pig-snouted horned devil and he is passing Death on his pale horse, who is carrying an hourglass. Under the knight’s horse runs a long-haired retriever, a hunting dog. Dürer called this picture Reuter, which is, Rider. (source).
“Every evil leaves a sorrow in the memory, until the supreme evil, death,
wipes out all memories together with all life“. Leonardo da Vinci.
Carlos Gershenson (Complexes blog), some days ago just uploaded a short (5 pp.) philosophical essay about life, death and artificial life (*) (aLife), which I vividly recommend. He starts his “What Does Artificial Life Tell Us About Death?” with this precise Leonardo’s quote (above). Among other passages it’s interesting to see how different notions of death are deduced from a limited set of different notions of life (in many situations, opposing terms could be used to define each other). Carlos points us out to six currents, or lines of thought:
• If we consider life as self-production (Varela et al., 1974; Maturana and Varela, 1980, 1987; Luisi, 1998), then death will the the loss of that self-production ability.
• If we consider life as what is common to all living beings (De Duve, 2003, p. 8), then death implies the termination of that commonality, distinguishing it from other living beings.
• If we consider life as computation (Hopfield, 1994), then death will be the end (halting?) of that computing process.
• If we consider life as supple adaptation (Bedau, 1998), death implies the loss of that adaptation.
• If we consider life as a self-reproducing system capable of at least one thermodynamic work cycle (Kauffman, 2000, p. 4), death will occur when the system will be unable to perform thermodynamic work.
• If we consider life as information (a system) that produces more of its own information than that produced by its environment (Gershenson, 2007), then death will occur when the environment will produce more information than that produced by the system.
I was aware of Kauffman’s “blender thought experiment”, however Gershenson adds much more into it. A variation. He goes on like this. Nice reading:
[...] Focussing on our understanding of death, this will depend necessarily on our understanding of life, and vice versa. Throughout history there have been several explanations to both life and death, and it seems unfeasible that a consensus will be reached. Thus, we are faced with multiple notions of life, which imply different notions of death. However, generally speaking, if we describe life as a process, death can be understood as the irreversible termination of that process. The general notion of life as a process or organization (Langton, 1989; Sterelny and Griffiths, 1999; Korzeniewski, 2001) has expelled vitalism from scientific worldviews. Moreover, there are advantages in describing living systems from a functional perspective, e.g. it makes the notion of life independent of its implementation. This is crucial for artificial life. Also, we know that there is a constant flow of matter and energy in living systems, i.e. their physical components can change while the identity of the organism is preserved. In this respect, one can make a variation of Kauffman’s “blender thought experiment” (Kauffman, 2000): if you put a macroscopic living system in a blender and press “on”, after some seconds you will have the same molecules that the living system had. However, the organization of the living system is destroyed in the blending. Thus, life is an organizational aspect of living systems, not so much a physical aspect. Death occurs when this organization is lost. [...]
(*) even if, I do not recommend this Wikipedia entry. Extremely poor.
Fig. – Illusion created by Prof. Akiyoshi Kitaoka (Dep. of Psychology, Ritsumeikan Univ., Kyoto, Japan). If you don’t see any illusion at all, don’t worry. That’s exactly why this optical illusion is so great. The illusion is not there, or is it?! Meanwhile over his page, Akiyoshi warns: This page contains some works of “anomalous motion illusion”, which might make sensitive observers dizzy or sick. Should you feel dizzy, you had better leave this page immediately (more).
Where’s the illusion, right? Well,… what if I just tell you that no blue at all is used over this picture! No matter how strongly you want to believe you are seeing blue and green spirals here, there is no blue color in this image. There is only green, red and orange. What you think is blue is actually green. Don’t worry, … you are not daltonic. I mean, I’m a little bit but, you could check this out through Paint Shop Pro or Photoshop, if you need an affirmation. Indeed, these are just “Vain speculation undeceived by the senses” (1670′s Scilla’s treatise) .
In fact, Relations here, between different colors (green, red and orange), are more important than each color by itself. Relations plus context are the key (more here over Generative Art, and here over Swarm Intelligence based Pattern Recognition). Through these relations, much probably using Gestalt‘s principles (the German word Gestalt could be translated into “configuration or pattern”), here Akiyoshi manages to emerge us the blue color over our perception. This does not cheat a computer of course, however could cheat our own eyes. In other areas the opposite could also be found. For instance, Humans can easily recognize a car over background trees (segment it, in just tiny lapses of a second), while this natural task could be extremely painful for computers over some cases (here is one example).
Born in Prague (inspired by 1890′s works of Christian von Ehrenfels, Austrian philosopher), then later absorbed by a great and tremendous intellectual period occurred from Germany back to Austria (Bauhaus), the Gestalt Laws of Organization have guided the study of how people perceive visual components as organized patterns or wholes, instead of many different parts. I would say that most certainly some Wertheimer’s gestaltic principles were used in here: Figure and Ground, Similarity, Proximity or Contiguity, Continuity, Closure, Area, and Symmetry (check Gestalt Theory of Visual Perception). We could see this happening also in other areas, … in Music for instance:
[...] Gestalt theory first arose in 1890 as a reaction to the prevalent psychological theory of the time – atomism. Atomism examined parts of things with the idea that these parts could then be put back together to make wholes. Atomists believed the nature of things to be absolute and not dependent on context. Gestalt theorists, on the other hand, were intrigued by the way our mind perceives wholes out of incomplete elements [1, 2]. “To the Gestaltists, things are affected by where they are and by what surrounds them…so that things are better described as “more than the sum of their parts.” [1, p. 49]. Gestaltists believed that context was very important in perception. An essay by Christian von Ehrenfels discussed this belief using a musical example. Take a 12 note melody. Play it in one key, say the key of C. Now change to another key, say the key of A flat. There might not be any notes the same in the two songs, yet a person listening to it knows that it is the same tune. It is the relationships between the notes that give us the tune, the whole, not which notes make up the tune. [...], from “Gestalt Principles of Perception“, Bonnie Skaalid, Univ. of Saskatchewan, Canada, 1999.
Care for an contemporary example? Well, … the first thing that comes to my mind is DUB music genre. In fact, I do have several albums from different musicians over my house. Dub music evolved in Jamaica (1968) from early rastafarian instrumental reggae music and versions that incorporated fairly primitive reverbs and echo sound effects, being found by accident (engineer Byron Smith left the vocal track out by accident). Over decades, it inspired immense groups of musicians from well-known bands such as The Police, The Clash, UB40 up to reputed musicians such as Bill Laswell. Of course !, it was not far from what John Cage have made for the solo piano Music of Changes, to determine which notes should be used and when they should sound. In the fifty’s, Cage start it to use the mechanism of the I Ching (Chinese “Book of Changes”) in the composition of his music in order to provide a framework for his uses of chance.
Other most recent bands include, Leftfield, Massive Attack, Bauhaus, The Beastie Boys, Asian Dub Foundation, Underworld, Thievery Corporation, Gorillaz, Kruder & Dorfmeister, and DJ Spooky. But what is then so special about Dub? Well, one of this genre’s most striking features is the fact that some if not all musical sentences are incomplete. Those special sentences (Gestaltic, let me add), are normally followed by a pause. The most amazing thing however, is that us, Humans could perceive the entire sentence being formed on the back of our minds! So the music is not there, and at the same time, we are listening to two adjacent simultaneous melodies, as we were a composer. By just using relations among a few notes, we soon start to emerge a perception for the whole sentence, as if they were self-organizing! Being it extremely rhythmic, this often could lead us to a sweet soft state of overwhelming emotion, or exalted organic feel to the music .
As you will probably know by now, the same could happen over misplaced letters over an entire phrase. Even if some letters are not at their right proper place, at each word, we could still perceive the whole sentence meaning. Up to your gestaltic neurons to decipher.
Next time you go to a rave party (I never did, neither pretend to), do think about the title of this post, the figure above, as well as on all those great past musicians, along with – unfortunately – awkward current DJ’s, who pass on for hours strident music mixes without knowing at all what Gestalt is all about! Oh, … by the way, should you feel extremely dizzy, do follow Akiyoshi’s advice: If you start feeling unwell when using this website (rave party), immediately cover one eye with your hand and then leave the page (leave the party). Do not close your both eyes because that can make the attack worse!