During the twelve years I worked among scientists at the University of Stirling in Scotland, a transformation took place in my understanding of just about everything to do with the role of the eye and the brain in the organisation of the the main perceptual and motor skills used in the making of drawings and paintings. PART 2 of my book “What Scientists can Learn from Artists” tells of experiments done by myself, colleagues and other scientists that made especially significant contributions to this exciting development.
Chapter 7, (accessed by clicking on link below) offers an autobiographical introduction the contents of PART 2 that gives a flavour of what I was up to in those years. A theme that runs through its pages is that the transformative learning was a two way process, offering benefits to all concerned. Time revealed many unexpected advantages in my being a combination of an experienced artist/teacher and a naive beginner in all the scientific disciplines in which I was to participate. My new colleagues found themselves faced with a drip feed of questions coming from unfamiliar perspectives that were to prove their value as catalysts capable of stimulating new ideas for a surprising number of highly expert scientists, working in a variety of disciplines. In return, their often participatory responses enabled me to put together the body of ideas that underpin the originality of my books, my teaching and, to an important extent, my work as an artist.
In an earlier Post I told of the teaching of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudranand its widespread influence. In it I did not mention another important figure who also developed a method for training the memory. Her name was Elizabeth Cavé. Like Lecoq Boisbaudran her method eventually found favour with the establishment and was to some extent introduced into the national curriculum. She was also, over some 30 years, a personal friend and confidant, often described as “mistress”, of Eugène Delacroix, who was something of a Father figure to the young Impressionists, including:
Edgar Degas who, as a young man, went, with his friend Gustave Moreau (teacher of Matisse), to visit Delacroix in his studio. When they arrived, despite having been warned to expect a testy old cumudgeon, they were given a warm and generous welcome. In contrast they described his intellect “icy”, maybe a reaction to the scientific bent that led him to be an early champion of the ideas of Michel-Eugène Chevreul, the chemist who first enunciated the law of ‘simultaneous colour contrast’
Probably all the other young ‘Impressionists’ for whom it is said that a ‘must see’ experience was the application of Chevreul’s law to be found in the frescoes painted by Delacroix towards his life (between 1857 and 1861), in the L’Eglise St. Sulpice, Paris.
Why I wrote a letter to LRB
With all this information in my head, you can imagine how my interest perked up when I came across a quotation from Delacroix in an article by T.J.Clark, published in the London Review of Books in October 2019. In this Delacroix tells us that he experienced a paradigm shift in his approach to painting, from being “hounded by a love of exactitude” to employing his memory to sift out “what is striking and poetic”. He also states that this transformation occurred as a spinoff from his “African voyage” in 1832.
On reading this endorsement of the virtues of channeling experience through memory, I was immediately reminded of the philosophy of Lecoq Boisbaudran. From there my mind jumped to Elizabeth Cavé and to wondering whether Delacroix’s change of direction had any link to her teaching method. When I discovered that their liaison had started in earnest in 1832, I could not resist the thought that either she had influenced Delacroix or, perhaps more likely, vice versa. If so, there seemed to be quite a lot to add to what T.J.Clark had to say. Below is what I wrote.
T.J.Clark (LRB 10-10-2019) quotes Eugene Delacroix as dating a change from being hounded by a love of exactitude to making work based on “recalling” what is striking and poetic. He asserted that it came after his “African voyage”, which mean after his return from Morocco in 1832. When I read this I immediately realised that this date roughly coincided with the beginning of his relationship with Elizabeth Cave in 1833. Whether or not her ideas were influenced by Delacroix or visa versa , she published ‘Le dessin sans maître’, which received a laudatory review from her by now long standing friend (in the ‘Revue de deux Mondes’ of September 1850). In it, she explained her method of teaching drawing which, according to her, she had been practicing since 1847. Key to this was training of the memory. Two years earlier, in 1848, Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran published a compilation of two texts, ‘L’Éducation de la mémoire pittoresque’ and ‘la formation de l’artiste’, in which he explained his method, also based on training the memory. His connection with Delacroix can be inferred from the personages in the 1864 painting ‘Homage à Delacroix’ by his pupil Henri Fantin-Latour, in which we see others two students of Lecoq Boisbaudran, Alphonse Legros and Felix Bracquemond. Also in the painting is James MacNeil Whistler who is know to have learnt Lecoq Boisbaudran’s method from Alphonse Legros and who famously demonstrated it to a doubter. He did this, first, by looking at an unfamiliar landscape and, then, turning his back on it and painting it from memory (for more about the influence of Lecoq Boisbaudran and its plausible ramifications see < http://www.painting-school.com/horace-lecoq-boisbaudran-influence/ >).
So how does all this relate to the quotation from Delacroix? The clue lies in his youthful “love of exactitude” being replaced by a more mature approach based on “recalling what was striking and poetic.” What Lecoq Boisbaudran would surely have argued is that the great man’s earlier obsession with ‘accuracy’ prepared him for his later personalised use of memory with all its benefits, for this was exactly what his teaching method (and presumably that of Elizabeth Cave) aimed at achieving. The main differences, he could argue, lay in the shortness of the time in which his students were expected to make their transition and the methodical progression from simple to complicated that characterised the learning exercises that made it possible. Surely, both Delacroix and Lecoq Boisbaudran would have concurred with Edgar Degas, significantly a great friend of Alphonse Legros, when he said, “It is always very well to copy what you see, but much better to draw what only the memory sees. Then you get a transformation, in which imagination works hand in hand with the memory and you reproduce only what has particularly struck you.”
As well as the personalisation of artistic output, the method had huge advantages in terms of rapidity of information pick up. The famous late watercolours (‘Cambodian dancers’, etc) of Rodin, another student and a lifelong admirer of Lecoq Boisbaudran and his teaching, illustrate both these advantages. Likewise the post-African paintings and drawings of Delacroix. Also, I find it hard to believe that there is not some connection here with Delacroix’s famous assertion that “any artists worth his salt should be able to draw a man that has been thrown out of a sixth floor window before he hits the ground.”
PS. For your interest, I was teaching on much the same principles as Lecoq Boisbaudran for at leat 25 years before I learnt of his existence. These I derived from research done at the University of Stirling in the early 1980s <http://www.painting-school.com/the-course/the-course-director/>.
Back in November 2019 I started posting chapters from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”, the book which presents the research and the science based ideas that that lie behind much of the contents of my three other books: “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”, “Painting with Light and Colour” and ” Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”. I set the ball rolling with with six of the chapters that describe research findings which were in large part responsible for:
Overturning almost all the preconceptions I had about the nature of visual perception.
Providing the building blocks required for replacing them with the coherent picture presented in these books.
When I first came across the material I have summarised in these chapters, their cumulative effect on me was more than just fascinating. It amounted to a paradigm shift. My hope is that reading them will perform the same service for others, particularly when buttressed by the contents of earlier and later chapters.
Below is an extract from the “Preface” to “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”, which summarises its structure. The chapters so far published in my Posts come from PART 2. In the next weeks I will be posting chapters from PART 1 and in the coming months chapters from PART 3. I will wait to see the level of interest before I go on to PART 4, which I have reason to believe will be is considerably more demanding on non scientists.
Also below are links to already published Posts.
The structure of the book
Because the context of the knowledge of scientists and artists is so different, it seems prudent to provide a certain amount of background material which, while likely to be familiar to readers from one side of the arts/science divide, may well not be to those from the other. Thus PART 1 contains a number of general ideas both artistic and scientific many of which may well be familiar to one community and not the other, and PART 3 provides a basic introduction for non scientists to the nature of visual perception that emphasises the variety of visual systems involved in different aspects of visual processing. The function of PART 2 is to describe the main experiments used to underpin the theoretical speculations which lead to the general model of perceptual and cognitive processes that provides the subject matter for PART 4. Throughout the attempt has been made to present ideas in such a way that they will be understood by both groups.
Chapters from my book “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”
These deal with subjects that feature in the other volumes in greater depth.
The purpose this Post is to provide a link to “Constraint in artistic aids and practices “, Chapter 9 in my book “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”. As in several other Posts that publish book chapters, I include a slightly edited reprise of its“introductory”, in the hope it will whet your appetite and encourage you to click on the link below. I am hoping that when you have read all the chapters of all my books, you will realise that the answer to the question posed in the heading to this section is “Yes”. The images below illustrate two methods of constraint favoured by artists in former centuries that foreshadow ones that are widely used today: For example, photographs, slide projections, and computer controlled images. All of these, whether consciously or not, make use of constraints, the possibilities of which have been developed by evolution over the millennia, such as standing still, choosing a viewing distance or closing an eye al of which constrain input to our visual systems and, thereby, enable learning and creativity, its corollary.
If we want to be creative, we will have to free ourselves from the constraints of old ways of doing things in order to go beyond them into new territory.
In this chapter, we take a step towards the goal of a practical understanding of how this might be done. It starts with my telling how I stumbled on the intuition that constraint may be a necessary condition for exploring the unknown, and provides examples of how the community of artists, whether consciously or not, have made much use of this possibility. Eventually I found myself coming to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that constraint is necessary if we are to achieve either meaningful freedom or creative self expression. I also came to realise that the use of constraint is one of the guiding principles of our evolution as a species.
My approach to going deeper into the creative powers of constraint, starts with account of how I came to realise their central importance. I use the particularities of my own story because of the insights it furnishes relating to the creative process in general: long periods of gathering data, struggles with the confusion that they seem to engender, a sudden intuition that provides a lead on how order might be found and, finally, doing the work necessary to test its validity.
The inspiration for my breakthrough came when reading a book by J.J. Gibson, one of the most controversial yet influential perceptual psychologists of the day.
Members of the University of Stirling Vision Group
In many places in my books, I acknowledge the importance of the role of colleagues from University of Stirling in the development of the new science-based ideas put forward in them. In particular I mention cooperations with scientists from various departments who later were to join me in the University of Stirling Vision Group. The most important of these were:
Alistair Watson (Physics, psychology and computer imagery).
Lindsay Wilson* (at the time working on aspects of visual perception).
Also, although Peter Brophy* did not join our group, he was an ever-available and important source of information on the biochemistry of the brain.
The founding of the Vision Group.
It was in the Autumn of 1984 that Alistair, Leslie and I took the first steps in the setting up of the University of Stirling Vision Group, which was to have many meetings attended by the above named colleagues and other members of the various interested Departments. Its starting point was a package of ideas developed by Alistair and myself, and two core algorithms based on them, produced by Alistair. These were:
A “colour constancy algorithm“, capable of modelling both spatial and temporal colour constancy, which was inspired by our interpretation of how this phenomenon is achieved by human eye/brain systems. As a preliminary step to achieving this main objective, the algorithm has to pick off the information about surface-reflection. Since it was obvious that the reflected-light contained information, we speculated upon how it might be used by the eye/brain. Due to my interest in picture perception, we focused on its potential for computing surface-form, in front/behind relations, and the wavelength composition of ambient illumination.**
A “classification/recognition algorithm”, based on our interpretation of how human eye/brain systems achieves their primary task of enabling recognition.***
We could not help being excited by the early tests of these algorithms and the speculations concerning their potential. In our enthusiasm to push matters further, Alistair suggested we should seek the help of other researchers, particularly ones with expertise in:
Mathematics and computing.
Visual perception with special reference of visual memory.
It was at this juncture that, having decided on a name for what we were hoping would become a collaborative group, we contacted Leslie Smith for his mathematical and computing skills. But this was only a start. Once Leslie was on board, we approached Bill Phillips, whose long standing interest in visual memory had led him to take the plunge into the recently emerging domain of neural networks and learning algorithms. After many Vision Group meetings, much sharing of ideas, many hours spent working on implementations of algorithms, and the writing of a number of working papers, we decided to submit a suite of five grant applications to the Science and Engineering Research Council, who had let it be known that they were looking for groups of researchers working on the use of computers to model the functional principles of neural system. The stated aim of the SERC was to set up a small number of “Centres of Excellence” in this domain. Not only were two of our grant applications accepted (one submitted by Bill Phillips and one submitted by Leslie Smith), but also our university was encouraged to create a brand new Centre for Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience . This empire absorbed the University of Stirling Vision Group which ceased to have an independent existence. Its coming into existence also coincided with my departure from Stirling on my way to founding my Painting School of Montmiral, where I intended to put theory into practice both in my own work and in my teaching. I also had hopes of confirming and, with any luck, extending the theory. Also after leaving Stirling University, Alistair and I were founder members of a small software development company which used ideas developed within the Vision Group as a basis for creating an image manipulation tool. ****
* The links to Bill, Leslie, Lindsay and Peter relate to their current status. Alistair, Karel and Ranald all retired or died before the Internet became the essential information source it has since become.
** My book is full of examples of how fruitful this speculation proved to be.
The word “abstract” is commonly used to refer to a wide variety of paintings. Therefore, there is clearly some confusion as to precisely what it means. This is partly because its usage by artists and critics has evolved over the years and partly because its subtleties have been degraded by an uninformed public. One unresolved issue is where to draw the line between “figurative” and “non-figurative”. Few nowadays would describe Paul Cézanne as an abstract artist (see image below), yet his working philosophy exemplifies the original meaning given to the word.
This Post, like many others, is an illustrated excerpt from “Having fun with creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”. What is meant by “having fun”, is enjoying a process by which thoughts, however trivial or wrongheaded, lead to a mushrooming of other thoughts and, thereby, to an exploration of issues that otherwise might be passed over. What follows, not only touches on the subjects of abstraction and construction in painting, but also how these relate to the processes by which the eye/brain systems synthesise meaning from visual input. The four sections are headed: 1–ABSTRACTION, 2-CONSTRUCTION, 3-CHANGES IN MEANING and 4-IMAGES OF PAINTINGS (illustrating, “Abstracting the essence” and “Constructing from the basic building blocks of visual perception”).
What is an abstract painting?
So what qualifies as being an abstract painting? An explanation as to why the word “abstract” was chosen in preference to other words offers a start to the answer. Why not “extract” or “subtract”? It is worth asking such questions because doing so can help a process of refining understanding. It enables the use of same/difference judgments within the domain of words as a means of creating and/or nuancing our sense of their meaning. Thus:
The word “extract” means take something out of something.
The word “subtract” means take something away from something.
In either case the original something is diminished. In contrast:
The word “abstract” means distilling the essence of something, with the implication that this can be done without loosing essential meaning.
Accordingly, the word “abstract” seems best of the three because it implies the possibility of finding what is valuable with the least collateral damage. This is why it was chosen.
However, there is still much ambiguity that requires clarification. If we take the example of the “abstract” of a scientific paper, it is easy to see that however well written, something must have been lost, since otherwise there would be no need for the paper itself. In the case of artists’ abstractions from natural scenes, the situation is less clear, particularly since the image of every scene that comes to our consciousness is produced in the first place through the mediation of eye/brain processing systems that arrive at their conclusions by means of a complex blend of selective and constructive processes. We look at a coffee mug differently according to whether our intention is to drink from it or to make a drawing of its outline. When we want to drink from it, we will normally bypass all information about it except that which is necessary for picking it up and putting its brim to our our mouth. When we draw its outline, we need to make judgements of relativities of position, length, orientation, curvature, etc., and we can safely ignore the information needed to drink from it.
Nor, in this context, should we ever forget that what we experience as “seeing” depends heavily on information coming from non-visual sources accessed (a) by other sensory systems and (b) by memory-stores that have been built up and refined during a lifetime. Thus, both the knowledge that it is coffee time and the smell of coffee, provide context that helps our visual systems to home in on the coffee mug. When we are confronted by a landscape, the way we look at it and the information we derive from it are determined by a mixture of current contingencies and our life’s experience. No two people would find the same essence in it. Indeed, it is now clear that in creating conscious visual experience, our eye/brain systems ignore a great deal more of the information coming into our eyes than they make use of. A mathematician might suggest that they ignore an infinite amount of it.
So how do these facts help us to think about looking at paintings? What differences are there between looking at a real world object and an image of it found in a painting? Generally speaking, when we look at a painted image, situated in illusory pictorial space, the information available will be much less than can be accessed from the real world object. For example, no matter how photographically realistic it may be, an image painting onto a flat surface will not provide the eye/brain systems with the kind of spatial-depth information that is created by means of either stereopsis or motion parallax. Likewise, a sketchily produced portrait will contain much less information than an actual face.
But what is the effect of this impoverishment of available sources of information on the efficiency of the eye/brain visual systems? Does it make their task more difficult? Not necessarily so. As indicated above, all correct classifications are achieved without taking a great deal of potentially relevant information into account. It is worth remembering that efficiency can be defined as achieving an objective with the least possible effort. In the case of the impressive efficiency of eye/brain systems, this means overlooking as much visually available information as is feasible. If we take full advantage of contextual information coming both from other sensory systems and from memory, it can mean overlooking practically all of it. Elsewhere, I give the example of a blur of redness being a sufficient cue to identify a familiar dress in a familiar wardrobe in which it is known that no other red dresses have been placed.
This impressive degree of parsimony has interesting implications for artists. For example, does it mean that a blur of red could adequately represent the dress in a painting? The answer to this question depends on what is meant by the phrase “adequately represent”. In the obvious sense, the answer must be “no”. Nobody would expect the woman in question to reach out for the painted image of a red dress in the wardrobe in the expectation of being able to wear it. On the other hand, the red in the painting might trigger either “feelings” or “memories” associated with the history of the dress that the real dress would not. If it does, how could this influence the experience of people looking at paintings? Two questions, bring us nearer to an answer:
Could feelings be stimulated by a particular red as itself. For example, it is perfectly possible for the colour of an individual stick of chalk pastel to access deeply embedded associations that trigger powerful emotions. If so, could these be added to the experience generated by a pastel painting of the red dress? Of course they could: I thought of the example because I know of an artist for whom love of her pastel sticks was integral to her way of making paintings.
If the the act of seeing the patch of red paint triggers “memories”, how much information could be added from memory stores? And, would these additions be more or less authentic than the information that would be accessed by the woman, if confronted by the actual dress? Since, the real object presents a maximum of information about its characteristic, there is no doubt about the theoretical answer to this question: the real dress has every advantage. But the question for the artist is not whether the red dress would provide more information, but how much of it would be used in practice and for what purposes?
Remember that efficiency can be defined as getting the best results by means of the least amount of effort. In the case of locating the real dress in the real wardrobe, this means identifying it with the least amount of looking. As explained above, the eye/brain systems regularly achieve wonders of parsimonious looking by making maximum use of “context” and “memory stores”. It follows that, the very familiarity of both the dress and its location would make it possible to achieve the goal of finding the dress while overlooking the totality of information other than the blur of redness.
However, the question arises as to whether this massive overlooking mean that the pictured dress might have the advantage over the real one when it comes, either to the amount of information about the dress actually acquired or to the potential for providing stimuli for the creative imagination? In both cases, the answer must be in the affirmative, since it could be argued that a pictured dress:
Would provoke the eye/brain systems into extra analysis, on account of its being less familiar than actual dress.
Would leave extra room for flights of the imagination, on account of its lack of interpretation-constraining details.
In other words, there are good reasons for concluding that, in practice, if not in necessarily in theory, an image of a depicted object perceived as being in illusory pictorial space will regularly, if not always:
Provide the eye/brain with more information than the real world object it represents.
Act as a better catalyst for the creativity of the imagination.
Needless to say, this is one of the many advantages that paintings have over nature.
The influence of others
Another possibility is that the dress-owning woman may fail to make a connection between the patch of red in the painting and the dress it was intended to represent, but that a friend does make a connection. If the friend shares her experience with the woman, by doing so she will be adding another level of context and, thereby, in all probability, causing a change in the meaning of the patch of colour for the dress-owning woman. Significantly, the revised significance could be achieved without making any changes to the actual colour.
But this is not all. One thing of which we can be quite certain of is that the representation of the dress in the head of the friend will be very different to that in the head of its owner. There is no possibility that both will have the same associations between the dress and happenings in their very different life stories. The interesting implication for artists is that what applies in the case of the two friends, also applies to them. When they apply a colour to a painting, they can have no way of knowing all the associations it might trigger in any one other person. Speaking generally, all human beings can say or do things that act as catalysts to the experience of others that are inaccessible to themselves. Indeed, it is difficult to see how communication between individuals could take any other but in this essentially catalytic and creative form.
But all this talk about “abstraction” in paintings and by the eye/brain systems has a soft underbelly for, as we all know, for some time now, the word “abstract” has been routinely applied to paintings that have absolutely no reference to nature, let alone to some essence extracted from it.
In the early 20th century, a number of painters and sculptors acknowledged the significance of this flight from representation by calling themselves “Constructivists” . These pioneers of non-figurative art adopted a radically new approach to their work that had much in common with the physicists of the day, who were on the trail of the building blocks of matter and the principles by which they are combined. Thus, the artists sought to identify the “primitives” of visual perception and to find objective principles for assembling them into art works.
By the fact of approaching paintings in this way, these artists saw themselves as challenging the long held assumption that painting should start from nature. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate to describe their work as distillations of it essence. For a growing number of them, including Kupka, Malevitch, Kandinsky and Mondrian, an alternative was needed that would be founded on a combination of the most basic elements they could think of and simple principles of construction. Over the years, this change of emphasis was reflected in the emergence of a host of different words or phrases to describe how different artists approached building on these foundations – “Constructivist”, “Non-objective”, “Concrete”, “Op”, “Systems”, etc., but all could be places under the umbrella of “Constructivism”.
3-CHANGES IN MEANING
As time passed the situation became more and more complicated. On the one hand there were critics trying to provide more precise classification and on the other there were artists exploring an ever expanding range of possibilities. Distinctions got blurred and terms like “Abstract Expressionism” confused the issue. The artists who were known by this name, were no longer abstracting from nature but rather attempting to make manifest their innermost feelings or allow universal forces to become manifest through them. In this situation, while artists were likely to choose and cling to one or other of the cavalcade of different meanings, the generality of people adopted the catch-all, common usage of today. For them the word “abstract” means anything that is not too closely tied to representation.
Students sometimes ask me to explain “abstract art” to them. As this request is almost invariably made by people whose focus has been on representation, I tend to answer in terms of the origins of the word. I point out that artists living in the second half of the 19th century, influenced by recent developments in the science of visual perception, became aware that all paintings could be described as an “assemblage of regions of colour on a picture surface”,*as interpreted by eye/brain processing systems. Once this conceptual step had been taken, it was only to be expected that, for some artists at least, the idea of looking to nature as the fount of all inspiration was bound to be questioned. From then on, it was only a matter of time before many artists either loosened their ties with representation or completely cut themselves off from it.
As for deciding which word we should choose when talking about any particular painting or group of paintings, including ones we have painted ourselves, my answer would be to take your choice in the light of the considerations discussed above. Perhaps, the main objective should be that you yourself understand the issues, at least well enough to be able to explain them to anyone who asks questions about your work. Meanwhile, the general public will continue to think of “abstract” as more or less anything non-figurative and pretty well everyone will have personal opinions about what counts as figurative. The difficulty lies in deciding on which point on the figurative/non-figurative continuum.
Abstracting the essence
Constructing from the basic building blocks of visual perception
* Quotation from the Nabis artist Maurice Denis.
** Quotation from Bonnard.
Other posts from “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10of“Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”
Michael Kidner , the artist, was a teacher at the Bath Academy of Art, when I was a student there. In my view, he was one of the most interesting and important artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It was my great luck that I was able to form a friendship with him that lasted over forty years, until his death in 2009. In 2007 he had a one man show at the Flowers East Gallery, London, to which he gave the title “No goals in a quicksand”. I was asked to help with the writing of the catalogue.* One of my contributions was a slightly edited version of a chapter from “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”, a book I was working on at the time and which is now one of the four books I am currently publishing in installments on the Posts Page of this website. My other main contribution to the catalogue was an introductory piece called “Michael Kidner the man”, which you will find repeated, after Figure 1 below. To complete this Post, I have also included a link to the chapter on Michael (“The big bang, chaos and the butterfly”) and an image of Michael’s last finished painting (Figure 2):
Michael Kidner the man
When considering Michael’s work, it is easy to concentrate attention too much on the science-based ideas and too little on the man and his feelings. As I have got to know him well, I have been impressed by a quality which I am tempted to call ‘naivete’, since it reminds me of a quotation from Matisse: “The effort to see without distortion takes something like courage and this courage is essential to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he saw it for the first time.” Michael looks at mathematically-based systems in this spirit and is not daunted by his shortcomings as a mathematician, of which he is only too aware. Thus, though characterising himself as groping towards an understanding of matters beyond his realistic grasp, Michael does not see this as a reason for abandoning his obsession with mathematical propositions. He sees these as relating to the fundamental mysteries of science and he looks at the evolution of systems, generated by a simple logic, in much the same way as Cézanne must have looked at natural objects, with total concentration and never ending wonder at the seemingly endless layers of novelty that open up before him. In other words, though he works with the ideas of science, he responds to them with the sensibility of an artist, experiencing them with innocent and ever inquisitive eyes. It is his personal and, therefore, quintessentially different visual response that reveals and creates, not only the perceptual excitements but also the metaphors for the human condition that are to be found in his work. Michael works slowly and doggedly. Daily he clambers up to his attic studio where he spends untold hours, apparently oblivious of time and human needs, patiently searching for the key that will give meaning to his latest quest. His explanations of what he is doing are delivered in a slightly hesitant and even seemingly self deprecating manner which completely fails to obscure the steadfast determination to go further which imbues his every word. There is no thought of calling it a day, even at the age of ninety years and even despite his physical handicaps. Cézanne wanted to die painting: one feels that Michael has this same level of commitment.
Thispost focuses on the revolution in painting that gathered momentum in the latter part of the nineteenth century. A key factor in its genesis was an earlier and still ongoing revolution in the then emerging science of visual perception (more posts on aspects of this to follow). At the core of this was an accumulation of evidence that demonstrated that colour is not a property of surfaces in the external world but a construction by the eye/brain. In Chapter 6 of my book “Fresh Insights into Creativity“, I have described what occurred as “The Modernist Experiment”. The word “experiment” is used because the discoveries of science, the threat of the recently invented photograph and the challenge to well-embedded assumptions posed by the Japanese print, led to:
A root and branch questioning of just about every aspect of painting.
A concerted effort to make paintings that would push forward the search for answers.
More than ever before, the thought-processes and working practice of artists illustrated the earlier groundbreaking contention of John Constablethat “paintings should be regarded as experiments“.
A link to the chapter
Please click on the link below to access the chapter in question. In it you will read how the revolution in painting evolved between the 1860s, when the young Impressionists met with now celebrated poets and writers in the Café Guerbois, Paris, and the 1960s, when an exhibition called “The Art of the Real“,at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, prepared the way for the arrival of so-called “Post Modernism” (to be the subject of a later Post).
My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “free-will” as “the power of acting without necessity or constraints”. A much debated question is whether human beings have this capability. Most answers are based on an easy-going introspection. “Surely, it is evident that we can make up our own mind on any question and in any situation we find ourselves?” However, over past centuries and decades various thinkers, for various reasons, have come to the conclusion that believers in free-will deceive themselves. According to their way of thinking, it can only be an illusion: All is determined by forces outside their control.
In essence, there have been two main arguments in support of this determinism. They are:
The theoretical impossibility of mental liberty coexisting with an all-powerful deity (see the the doctrine of predestination).
A belief that the neural systems that underpin human action and thought operate in a machine-like manner.
For those whose premise is the supremacy of God, free-will could only occur if the Deity were to give up power voluntarily. The argument continues that this is a step it could not take because doing so would mean cancelling out the most basic fact of its existence, namely its all-powerful nature.
For those who see brains as machines, all must be explained in terms of mechanical processes. They ask what they assume to be a rhetorical question: “How could a mere machine be endowed with free-will?” Both of these arguments can be treated as cases of special pleading, leaving fundamental questions unanswered. As might be expected, there have been many attempts to confront these, including the suggestion that follows, which depends on the notion of free-will as a functional reality.
Free-will as a functional reality
This possibility, as outlined below, is attractive not only because it has the advantage of overcoming the objections of those who insist on a mechanistic explanation, but also because it fits with what introspection tells us. Let me explain.
Earlier in this chapter, under the heading “modes of description”, I described my first viewing of the powers of an electron microscope and being amazed to see how unrecognisable the image of the same minute portion of a leaf could be when viewed at the different levels of magnification. There seemed to be absolutely nothing in common between them. However, the specialist doing the demonstration seemed to have no difficulty in describing both their functions and links between them.
But that was many years ago and no matter how seemingly complete the explanations he gave at the time, by now, they would have had to be revised in all sorts of ways. It could hardly be otherwise, for the relatively new and rapidly blooming science of molecular biology, aided by ever more sophisticated technology, has been revealing ever-increasing levels of complexity and creating a mushrooming of questions to ask. Accordingly, it would be surprising to find any serious scientist who currently believes that it will be possible, in anything like a near future, to arrive at a definitive description of the multiplicity of neural processes and interconnections that enable our brains, not only to to classify and recognise but also to learn and use motor and intellectual skills so effectively.
Computers competing with the human brain
For analogous reasons, a similar situation obtains in the field of computer-based brain-modelling. Despite all the astonishing progress that has been made in this field, computer scientists have still far to go before realising the goal of constructing a machine capable of mimicking the full extent of the intellectual and functional capacities of a human brain. Simply put, the problem is the daunting degree of interconnectivity within the brain’s neural networks. To model this, amongst other things, it would be necessary to take account of:
The estimated 86 billion neurons in the brain, each with an average 1,750 connections to other neurons, including those belonging to systems that are fed by both sensory and somatosensory inputs.
The requirements of neurophysiological plausibility.
No wonder I keep hearing computer scientists saying that the task of competing with the human brain on its own terms will remain well beyond their resources for the foreseeable future.**
Characteristics of hypothetical brain modelling machines
Even if there are some computer scientists who are more optimistic, this would not be of any consequence for my explanation of functional free will, for it does not depend on the existence of actual brain-modelling machines. Rather it involves thought-experiments relating to hypothetical creations whose operational principles are based on known characteristics of the brain. Accordingly the machines will have to use a considerable number of different sensor-types, each responding to a different modality of information (light, sound, scent, taste, various kinds of pressure, etc.), feeding a vast number of extensively interlinked, mini processors (taking on the role of neurons). These would have to be capable of:
Separating out and usefully recombine relevant aspects of the sensory information extracted from the environment by means of the multiplicity of sensors with task-specific characteristics, appropriately situated in a wide range of locations (multimodal processing).
Providing contextual information derived, not only from relevant parts of long-term memory, as built up through the agency of numbers of interacting subsystems, over a lifetime of experience, but also from the totality of the current environment, as captured and interpreted by sensory-systems, taking information from all parts of the body (temporal and spatial context).
Monitoring their own behaviour, using the feedback (provided by relevant sensory systems, memory stores or, much more likely, a combination of the two) that is required by analytic processes for both consciousness and learning.
Organising and implement actions (involving the coordination of complex muscle systems) and thought-processes (motor and mind control).
Generating feeling-based criteria upon which to make choices (decision making).
Equipped in various ways with these five capacities, the brain-mimicking computers would have to be able:
To make useful syntheses of the mass of data that has been extracted from the multiple sources of sensory input, with a view to both making sense and, subsequently, enabling recognition.
To do the above in any context, no matter what the domain of description, or how many variables have to be taken into consideration.
To learn from both positive and negative feedback (particularly from mistakes, using previously acquired, task specific error-correction skills).
The machine must also be capable of making sense of:
Information derived from within the relatively easy (but nevertheless potentially fiendishly complex) domains researched by practitioners of the so-called “hard sciences”, such as mathematicians, physicists and molecular biologists.
Much less easily classified material relating to the disciplines traditionally placed under the umbrellas of the social sciences and the arts.
In short, the brain-machine envisaged in the thought expermient would have to be at ease with making use of input pertaining to any realm of ideas whatsoever, however fanciful, simple-minded or far-fetched. It would also need to be capable of self-deceptionand crises of confidence in its own findings.
But this is far from all. To be like the human brain, every brain machine would have to have an ever-evolving memory-store, based on a ceaseless stream of ongoing inputs and capable of creating a unique internal world (analogous to “personal experience”). Accordingly, each machine would have a ‘personalised’ reaction to each and every contingency. In addition, like Antoni Tàpies and myself, it would have to be capable of having fun with the idea of creativity, however absurd its premise.
In the light of all these requirements (and no doubt many more), it is clear that neither computer hardware designers nor the computer programmers who were responsible for creating them would be able to predict the behaviour of the brain modeling machines envisaged in our thought-experiment. Only beings or groups of beings equipped with capacities comparable with the second of the hypothesised Gods** (the one capable of preplanning everything, from the evolution of species to down to the trajectory of every floating dust particle, for all eternity) would be able to unscramble an omelette of such complexity.
Moreover, even assuming that:
The self-monitoring aspect of the brain-modeling machines could be equated with consciousness.
The implied awareness of self could be programmed to incorporate both a sense of agency and a means of ranking the levels of both the credibility and the desirability of conclusions reached.
The outcome would be like human brains in the sense that they could only deal with an extremely limited part of the information being provided by the massively complex arrays and sequences of processes involved in determining their current behaviour.
All in all, it is safe to conclude that, even if machines could be made that meet these extremely exacting and, at the present, far from obtainable criteria, they would be unable to perceive the mechanically and contextually determined origins of their actions or thoughts. Accordingly, assuming the self-monitoring capacity of such machines could be equated with introspection, they would have no choice but to consider themselves as being in possession of free-will.
Moreover, if all traces of determinism remain obscure to the machines themselves, how would their output appear to other, similarly constructed and programmed machines? Clearly, from the perspective of any one machine seeing itself as having free-will, all other machines that have been created and evolved in accordance with the same principles would likewise be seen as in possession of their own free wills (or, possibly, dismissed as “just machines“).
Functional free-will and experiential reality
Since all the above arguments apply to any mechanistic way of thinking, whether it is focused on hypothetical computers or biological brains, they must also have relevance to speculations about the nature of free-will in our species. Just as no theory of the solar system or the universe, however indisputably correct, can stop us experiencing the sun as rising in the morning and setting in the evening (see Post on“Why I am a flat Earther”), so no mechanistic theory of brain function can deprive us of our sense of possessing free-will. It may be an illusion, but it is with us to stay, along with any of the sense-of-self, personal feelings and motivation it can provide.
Finally, a word on the future of machines that mimic human brains. Since the functional free-will argued for above is predicated upon the idea that all machines, human or electronic, evolve in idiosyncratic ways, their diversity would be ensured. Accordingly, so would be their role in evolutionary processes that favour the survival of the fittest (whether as individuals, as contributing members of groups or as friends of the environment), with their all their possible implications and risks.
Posts from “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10of“Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”
* However, the European Union is currently committing €1,200,000,000 over 10 years to “The Human Brain Project” with the stated objective of finding ways of modeling the human brain.
** A reference to an earlier passage in the chapter from which this post is an extract, namely, “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10of“Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” . It consists of a not too serious run through of the hypothetical choices that would have faced an all powerful deity when sitting at his/her desk planning of the Big Bang. It is scheduled to appear in a later Post.
Continuing in the spirit of Tapies’ game-playing approach to creativity, we find ourselves jumping sideways to false confidence and self-deception, two closely interrelated subjects of great pertinence to both artists and scientists. These I will spread over two Posts. Both can be approached via episodes in my personal history.
The first anecdote, which is on the subject of confidence, concerns a flight of fancy that popped into my head at the time I was meditating on the mysteries of recognition, and how on earth the eye/brain systems could enable it. My reverie took the form of what I came to call the “Abstraction-Hierarchy Model”. It was a simplistic conception relating to brain-system processing that will be explained in more detail in a later Post.