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Space & Time According to Gibson

This is a follow up to earlier posts raising questions about the experience of time and exploring some of the ontological and epistemological implications.  Following some responses to the earlier post, I went back to a source that has had a significant impact on how I think about time and about the ontological and epistemological bases for cognitive science: James Gibson.  And I came to the conclusion that I could not say it better than Gibson already did. So, I would like to share some quotes from Gibson (1979) on the nature of space and time:

I am ... asking the reader to suppose that the concept of space has nothing to do with perception. Geometrical space is a pure abstraction. Outer space can be visualized but cannot be seen. The cues for depth refer to paintings, nothing more. The visual third dimension is a misapplication of Descartes's notion of three axes for a coordinate system.

The doctrine that we could not perceive the world around us unless we already had the concept of space is nonsense. It is quite the other way around: We could not conceive of empty space unless we could see the ground under our feet and the sky above. Space is a myth, a ghost, a fiction for geometers. All that sounds very  strange, no doubt but I urge the reader to entertain the hypothesis. For if you agree to abandon the dogma that "percepts without concepts are blind," as Kant put it, a deep theoretical mess, a genuine quagmire, will dry up. (p. 3)

We live in an environment consisting of substances that are more or less substantial, of a medium, the gaseous atmosphere; and of the surfaces that separate the substances from the medium. We do not live in "space." (p. 32)

The world of physical reality does not consist of meaningful things. The world of ecological reality, as I have been trying to describe it, does. If what we perceived were the entities of physics and mathematics, meaning would have to be imposed on them. But if what we perceive are the entities of environmental science, their meanings can be discovered. (p. 33)

Events as the Primary Realities. In the first place, the flow of ecological events is distinct from the abstract passage of time assumed in physics. The stream of events is heterogeneous and differentiated into parts, whereas the passage of time is supposed to be homogeneous and linear. Isaac Newton asserted that "absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external." But this is a convenient myth. It assumes that events occur "in" time and that time is empty unlessed "filled." This habitual way of thinking puts the cart before the horse. We should begin thinking of events as the primary realities and of time as an abstraction from them - a concept derived mainly from regular repeating events, such as the ticking of clocks. Events are perceived, but time is not.

It is the same with space as with time. Objects do not fill space, for there was no such thing as empty space to begin with. The persisting surfaces of the environment are what provide the framework for reality. The world was never a void. As for the medium, the region in which motion and locomotion occur, wher light can reverberate and surfaces can be illuminated, this might be called a room but it is not space. Surfaces and their layout are perceived, but space is not, as I have long been arguing. 

It might be said, without going as far as I have done above, that time consists of the events filling it and that space consists of the objects filling it. But I will argue that this formula still perpetuates the fallacy. The metaphor of filling is wrong. Time and space are not empty receptacles to be filled,; instead, they are simply the ghosts of events and surfaces. 

Time is not another dimension of space, a fourth dimension, as modern physics assumes for reasons of mathematical convenience. The reality underlying the dimension of time is the sequential order of events, and the reality underlying the dimensions of space is the adjacent order of objects or surface parts. Sequential order is not comparable to adjacent order; it is not even analogous to adjacent order. For the order of events cannot be permuted, whereas the order of parts can. You can reshuffle the parts but not the events, as you can rearrange the furniture in a room but not the happenings that occur in it.  (p. 100 - 101). 

I hope this sampling of quotes will give a taste of Gibson's perspective and that it will lead people to read or re-read his important book: "The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.

To close, I would like to briefly comment on the ontological implications of these ideas. The Newtonian view of the world is that space and time are critical elements of reality. In essence they are the frame or coordinate system against which objects, motions, and other things are measured. Though this idea is now questioned by physicists - this idea that there is a coordinate system or box which is a fundamental aspect of reality that stands outside or independent from our experiences is generally accepted by many social scientists, Thus, psychologists study space and time perception as fundamental to theories of human cognition. And they also assume that somehow this external coordinate system has to be reconstructed as mental models in order for us to make sense of the world.

This leads to a dualistic ontology. Since, time and space can't be experienced directly - they constitute an "objective" reality that is independent from our "subjective" experiences. Thus, our ontology need two circles - one for the physical world of space and time - more generally referred to as the reality of physics or of matter; and another for the experiences of surfaces and events that is more generally referred to as mind

However, if Gibson is right, that time and space are 'ghosts' or 'fictions' (created to make the mathematics tractable), then there is no reason to posit a reality that is independent from our experience. If Gibson is correct then the idea of an independent "objective" reality is a myth. And once we dispense with the myth of an objective world apart from our experiences - we are left with the single reality of Experience (James) or Quality (Pirsig).  

4 thoughts on “Space & Time According to Gibson

    1. John Flach

      Gibson does not cite Ernst Cassirer in the 1979 book. But Gibson was notorious in not citing sources. However, another important source for my thinking about cognition is Jens Rasmussen - who cites Cassirer numerous times.

  1. SR

    I was with you up to the end, "...once we dispense with the myth of an objective world apart from our experiences - we are left with the single reality of Experience...". Consider instead that there is no such thing as "our experiences" - this is merely a shorthand for a multiplicity of "my experiences". There is, perhaps, in many cases, such a thing as "our truths". But "our experiences" can be a misleading construct.

    Going back further there is another problem, "if Gibson is right, that time and space are 'ghosts' or 'fictions' (created to make the mathematics tractable), then there is no reason to posit a reality that is independent from our experience". This is a non sequitur I think. There are still reasons to posit a reality that is independent from our experience. The reason is simply that it explains a lot. Other explanations invariably slide into the "listen to my truth" point of view which, life experience tells us, leads to disaster far more often than the premise if a shared, objective truth. Objective reality may still be out there; perhaps it just needs a more Gibsonian description.

    1. John Flach

      I guess what I am trying to say is that our experiences are so entangled with the world that it best to think about them as a single whole - rather than two disconnected things (subjective vs objective). I think that the idea of an objective world that exists independently from our experiences is a useful fiction (but it is not a verifiable truth). And yes, a focus on experience goes with a pluralistic epistemology - with the idea that there are many valid perspectives on the world, reflecting different experiential time lines. Of course, no perspective is complete. And though each may be unique - it is possible to find common ground (e.g., through science and art).


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