Friday, March 14, 2014

Theo Jansen - 'Bewildbeasts'?

Theo Jansen

I'd heard of this guy Theo Jansen before, but Ferris Jabr, in "Why Nothing Is Truly Alive" (NYT, March 12, 2014), has reminded me of Jansen's mobile sculptures, which Jansen says are "alive":
On a windy day in Ypenburg, the Netherlands, you can sometimes see sculptures the size of buses scuttling across a sandy hill. Made mostly from intricately conjoined plastic tubes, wood and sails, the many-legged skeletons move so fluidly and autonomously that it's tempting to think of them as alive. Their maker, the Dutch artist Theo Jansen, certainly does. "Since 1990, I have been occupied creating new forms of life," he says on his website. He calls them Strandbeest. "Eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives."
Okay, we see what Jansen thinks, and this is his TED Talk (show and tell?) about these mobile sculptures. Here's Jabr's response:
Poetic, most would say, but Strandbeest are not alive. They are just machines -- elaborate, beautiful ones, but inanimate contraptions nonetheless. A few months ago I would have agreed with this reasoning. But that was before I had a remarkable insight about the nature of life. Now, I would argue that Strandbeest are no more or less alive than animals, fungi and plants. In fact, nothing is truly alive.
I can't see that Jabr has changed his mind about Jansen's Strandbeests; rather, he has changed his mind about "life" due to what he considers his "remarkable" insight:
[I]t's helpful to distinguish between mental models and pure concepts. Sometimes the brain creates a representation of a thing: light bounces off a pine tree and into our eyes; molecules waft from its needles and ping neurons in our nose; the brain instantly weaves together these sensations with our memories to create a mental model of that tree. Other times the brain develops a pure concept based on observations -- a useful way of thinking about the world. Our idealized notion of "a tree" is a pure concept. There is no such thing as "a tree" in the world outside the mind. Rather, there are billions of individual plants we have collectively named trees. You might think botanists have a precise unfailing definition of a tree -- they don't. Sometimes it's really difficult to say whether a plant is a tree or shrub because "tree" and "shrub" are not properties intrinsic to plants -- they are ideas we impinged on them.

Likewise, "life" is an idea. We find it useful to think of some things as alive and others as inanimate, but this division exists only in our heads.
I'm not clear on Jabr's distinction. Does mean to say a mental model is of an individual object and a pure concept is derived from a collection of objects? He needs to clarify his distinction. Anyway, whatever one might think of Jabr's perspective on life, there's remains a different mystery to contemplate, a mystery that Jabr's 'brain language' doesn't leave much room for: consciousness. We can perhaps imagine Jansen's 'beests' as alive, but can we imagine them experiencing an inner life? Do they have qualia? I find that difficult to imagine . . .



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