Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Carving Up the Spectrum

Harold Doherty yearns for the day when the autism spectrum can be amputated of all who do not meet his personal criteria for being low-functioning and severe. But note how odd his argument sounds when juxtaposed to the very evidence Mr. Doherty calls on his own behalf. Mr. Doherty says: the “I Am Autism” video is directed at the depiction of some of the harsh realities that often accompany Autistic Disorder.

But in point of fact, that video contradicts Mr. Doherty's yearning. “I Am Autism” presents a fairly sizable number of individuals, and I am certain if their diagnoses were checked, not all would have Autistic Disorder. More than likely, the individuals presented in the “I Am Autism” video would represent quite the range of current outcomes—from those Mr. Doherty might characterize as low-functioning or severe, to those many would agree are high functioning, or perhaps even (gasp) Aspergers.

Ironically enough, it is the producers of “I Am Autism” who gather these individuals under the common heading of autism. It is the producers of “I Am Autism” who see no reason to make any distinction. For them, autism of any kind is something inherently evil—something to be battled against and eradicated forthwith.

It is true, Mr. Doherty, that the producers of “I Am Autism” would indeed amputate from the autism spectrum all who do not meet your personal criteria for being low-functioning and severe. But they are not going to stop just there—they are going to amputate all the rest.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Geraldine Dawson's Reply

[Dr. Geraldine Dawson has replied, in a manner of speaking, to my open letter to her. It is a stock reply, one that I imagine is similar to others being sent out by Autism Speaks at this time. It is reproduced in its entirety below. My response can be found in the comments.]

Dear Mr. Griswold,

Thank you very much for sending me your letter and telling me about your perspective and feelings regarding the “I Am Autism” video. I understand and respect your perspective and I am truly sorry that the film offended you. The video was not intended to reflect Autism Speaks broader viewpoint or attitude toward persons with autism spectrum disorder. Rather, it was created by two fathers of children with autism – Billy Mann, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, music producer and Autism Speaks board member, and Alfonso Cuarón, an Academy award-nominated film director. It is based on a personal poem written by Mr. Mann. It is an intensely personal expression by these two fathers. It was their hope that the piece would inspire other voices and artists in the autism community. It has greatly offended some people, however, and we have removed it from our website.

Again, thank you for writing to me and sharing your thoughts. You can rest assured that I will continue to advocate for a respectful and compassionate attitude and support for persons with autism spectrum disorder.


Geri Dawson

Friday, September 25, 2009

Laurent Mottron's Reply

[Dr. Laurent Mottron has replied to my open letter to him, and has given his permission for that reply to be posted here.]

I see three alternative ways to change a damaging system/ideology: fight it directly, build something else which is more convincing, or lastly, become the head of this system, then change it. I would call the last one the gorbachevian position. Whereas I used the first two ways at various levels (specially in our clinical organization, and in various influences we have as policy makers in Quebec), I chose the third way for science. Because no scientific person will listen to you if you are not one of them. So we apply to regular journals, and to regular peer-reviewed grant committees.

I have the same profound repulsion for this video as all of you have. I do not fear the possible consequences on the neutrality of the Autism Speaks jury because of public declarations against some aspect of their work - you know that Gadfly repeatedly writes that Autism Speaks should not finance us. But in the meantime, I will go on applying to these committees, and spend their money when we get it, for the best research we can do with it. For example, I. Soulières' fMRI paper has been financed by these funds. I profoundly think that the long-term effect of this research is more important than the ethical issue raised by the way AS gets this money.

Lastly, this organization (Autism Speaks) is heterogeneous. Its peer review committee functions according to democratic, non-ostracizing and scientific rules, although parts of Autism Speaks' ideology and fund-raising style are terrible. Overall, I do not feel condemned to a global rejection of this organization.

L. Mottron

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An Open Letter to Geraldine Dawson

September 23, 2009

Dr. Geraldine Dawson

Chief Science Officer

Autism Speaks

Dr. Dawson,

I am calling on you to denounce the Autism Speaks video “I Am Autism” as hostile and offensive to autistic individuals, and I am calling on you to reconsider your employment with Autism Speaks, an organization that is exploitative of autistic individuals, and unscientific and unethical in its day-to-day practices and fund-raising campaigns.

As the parent of an autistic child who is loved deeply for all his characteristics, including—indeed, most especially—his autism, I can tell you that the “I Am Autism” video is disgusting on every level. It perpetuates stereotypes, it presents as fact statements that are not backed by a shred of scientific evidence, and it exploits the images of autistic individuals without their consent. The video is heinously reminiscent of the NYU Child Study Center's widely condemned Ransom Notes campaign, and it demonstrates the depths of cruelty and ignorance to which an autism charitable organization can sink when that organization deliberately excludes the input and participation of autistic individuals.

A similar exploitative and offensive treatment of a different minority group would be considered tantamount to a hate crime (for instance, can you imagine how a similar “I Am Homosexuality” video would be received): it is no less of a hate crime when it is autistic individuals who are the victims of such abuse.

Your association with this video, as well as your association with the organization that stands behind it, calls into question more than just your reputation as a scientist. It calls into question your very humanity. Denounce this video. Use your influence as an officer of Autism Speaks to demand both its removal and the immediate issuance of an apology. And if such efforts do not succeed, I call on you to consider the wisdom of your continuing employment with such a repulsive organization.

The harmful practices of Autism Speaks survive only on the tacit approval of those who should know better. It is not too late for you to make a difference: remove your tacit approval.

Respectfully and urgently,

Alan Griswold

An Open Letter to Laurent Mottron

September 23, 2009

Dr. Laurent Mottron

Centre de recherche Fernand-Seguin

Hopital Riviere-des-Prairies

Montreal, Canada

Dr. Mottron,

I am calling on you to denounce the Autism Speaks video “I Am Autism” as hostile and offensive to autistic individuals, and I am calling on you to reconsider your acceptance of funding from Autism Speaks, an organization that is exploitative of autistic individuals, and unscientific and unethical in its day-to-day practices and fund-raising campaigns.

As the parent of an autistic child who is loved deeply for all his characteristics, including—indeed, most especially—his autism, I can tell you that the “I Am Autism” video is disgusting on every level. It perpetuates stereotypes, it presents as fact statements that are not backed by a shred of scientific evidence, and it exploits the images of autistic individuals without their consent. The video is heinously reminiscent of the NYU Child Study Center's widely condemned Ransom Notes campaign, and it demonstrates the depths of cruelty and ignorance to which an autism charitable organization can sink when that organization deliberately excludes the input and participation of autistic individuals.

As you know, I hold the work of both you and your research team in the very highest regard. Your efforts have contributed to the knowledge about the strengths of autistic individuals and have highlighted the many positive contributions autistic individuals have to make. While I understand the difficult task you face in running a research enterprise and in obtaining adequate funding for your work, you must realize that accepting significant money from Autism Speaks, an organization openly hostile and offensive to autistic individuals, serves only to undercut the very nature of your work. No matter how alluring or seemingly harmless such funding might initially appear, in the end association with an organization such as Autism Speaks becomes all too obviously, and all too tragically, a pact with the devil.

Openly denounce the “I Am Autism” video. Use your influence as a respected autism scientist to urge your colleagues to do the same. And if your efforts to reform the deeds of Autism Speaks do not succeed, I call on you to reconsider the wisdom of continuing to accept funding from such a repulsive organization.

The harmful practices of Autism Speaks survive only on the tacit approval of those who should know better. It is not too late for you to make a difference: remove your tacit approval.

Respectfully and urgently,

Alan Griswold

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On the Evils of Co-authorship

Tyler Cowen and Michelle Dawson are both excellent writers. Although I am only recently familiar with Mr. Cowen's work, the popularity of both his blog and his books speaks for itself, and in reading through samples of Cowen's accessible, yet information-packed prose, I can understand how his appeal has become both broad and respected. Furthermore, Cowen recently penned a truly remarkable essay entitled Autism as Academic Paradigm, which infuses a surprising breath of fresh air into the musty, platitude-filled discussions surrounding autism as disorder and disease. My heartiest congratulations to Mr. Cowen for that invigorating effort.

And Michelle Dawson, in her own unique fashion, has also revealed an exceptional talent for the written word. As evidence I need search no further than her early paper The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists, which for whatever flaws of inexperience it might happen to reveal, still stands in my opinion as perhaps the finest example of autism-related literature yet to be crafted.

So individually, Cowen and Dawson need never fear for their abilities as writers. But as co-authors? Well, here I am not so sure.

Mr. Cowen and Ms. Dawson have recently co-written a paper entitled What Does the Turing Test Really Mean? And How Many Human Beings (Including Turing) Could Pass? Now let me be clear: I do not want to dissuade anyone from reading that paper, for it certainly contains some valuable and innovative suggestions about yet another paper, Alan Turing's lovely essay entitled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, written for the journal Mind back in 1950. Cowen and Dawson open a new perspective on Turing's work, highlighting how Turing's casual argument has as much to tell us about anthropomorphism, education, ostracism and the like, as it has to say about artificial intelligence. Perhaps I as much as anyone else can appreciate that particular aspect of the Cowen and Dawson paper, for I too have been puzzled as to why it has been primarily (if not solely) the Turing test that history has chosen to hand down from Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when in fact the essay itself seems to be pointing in such a large variety of directions. Cowen and Dawson have my gratitude for helping me feel not so alone in that particular puzzlement.

Yet for all its merits in pointing out these wide-ranging aspects of Computing Machinery and Intelligence, the Cowen and Dawson paper still comes off as something of a disappointment. It is not any specific content that spurs my concern; in truth, it is more a question of structure and tone. For a paper that purports to offer a significantly different perspective on Turing's widely read and assumed-to-be widely understood essay, Cowen and Dawson remain remarkably circumspect in their overall approach. The paper's introduction barely tiptoes to its main point, and where the argument might then spring forth as suddenly decisive and bold, it instead continues to pull all its punches, content to offer little more than hints and suggestions about Turing's possible intentions, as though the real wallop were to be found in the secondary sources (it is not). Then in further deference to convention, as though they have already offended too much, Cowen and Dawson choose to adopt many of the accouterments of academic scholarship for their paper, when scholarship appears to be the last thing required. (I would note that when Turing himself resorts to some academic garb—the Thomas Aquinas reference, for instance—as though he had been assured at least a dab of this were necessary, he comes off as somewhat awkward and naïve, and thus decidedly adorable; whereas when Cowen and Dawson accurately employ the structures and paradigms of modern scholarship, they come off as professional and authoritative, and thus decidedly not adorable.)

In the end, the Cowen and Dawson paper sounds fractured and hesitant to me, a bit like subversive treatise meets philosophical fireside chat meets undergraduate term paper. Or to put it more concisely, if I were to use just a single word to describe what seems to be missing from the Cowen and Dawson paper, that word would have to be voice.

And in this sense, it would be useful to compare the Cowen and Dawson paper to its target subject. For the Turing essay too is in many ways not a thing of beauty: it meanders, it is far too self-conscious, its phrasing at times can reach the point of painful awkwardness. Yet for all that, Turing's essay reads with considerable charm, and the source of that charm never strays far from view. What drives Computing Machinery and Intelligence, what holds it together in both substance and form, is the intensely focused, abundantly original intellect standing nakedly exposed behind all its scattered conjecture. Turing takes what might have been construed as (and too often is) simply a technical subject, and turns it into a daring, heartfelt cry against the confines of human convention. Turing's essay has personality at its core, a personality that pervades the essay's entire length—its style, its arguments, even its flaws. Hell, that personality pervades all the proposed machines!

The Cowen and Dawson paper is useful because it highlights these characteristics of Computing Machinery and Intelligence, suggesting to readers that they set aside their usual interest in machine intelligence for at least a moment, and concentrate instead on that unusual, misunderstood, yet utterly brilliant intellect haunting the pages of Turing's essay. And yet ironically enough, it is precisely that characteristic, the one they themselves are pointing out, that is conspicuously absent from the Cowen and Dawson paper itself. Whereas in Turing's essay we encounter bold challenges, offbeat drama and cheeky jokes, in Cowen and Dawson we are subjected to academic innuendo, deference to authority, and a reference list. Whereas the Turing essay is held together by the intense, subversive and naïve charm of a uniquely driven mind, the Cowen and Dawson paper is held together mostly by the conventions of community—in this case, a community of two.

In Tyler Cowen's recent book, Create Your Own Economy: the Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World (a one-author book that is a pretty decent read, by the way), Cowen trumpets the virtues of humanity's new era of massively promulgated information and ubiquitous intercommunication—our brave new world of digital catalogs, search engines, social networks and even Twitter. And far be it from me to disparage anything about these recent innovations, for after all, I am one of those who make a comfortable living navigating the paths of this now electronically intertwined world. But as we continue celebrating these newfound abilities to sort through reams of cascading data, to search for exciting new patterns within a seeming chaos of information, and to enjoy fulfilling opportunities to, yes, more easily collaborate, let us not forget that there remains also—as there always has—an alternative, seemingly less efficient means whereby to achieve significant human advancement.

What is needed sometimes is not more, but less. When floods of information turn into common, all-too-familiar property of all, when searched-for patterns atrophy into nothing but a well-worn groove, when massive collaboration coagulates into a massive conventionality, what is needed then is not further speeding up of the process, not a more abundant reaping of more copious detail, not a greater efficiency at talking things through. What is needed then is something quite different—radically different, I would say, and yet remarkably close at hand. What is needed then is the kind of insight that might be found only in circumstances of near loneliness—say in empty corridors tread well beyond midnight, or perhaps on the gravelly paths of unaccompanied runs about Bletchley Park.

Collaboration, teamwork, co-authorship—I admit they have their place, they can have their value. But when the purpose is revolutionary, even in the smallest degree, how radical can any idea be when it is already shared by more than one. As this world becomes informationally richer and as we gather more detail into an ever more populated space, let us not forget that what brought us into these circumstances, what dragged us out of our animal past and into the glory of a near infinite future, was not the conventionality of community, but instead the daringly unconventional voice of the solitary individual.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Broad Survey of Autism Research Journals

Is it my imagination, or should the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders be renamed Rodent Quarterly?

And while we are at it, why is Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders not called The Matson Mouthpiece?

And did I miss an announcement or something? About the discovery of the molecular basis for autism? For I see we are soon to be graced with a new research journal, Molecular Autism, so I assume there is reason to believe that title makes sense. (Or am I misunderstanding, and this is actually slated to be a fiction review?)

I agree with those who would urge a greater familiarity with the autism science. Now if they would just tell me where I could find some.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Logic for Autistics

As a subject of investigation, logic has undergone a surge in development over the past one hundred fifty years, resulting in enhanced clarification of the topic and a wider application to much of human endeavor. Iconic names such as Boole, Peirce, Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Tarski and Gödel all have contributed groundbreaking insights, their advancements leading not only to transformations within the field of logic itself, but spawning also concomitant reappraisals in such areas as mathematics, science and linguistics. This past century and a half has seen logic's golden era.

Yet for all that, critical questions remain unresolved at logic's core. To put it bluntly, we still have not found an effective way to describe fundamentally what gives rise to logical properties, and perhaps just as importantly, we have yet to uncover a plausible explanation for how logic must have originated in man. How is it that humanity has come to possess logical abilities, given that the other animal species display no evidence of possessing similar abilities, and given that the arrival of these characteristics in man—at least their effective arrival—seems to have occurred only quite recently in the species' history?

These questions regarding logic's elemental traits have been pondered by a variety of logicians and philosophers, but in truth only a few have attempted to tackle the problem head on, and only one, Wittgenstein, has danced daringly close to an accurate answer. There is good reason these questions have remained unresolved: in retrospect, we are beginning to realize logicians and philosophers have been hampered in their efforts to understand logic's nature because they have been missing a vital piece of information, and without that piece of information they have been making the tacit assumption that logic must have arisen from an homogeneous form of human perception and cognition. It is only in the last few decades that humanity has begun to realize this tacit assumption is not altogether true and has begun to recognize within itself the condition that stands as the key to unlocking logic's core, a condition that reveals, most crucially, the nature of humanity's surprising cognitive composition.

In this essay I will attempt to shed light on the nature of logic's most fundamental characteristics, and I will offer an answer to the question of how logic first originated in man. I will address these matters not so much logically and philosophically as I will describe them biologically and anthropologically; for in short, it is autism that stands as the key to understanding logic. The thesis of this essay is that logic's fundamental characteristics are generated naturally and spontaneously out of the biological circumstances of autistic perception.

History. In the Western tradition, logic was dominated for more than two millennia by Aristotle's Organon and its emphasis on syllogistic reasoning. The Organon sounds surprisingly modern given its age of origin, but it also lacks enough expressive power to represent the full range of human cognition and inference, and thus in the mid-nineteenth century a revolution began that would quickly overthrow syllogistic logic's enduring reign.

The first stirrings of this revolution can be seen in the work of George Boole, who in likening his laws of thought to the operations of mathematics began a process of treating logic as a type of calculus, one best represented and best manipulated under the guise of a formal symbolism. Shortly thereafter and independently of each other, Charles Sanders Peirce in the United States and Gottlob Frege in Germany introduced several techniques that greatly expanded logic's expressive range—the use of quantifiers, a greater emphasis on relations, and a rigorous employment of functions and variables to illuminate the role of various logical elements. By the time such techniques were gathered under the compilative work of Bertrand Russell, who himself would add important insights on the process of denoting, logic had gained enough expressive power to state precisely nearly all the meaningful assertions that could be made under the headings of inference, mathematics and objective science, and it was upon this foundation that twentieth century logicians Alfred Tarski and Kurt Gödel applied logical technique to logic itself (metalogic) and developed surprising and paradoxical results regarding the power and range of any deductive calculus. Riding the crest of these many developments, modern logic would blossom by the end of the twentieth century (blossom too much, some might say) into a multi-faceted academic industry.

As can be gleaned from the above description, the majority of logic's recent developments have had the effect of changing the manner in which logic is done, but occasionally there have been logicians who have also paused to ask more fundamental questions, in particular to ask what exactly do these new logical developments mean, how are they to be related to human cognition and to the qualities of the experienced world. Gottlob Frege, for instance, frequently pondered the philosophical context of his logical and mathematical innovations, and in such classic works as Concept and Object, On Sense and Reference, and Thought: A Logical Investigation, Frege brings new perspectives to bear upon the notions of meaning, sense, language, object, concept, truth and world. One unusual and highly suggestive aspect of Frege's philosophy is the degree to which he strives ruthlessly to objectify his particular brand of logic. In positing True and False as actual objects of the external world, and in insisting again and again that non-scientific accounts (the stories of the Odyssey, for instance) possess sense but no actual reference, Frege appears to be making a determined effort to banish everything subjective from the privileged domains of logic, mathematics and scientific discourse; and one is left with the distinct impression that Frege's ultimate goal was to purify logic of every last ounce of human influence, as though such influence could only serve to mess things up.

Frege, along with Bertrand Russell, also had the noteworthy impact of inspiring and encouraging a young Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein differs markedly from the other figures in logic's recent history in that he was never interested in developing logic so much as he was driven to describe it and to explain its role (its office, as he was inclined to say). And in a type of subconscious loyalty to his principle regarding the need to show instead of say, Wittgenstein throughout his far-ranging, sometimes fast-changing philosophical career seems to have embodied his most valuable logical insights as much as he managed to state them.

Wittgenstein's early philosophy, crystallized in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, takes as its starting point the logical framework of Frege and Russell, but quickly adds to that framework an orthogonal extension designed to highlight logic's connection to experience, language and the world. And in a surprising twist that would have dismayed Frege (assuming Frege could have understood it), Wittgenstein takes the notion of objectifying logic, of purifying it of all human influence, and turns that notion completely on its head. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein seems to be employing the tools of logic to construct a type of near solipsism, an inspired attempt, as it were, to animate Kierkegaard's cry of “truth is subjectivity” by outlining it with step-by-step instructions. On its surface, the Tractatus still sounds objective and logical, but viewed from within it reads as extraordinarily self-generated—Wittgenstein's startling depiction of the world as he found it, an embodiment of his both unique and universal form of perception.

Although Wittgenstein was initially convinced the Tractatus contained unassailable truth, he grew nonetheless ever more restless with its emphasis on formal logic, and upon returning to philosophy more than a decade after having finished the Tractatus, Wittgenstein began re-examining logic from an entirely different angle. This so-called later philosophy, gathered primarily in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, examines the structure and meaning of ordinary language, and emphasizes not only the role of propositional assertions, but also that of questions, commands and sudden exclamations. Wittgenstein begins to explore the impact of community and what he calls “forms of life” as he attempts to describe the communal scaffolding whereby structure and meaning are shared, and in contrast to both Frege's strident objectivity and to the Tractatus' strident subjectivity, Wittgenstein's later philosophy takes on the style and form of a mutual investigation, an investigation dealing in many ways with a natural history of man.

Academicians like to emphasize the break between Wittgenstein's early and late philosophies, but it should be noted that Wittgenstein's later work does not so much abandon the logic of the Tractatus as it attempts to supplement it. For a period of time Wittgenstein seriously contemplated a project in which the Tractatus would be published side-by-side with his new remarks, each text shedding light and contrast upon the other. Such a side-by-side project would have been visually significant for Wittgenstein, for it would have laid out structurally the nature of the problem most vexing him. Like nearly all the philosophers before him, Wittgenstein had assumed the traits of human logic flowed from a common well, and yet here he had been developing a lifetime of philosophical work—as sincerely as any philosopher ever could—that presented two extremely different aspects of human logic, each of which appeared to be valuable and viable, but each of which appeared to be irreconcilable. Thus it would have been difficult for Wittgenstein to recognize how his two combined philosophies, embracing and embodying these two different aspects of human logic, had managed in a certain sense to unveil logic's mysteries as accurately as anyone ever had, for it would have been difficult for him to reconcile logic's dual emanation from just a single source.

Wittgenstein, of course, lived well before the condition of autism became widely known and more completely described. If Wittgenstein had known about autism, if he had been given a thorough description of autism's distinctive form of perception, I am certain he would have recognized almost immediately autism's direct bearing on his dual presentation of logic. Wittgenstein, as much as anyone else, would have been able to recognize that here was an actual cause—not a philosophical or logical reason, but instead an actual biological and anthropological cause—for the two differing aspects of logic, aspects that as it turns out indeed warrant presentation side-by-side. With an accurate understanding of autism, we can see that the two aspects of logic have in fact two very real sources, sources emanating from the non-homogeneous composition of human cognition. And it is the first aspect of logic—the aspect Frege had tried to purify of human influence, the aspect Wittgenstein had employed in the Tractatus to construct his near solipsism, the aspect generally grouped by logicians under the heading of formal logic—it is that aspect of logic that arises naturally and spontaneously from the conditions of autistic perception.

Description. Autistic perception differs fundamentally from non-autistic perception.

The main characteristic of biological perception is its providing of a sensory foregrounding. Without foregrounding, each organism's broad array of sensory input would be experienced as undifferentiated and chaotic, and therefore it is critical that each organism be able to perceive some type of signal against its background of sensory noise. In the animal kingdom—and this would include man and his long history as a simple primate—evolution has forged a type of biological perception extremely well suited for survival and procreation, a type of perception best described by adjectives such as species-specific or species-focused. Each species member is born with a natural and spontaneous ability to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the other members of the species and on the species' general interests and pursuits, and this ability allows each member to rapidly imitate the others and to assimilate to the species' overall behaviors. This form of focused perception is of course extremely valuable; it allows each population to coalesce around its own members and around its sources of shelter and food, and thus species-specific perception contributes in a fundamental way to the quest for viability. But it should also be noted that this form of perception is so powerful it blocks alternative forms of perception, and thus has the effect of locking each species into a tight biological immediacy. Nowhere in the natural world do we find evidence of comprehensive, detailed perceptions centered on, for instance, the shapes of geography, the cycles of botany, the patterns of weather, or the course of the celestial seasons, for nowhere in the natural world do these items ever manage to achieve perceptual foregrounding.

Although something has clearly changed man's perceptual capacity—broadening it remarkably in a very short period of time—for the large majority of humans, their natural and spontaneous form of biological perception can still be described unambiguously as being species specific. The early attentive focus of most children continues to gravitate to sensory impressions made upon them by other humans and by the population's behaviors and interests, and as happened not that long ago on prehistoric African plains, children today employ a species-specific perception to rapidly imitate others and to assimilate to the population's current behaviors. And despite mankind's unprecedented departure from circumstances once fraught with the struggles of survival and procreation, humans today continue to display a foremost interest in the biological concerns of species—sex, family, food, shelter, societal ranking. Man has remained for the most part a social and biological being, he has carried his evolutionary inheritance of a species-specific focus right with him into modern times, and it is these strong, lingering, foregrounding traits of a species-specific focus that define the distinguishing characteristics of non-autistic perception.

Autistic perception differs fundamentally from non-autistic perception in that autistic perception, to a significant degree, lacks this species-specific focus. The material cause for this difference remains unknown (a variety of genetic, neurological and biochemical hypotheses have been proposed, but so far none have proven enlightening); the characteristics of the difference, however, are apparent from observation alone. Observation reveals consistently that autistic individuals display considerably less perceptual preference for humans and human biological influences, and show much greater perceptual attention for an entirely different class of sensory features.

Recall that the main task of biological perception is to provide sensory foregrounding. If autistic individuals are not experiencing a natural and spontaneous foregrounding of human-specific features from their surrounding environment, then the question arises, what does foreground for them, if anything at all? Autistic individuals would appear to be at risk of large-scale sensory chaos and confusion, and there is some evidence that such a potential does exist, for many autistic individuals do report a variety of sensory difficulties that do not derive from any known physical cause. In general, however, autistic individuals do not experience complete sensory chaos and confusion; certain features from their surrounding environment do consistently foreground and emerge. These features possess the particular trait of being able to inherently stand out, they form an implicit signal against a background of sensory noise, and these features are what humans now categorize under the headings of symmetry, repetition, pattern, structure, mappings and the like. Unfettered by the strong species-specific focus characteristic of non-autistic perception, and in need of sensory foregrounding to avoid complete sensory confusion, autistic individuals are drawn to elements from the broadly arrayed environment that inherently emerge from the background, elements rich in pattern, structure and form. It is this natural and spontaneous foregrounding of such structural, mostly non-biological features from the surrounding environment that defines the distinguishing characteristic of autistic perception.

And here is the direct connection to formal logic: this basic process of implicit sensory foregrounding experienced within autistic perception corresponds exactly to the foundational components of formal logic.

The foundational components of formal logic can be classified in various ways—different logicians will use slightly different approaches—but almost any classification will include a detailed description of the following three core features of logic:

  • Objects

  • Concepts

  • Relations

These three core features of logic are in a certain sense undefinable, but it is possible to cast greater light upon their nature and upon their likely human origin by realizing that each of these core features corresponds to an aspect of foregrounding within autistic perception. Each core feature of logic corresponds to a particular type of implicit perceptual emergence from a background of sensory noise.

The notion object plays a role in all three core features of logic, but as a standalone target of investigation, object is probably best approached through the idea of an unanalyzable entity—an entity highlighted most often within formal logic through the use of a proper name. It would be difficult to suggest a notion more basic than that of object.

If we begin with an image of an undifferentiated biological perception (a sensory chaos, if you will) and envision the spontaneous emergence of a single, unanalyzable entity from within that perception, then we will have a rough model for the type of perceptual foregrounding that gives rise to the notion object. For non-autistic individuals, their natural inclination is to have other humans be the entities which foreground within their perception (and of course the naming of people has become an essential part of human discourse); but for autistic individuals, their basic experience of perceptual foregrounding, by necessity, must be more generic, and in consequence produces a more generalized paradigm for the notion object. Since autistic individuals lack in significant degree the ability to foreground human features from their surrounding environment, it becomes incumbent upon the sensory field itself to provide the characteristics that can implicitly emerge in autistic perception, and from the experience of autistic individuals, we know that such implicit emergence is provided most often by entities that embody such attributes as symmetry, repetition and pattern. The classic example from autistic experience would be the strong perceptual attraction of spinning objects—tops, wheels, ceiling fans. A spinning object strongly embodies visual symmetry and patterned repetition, and in an otherwise undifferentiated sensory environment, items such as ceiling fans inherently stand out, they are more easily (more naturally, more spontaneously) foregrounded against the background of sensory noise.

This description of the notion object is distinctive, because here, it is the entity itself which embodies the structural or patterned characteristic, and thus it is the entity itself which carries the impetus for its implicit foregrounding. As we will discover momentarily, objects encountered under the notions concept and relation are in a certain sense less distinctive, and thus are treated in formal logic more anonymously. But as a first step, it is important to consider separately, as we have here, this more distinctive version of the notion object, because its extremely simple and self-contained nature is highly suggestive of the more basic aspects of logic. For instance, the foregrounding/non-foregrounding dichotomy contained in the notion object hints at the binary nature underlying much of formal logic, including the binary nature of true and false. Furthermore, the essential accompaniment of such non-biological attributes as symmetry, repetition and pattern highlights the unique nature of object as experienced within autistic perception, and thus points to the source of mankind's cognitive separation from the remainder of the animal kingdom. And just as importantly, the solitary distinctiveness of the notion object, its unencumbered simplicity during sensory emergence, provides perhaps the most fundamental example available of the direct link between the characteristics of biological perception and the nature of human logic.

With the notion concept, unlike with the notion object, it is not the entity itself which embodies the structural or patterned characteristic; instead, with concept, it is more commonly the case that objects constitute the structural or patterned characteristic, and it is the characteristic itself, often abstract, that gives rise to the notion concept. Classic examples from autistic experience would include the lining up of toys or the rapt attention paid to a series of sounds produced in a repetitive temporal pattern (evenly-spaced claps, for instance). Note that each object by itself (each toy, each clap) would not tend to foreground within autistic perception, because each object by itself does not embody the structural characteristic necessary for it to be perceived against the background of sensory noise. Instead it is the formed concept (the straight line, the rhythm) which carries the symmetrical or patterned trait that allows it to implicitly emerge within autistic perception, and the constituting objects, in a certain sense, merely come along for the perceptual ride. It is the foregrounding of such structural, often abstract features that lies at the heart of the notion concept.

In formal logic, the notion concept was clarified greatly by the developments of the late nineteenth century, in particular by the introductions put forth by Frege. In adding quantifiers, variables and functions to the discourse and philosophy behind formal logic, Frege helped capture more precisely the essence of the notion concept. For example, in the use of a first-order logical formula such as “For all x: f(x),” it becomes apparent that it is the concrete objects that are being treated iteratively and anonymously, while it is the function itself, representing the concept, that carries all the distinctiveness of the statement. That is to say, it is the concept-representing function that foregrounds in such statements of formal logic, and such functional foregrounding reflects precisely the foregrounding of concepts within biological perception.

Furthermore, it would appear that the genesis of the notion concept seems to be particularly autistic, for nowhere else in the animal kingdom is there evidence of perceptual awareness directed towards structural, abstract concepts and neither is there evidence of such awareness in the early history of man. To contemplate a purely non-autistic version of the notion concept, we would need to consider the perceptual emergence of similar, but more biologically-distinctive features, and although such features are certainly thinkable and likely, these are features nonetheless quite different in kind from those of the usual notion concept. Thus the sudden expansion of human perceptive range, including its impact on the recent transformations in the culture of man, must be attributed in large measure to the introduction of abstract patterns and symmetries—the material of the notion concept—an introduction achieved primarily through the implicit, mostly non-biological foregrounding necessitated by the circumstances of autistic perception.

Relations, like concepts, are also constituted out of objects, but here, what gives rise to the perceptual foregrounding is not that the objects form into a particular structure or pattern, but that the objects consistently map to one another (in fact, under many scenarios, mapping would make a much better term than relation). If we start once again with an image of an undifferentiated biological perception, we can focus on those examples where two or more objects consistently co-appear within the sensory field—for instance, two flashes of light that always happen simultaneously, or one flash of light that always takes place at the same time as a particular sound. Each flash and each sound by itself would not tend to emerge in autistic perception, not without embodying some structural feature (as with distinctive objects), and the collection of flashes and sounds also cannot emerge in autistic perception, not unless that collection happens to constitute a discernible pattern (as with concepts). But the consistent mapping is enough all by itself, it is all that is required to break the background chaos and provide a means whereby to gain sensory foregrounding. It is when the consistent co-occurrence of two or more objects in the sensory field gains perceptual attention that we have a well-formed instance of the notion relation.

Relations have two important consequences. As suggested by the example of a light flash mapping to a particular sound, relations can arise from objects that map across sensory domains, and thus relations provide a useful framework for sensory integration in autistic perception. Note that non-autistic individuals already have a built-in framework for sensory integration; their focused perception on human-specific features provides a natural touch point for gathering experiences of sight, sound, touch, smell and even taste. But autistic individuals, without a similar perceptual focus, and with their experiences of objects and concepts frequently taking place in only a single sensory domain, find themselves in need of a perceptual mechanism that can tie together sensory experience, and the cross-domain potential of relations fits that need quite nicely. The other important consequence of relations is that they provide a paradigm for the invention of language. Language is a higher-level construct than the notion relation, but language follows a similar outline, for language is essentially a mapping, a mapping from biologically immediate artifacts onto entities and concepts not so biologically present. And as relations serve an integrative purpose in autistic perception, so too does language serve an integrative purpose for the entire human species: in the first place, language pulls together the expanded cognitive experience brought on by awareness of objects, concepts and relations, and furthermore language brings together the differing aspects of autistic and non-autistic perception, serving as the medium in which to blend autistic and non-autistic cognitive strengths, thereby fostering a perceptual transformation for all mankind.

The remainder of formal logic is by and large built up out of these three core features of logic—that is, the more complex logical components, such as propositions, logical product, logical sum, etc., these are constructed out of the various combinations of objects, concepts and relations. And from the perspective of autistic perception, this climb from simplicity through constructed complexity mirrors the developmental climb from childhood through maturity; autistic sensory foregrounding tends to become ever more sophisticated as basic perceptions, apprehended concurrently, are built into more complex perceptions based upon the emergence of the many permutations. Wittgenstein's Tractatus, in fact, unfolds in exactly this same manner, building up its version of logic out of objects and states of affairs (concepts and relations), combining these into propositions of limitless constructibility, and by extension, building up similar frameworks to describe the development of world and self. In the Tractatus, as no place else, we find constructive logic, developing autistic perception, and the author's own maturing self all being brought together into one tightly organized, self-reflecting mirror.

To be precise, in these discussions outlining the core features of logic, it is only the process of perceptual foregrounding that directly correlates to the topic of logic. The characteristics of what actually foregrounds—that is, the characteristics of structure, symmetry, pattern, and the like—these characteristics belong, technically speaking, to a different topic; they belong to mathematics. Visual symmetry and structure, for instance, make up the core material of geometry, and various types of repetition and pattern, these form the basis of arithmetic. As such, it is interesting to recall the Logicism projects of both Frege and Russell, who attempted to construct the entirety of mathematics on a foundation of formal logic, efforts ultimately dispelled by Gödel's incompleteness theorem. From the perspective of autistic perceptual foregrounding, one sees perhaps yet another reason why Logicism cannot entirely succeed, because within that foregrounding process the characteristics of logic and mathematics reveal themselves as inseparable, they are much like two sides of one coin. The foregrounding process itself (logic) would not be possible if there were not structural features in the sensory environment (mathematics) that could inherently emerge, and on the other hand, from the lack of mathematical awareness in the animal kingdom we know that the environment's non-biological structural features would remain entirely unapprehended if not for the presence of a form of perception in which such features could take a prominent place. Logic and mathematics are intricately intertwined, it appears to be hopeless to build either out of the other. Furthermore, we may as well add objective science into this same mix of inseparability; for with geometry being the basis of space, and with arithmetic being the basis of time, and with logical inference being the basis of scientific method, science's entire modus operandi is directly traceable to the characteristics of logic and mathematics, and therefore directly traceable to the characteristics of autistic perception. In a fundamental sense (and in a biological and anthropological sense), the topics of logic, mathematics and science form an uncleavable whole.

Finally, it should be noted that if foregrounding within autistic perception is to be identified as a logic—in this case, a formal logic—then foregrounding within non-autistic perception must also be identified as a logic. Humans have yet to develop a precise language for depicting this more species-specific version of perceptual foregrounding—its characteristics can be hinted at through the terminology of Darwinian and sociological principles, but such terminology is often too murky. It would be of immense value, however, to develop a more precise language for depicting species-focused forms of logic; for with such a language, alongside the language of formal logic, researchers could more accurately compare and contrast autistic and non-autistic perceptual characteristics. And nowhere would that precise investigation be more informative than in the area of linguistics.

Linguistics—the logic of human language—encompasses much too large a topic to be taken up here, but a general approach to linguistics emerges quite naturally as an extension to this current investigation of formal logic (thereby traveling much the same road as Wittgenstein did in proceeding from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations). To outline it quite briefly, ordinary human language cannot be analyzed accurately until we recognize that human language derives historically and anthropologically out of a blending of both forms of human logic. The formal logic that arises out of autistic perception provides the impetus and much of the underlying structure for human language, while the biological, species-specific logic that is the birthright of non-autistic perception provides a substantial and significant addendum, one that above all else helps to disseminate language across the entirety of the human species. And until we can recognize and tease out these dual roots of a now thoroughly blended human language, we will continue to find linguistics to be a most puzzling subject, puzzling with respect to language's content, structure and origin. (See, for instance, Chapter 2, Section 2.3 of Noam Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and the “problem” described therein. Much of this so-called problem can be traced to the dual logical roots of human language, and although Chomsky's solution of dividing linguistic processing into a base phrase grammar—incorporating much of formal logic—and a separate supplemental lexicon—incorporating much of species-specific logic—although this solution points to a dual aspect and a dual origin of human language, Chomsky and his acolytes never seem to recognize this possibility for what it truly is.)

Two Concluding Observations. An observation to make regarding the history of modern logic is that nearly all its significant contributors have been individuals who have displayed behaviors and interests consistent with those of an autistic personality. With the possible exception of Tarski (who, although atypical in many respects, was clearly the most outgoing and collaborative of the group), modern logic was developed almost entirely by men who tended towards introversion, eccentricity and obsession, men whose biographies are filled with a clear preference for facts, objects and rules, and a clear discomfort for people, society and the demands of human convention. The autistic characteristics of Frege and Wittgenstein, for instance, seem nearly indisputable, and yet even these two examples would have to be described as mild compared to the more extreme cases of Peirce and Gödel, each of whom displayed eccentricities that might easily be interpreted as pathological.

There is nothing coincidental about this observation. The fields of logic, mathematics and science have always been saturated with personalities possessing autistic-like characteristics, a fact made more prominent when focusing on those individuals who have made the most significant and transformational contributions. Autistic individuals are drawn to such disciplines, they display a preternatural ability to be creative in such domains. The characteristics of logic, mathematics and science reflect exactly—indeed, were originated out of—the basic conditions of autistic perception. And it should be noted how recent and sudden has been the appearance of these disciplines within the culture of man; there is little, if any, evidence of their existence in mankind's more animal-like past. Thus the rise of logic, mathematics and science cannot be described as an evolutionary event but instead mirrors the rise of these disciplines' more proximate cause, mirrors the increasing significance and presence of autistic cognitive traits within the human population.

An observation to make regarding this essay's basic description of formal logic—as the process of inherent, non-biological foregrounding emerging from an autistic individual's background of sensory noise—is how closely this description matches the spontaneous activities of young autistic children. There exist many studies now that reveal autistic children's preference for perceptions and activities rich in non-biological pattern and structure over the perceptions and activities heavily influenced by human or biological form (see, for instance, here). And in a more informal sense, the many commonly reported behaviors of autistic children—lining up toys, spinning wheels, spinning tops, spinning selves, fascination with digits and letters, listening to the same song over and over, watching the same video again and again—such activities reveal the almost compulsive manner in which young autistic children focus primarily on the features of non-biological pattern and structure to be found in the world around them (exactly as this essay's basic description of logic and autistic perception would directly predict).

That autism researchers have been unable to make this observation themselves is indeed one of modern science's greatest travesties, for it derives from autism scientists not trying to understand autistic behaviors so much as they have been trying to destroy them. Drugs, behavioral therapies, other atrocities that go under the heading of early intervention—these have fast become the sole scientific means by which autism researchers now “investigate” the activities of young autistic children, and thus scientists remain entirely blind to the rich information these children have to impart.

The travesty must end.

If humanity's goal is to understand more fully the foundations and origin of its logical thinking, and if humanity's desire is to describe more accurately man's sudden transformation from animal into logical being, then humanity must end this all-too-common practice of brutally misunderstanding the key to its most vital logical questions, humanity must end this all-too-common practice of brutally misunderstanding its autistic individuals.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Turning Turing over in His Grave

I have no doubt that the current campaign to issue Alan Turing a posthumous apology is well intentioned, but I also have no desire to join that campaign.

If it had remained confined to a handful of Turing aficionados, a few who might have truly appreciated his contributions and the challenges he faced, then perhaps I could have been a little more sympathetic. But crowds frighten me, and I suspect they frightened Turing too. And when I see the likes of Dawkins and Grayling joining the throng, I know we have passed from well-intentioned campaign to well-intentioned farce. After all, these are the same professional and authoritative figures who would have been all too happy to condemn Alan Turing in the early 1950s, for of course, that is where the crowd's sentiment lay. It is of no surprise to find them signing up with the opposing legions a half century later, for all that is of consequence is that the legions have switched sides.

Revisionist history serves only to ease the current generation's pain.