Saturday, July 03, 2010

Qualia and appreciation

In many cases, qualia provide the effective frame or rather guidance for evaluation in which one judges the value of a particular artifact.

It is certainly true that solid factual and contextual information about an artifact helps one in doing justice to it in the evaluation process. The knowledge about the historical backgrounds, cultural contexts, materials and techniques used, and what various people have said about the artifact certainly helps one in understanding the work of art. These are in fact the main ingredients of any scholastic work.

However, the full scope of subjective feelings that arise in one's mind cannot be effectively captured by the academic descriptions. Indeed, an adherence to the factual and contextual information often hinder, rather than enhance, the "true-to-life" appreciation of a work of art.

For example, when one stands before the painting "Girl with a pearl earring" by Johannes Vermeer, one has a certain set of emotions and feelings in a spectrum extending from the unconscious to the conscious. The various qualia in one's phenomenological perception, from colors to sheens and textures, characterize the phenomenology that is the "Girl with a pearl earring".

Girl with a pearl earring by Johannes Vermeer.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The "breast" of a butterfly

When I was a kid, I used to chase butterflies in the fields and woods.

Hermann Hesse, Morio Kita, Takeshi Yoro. Many people profess to have fond recollections of the boyhood when they sought for the insects in the wild. It seems that such boyhood days remain to be an epitome of happiness, well into the mature age.

For me, the intense feeling accompanying the passage of time waiting for a butterfly among the greens, in the vibrant ambience of a hot summer forest, is connected with the most intimate and happy memories of my life.

However, from a certain period of time I stopped chasing the butterflies with the aim of collecting them. I grew wary of "pushing" the "breast" of butterflies. (I used to call the part between the head and abdomen as "breast" when I was a child. The proper anatomical name for it is actually "thorax".) I became shy of pressing that part of butterflies to their premature deaths. It was a reflection of the newly found self-awareness of what I was doing, in that subtle stage of growing up.

I started my "professional" chasing of butterflies when I was five. One of the first things that I learned was to push the breast, so that the precious wings would not be hurt. "You thus suffocate the butterfly, and put it to sleep", said Mr. Aoki in an as-a-matter-of-fact manner. Otherwise, the wings will be destroyed. Mr. Aoki was studying entomology at a University in Tokyo at the time. Mr. Aoki became my mentor in collecting and studying butterflies in a scientific way. It was my mother who originally "introduced" me to Mr. Aoki when I was about five years old.

When I was 10, my father took me to the "Gensei Kaen" flower fields in the suburb of Abashiri city, Hokkaido. It was a trip of my fantasy, a journey I dreamed of for a long time. There, I pushed the breasts of Kabairoshijimi, or Glaucopsyche lycormas, a small and elegant butterfly species. The bluish white creatures of elegance had been enjoying their airborne lives and visiting various flowers round the unmanned station of a local railway. They were unfortunate enough to be captured in my net. These butterflies would not have anticipated their destiny.

And the small butterflies passed away, pressed between my fingers, on that beautiful summer day.

The nervous system of a butterfly is not highly developed. When their breasts were pressed, the butterflies would not have felt anything by human standards. The summer flower fields are full of naturally caused deaths, with or without my presence. The lives of butterflies are short. They wings get the beak marks from the attacks of birds. Their vitalities wither rather rapidly, until the field is piled with their dead bodies here and there, unseen and uncared.

However, from a certain period of my life, I started to feel ill at ease at my own fingers bringing premature deaths to the small arthropods.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once dreamed of being a butterfly. When Zhuangzi awoke, he no longer knew whether a human being was dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly was dreaming of being a human being.

The butterflies seem to tell us the vulnerability of life, and the enigma of the passage of time.

It is not clear to me, at this moment, whether I will start chasing the butterflies again in any time of my life. I don't know if I could ever press the breasts of the butterflies caught in my eager net, in an innocent manner as in my childhood.

One thing is certain. I still carry in my heart the memories of the vibrant touch of the humble lives of butterflies, caught between my fingers in the passage away from this world.

Translated from the original Japanese essay in Ken Mogi, "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998. Translation by the author.

The cover of "Ikite Shinu Watashi"

Thursday, July 01, 2010

A few seconds attention span.

As I need to do many different kinds of things during the course of day, I seem to have developed an attitude of acting based on "a few seconds attention span". I receive a mail, and I am reminded of a manuscript that I was supposed to send in the day before. Unless I start to work on it straight away, the agenda is likely to be "swept away", to be retrieved into my attentional system only after a prolonged delay.

I suspect that the growing need both psychologically and practically to "act on the spot" is an increasingly acutely felt reality of contemporary life for many people.

I seem to be waking up to and dealing with the needs of prompt and flexible actions with the help of a soccer metaphor. In that sport, you need to make judgments and act appropriately on the spot. Otherwise it is difficult to do good in the match. The contemporary life is starting to look more and more like the soccer match. You keep running to-and-fro and zigzag in the pitch of life, and try to excel in the instant judgments and actions. Since the competition and cooperation is increasingly becoming global in character, each one of us will be playing in the World Cup of life long after the final whistle is blown in South Africa.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The sun has set, and the rain has started to fall from the sky.

Petrusa has sent me some nice photos showing how people are getting enthusiastic about what is happening right now in various stadiums in South Africa. It is a once-in-a-life-time festivity, especially as a hosting nation for the FIFA world cup. I congratulate and thank the people of South Africa for their marvelous spirit of hospitality and playfulness.

Yesterday, the sun has set for Japan, after competing against Paraguay and losing in the final PK. It is rare to see grown up men weeping like that in the close scrutiny of television cameras, but they did deserve every drop of the tears.

The world cup is the supreme stage for soccer lovers. The players have been training all their lives for this. Starting as a kid following and stumbling on the ball, climbing the ladder through the most rigorous selection processes, until finally making it to the national team.

If you imagine what must have been at stake and what rivers of deep emotions have been flowing in their bosoms, the tears last night would appear to represent the purest and the most serene of what humans are capable of bringing about to this world, through hard work and high goals.

The sun has set, and the rain has started to fall from the sky. After the soothing darkness, the sun would rise again. Life thrives in its cycles.

Photo from

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Only Time will tell: On the nature of free will.

I am in Vancouver, Canada now. I am here for a transit on the way back to Tokyo.

The ASSC 2010 conference in Toronto was very interesting. Here's my abstract. I could have many helpful discussions with my colleagues.

Only Time will tell: On the nature of free will.

Key words time, consciousness, free will

Ken Mogi

The contingency between sensory inputs and motor outputs is one of the crucial aspects of the neural mechanism underlying the phenomenology of consciousness. For example, the nature of subjective time is known to be affected by the contingency between voluntary action and sensory feedback (Haggard et al. 2002). The perception of self body is affected by the contingency between actions and sensory feedbacks, as demonstrated in the mirror box treatment of phantom limbs (Ramachandran et al. 1995). Various empirical evidences suggest that sensori-motor contingency affects the construction of the phenomenal self in its temporal and embodied dimensions.

One important and arguably ultimate question regarding human consciousness is that of free will. The question concerning the nature of free will is an essential one not only from theoretical point of view but also from the social implications involved (e.g. from the point of view of neuroethics, Gazzaniga 2005). In that free will concerns itself with the movement of the body in time, it is necessary to consider its nature in the context of sensori-motor contingency. From the phenomenological point of view, neural processes involved in action can be regarded as a subset of those involved in intentional processes in general.

Here I argue that the nature of free will can be properly treated only by taking subjective time into consideration. Only a consideration of the nature of subjective time will tell us the origin of the feeling of free will, when it is taken to be compatible with determinism (Dennet 2003). I present a model of subjective time based on the interaction between sensory and intentional processes in the brain, in which two kinds of simultaneity ("sensory simultaneity" and "intentional simultaneity") are defined.

Using the model, I analyze the differential nature of neural circuits involved in sensory and motor processes, based on the anatomical data on human brain (e.g., Van Essen 2004). Finally, I give an account of the neural correlates of free will in terms of the "open-ended" structures of intentional simultaneity in subjective time, in the context of the topology of connectivity in the cortical neural network.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Philosophy of the food court.

The first foreign country that I visited was Canada, in the summer when I was 15 years old. Probably because of that, whenever I set my feet on a Canadian soil my heart starts throbbing. Canada is my old sweetheart country.

One thing that I love from Canada, or indeed north America in general, is the food court. During the conference in Toronto, I have been taking lunch in the food court down in the Sears store. The no-nonsense, casual manner in which you can order your food from a bewildering variety, the easiness of taking the seat and just have it and go is quite to my liking.

There is a philosophy behind every practical thing. There is a philosophy to the food court. I ponder about it while I take my chicken curry from a Thai food stand.

Food court in Sears, downtown Toronto, Canada.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Peace and.

Right now I am visiting Toronto for a scientific conference. Yesterday evening, I was strolling the streets with my best friend Yoshi Tamori and several students. It was a nice evening, and we were looking for a place to eat.

All of a sudden, we saw a human wall made by police officers. Of course we immediately understood. The G20 summit was being held in Toronto. There was this greatest concentration of the world's most powerful men, (whether they would reach a critical mass for any significant chemistry this time or not), and it was only natural to make necessary precautions.

As I strolled on, the atmosphere was quite peaceful. There were people taking snapshots with the police officers, who stood on patiently. I and Yoshi got the idea, and took a memory photo, too.

There were signs of good will and spontaneity. "Peace" was drawn on the road. A number of people were dancing to relaxing music in front of the barricade. We could not see the faces of the police people, but my guess was that they were smiling, too.

Having experienced the Toronto evening this way, it was quite a shock to return to my hotel room after dinner and to know what has been happening in the city through the news channels.

We observed peace, and then something else apparently happened. I do not regard that particular process worthy of all the efforts. Discussing is good and interesting, but I see no point in clashing in physical forces. Reaching a critical mass for the chemistry of mind is meaningful, forging new ideas, bringing about attitude changes. Going over the threshold towards violence is just plain wrong.

Here's the golden rule. Look, but don't touch.

I and Yoshi Tamori with the G20 police officers.

"Peace" drawn on the Tronto road.

People dancing to peaceful music in front of the barricade.