Skies above: Certain measures Pt.1

Previous two:

Header image: detail from Brit.Lib. Add. MS 20746 f.1r.

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Some matters of method, comments on the psychology of perception and a particular set of unusual avoidances in the imagery need comment before I move on to post the second part of ‘Chronological Strata’.

The excursus will be in three parts (this post being the first) which will be published one each fortnight and then ‘Chronological Strata Pt 2’ about the end of April. Sorry about the hiatus.  Whether you read these essays is of course up to you but I doubt if the rest of Chronological Strata will make sense to most readers without the background.  I’ve made the discussion of  perception relevant to Voynich studies and attempted to make it accessible from the level of  secondary-school  upwards. Technical studies on this subject are classed as neuroscience as often as psychology and appear in scientific, not art-history journals.

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Clark’s and Campion’s comments about the month-folios’ appearance (see post of Feb. 9th., 2020) contain three important reasons for rejecting the old theory that these drawings were designed to some ‘astrological/horosopic’ purpose.  The old theory is opposed by:

  • the spectrum of historical examples (historical studies);
  • the month-diagrams’ general appearance – e.g. its many ‘ladies’ and
  •  technical details such as numerical proportions, layout and presentation.

These are not discrete criticisms. Each magnifies the force of the other two.

The revisionist might then ask why an ‘astrological purpose’ idea should feel no natural and so sensible, at a subjective level, and why it seems never to have been opposed between 1912 and 2010 (or if you like, 1912-2020)..

I had hoped to avoid discussing the psychology of perception but can see no way around it,  because to explain why an idea so prevalent and apparently so natural might yet be mistaken one has to understand something of what happens when the brain processes impulses received from the eye, and especially when the object presented to a person’s sight is quite unlike anything they’ve seen before.  If you think back to your first view of the manuscript, you may recall how bewildered you felt and how disoriented – and then how you hunted for something familiar, and what a calming effect it had when some older ‘Voynichero’ told you what to think about this section, or that.   The messages were generally re-assuring, because they told you that what you had felt were images quite unlike anything familiar were ‘really’ not so strange after all.

I’d like you to go back to those initial impressions and accept that what then struck you as quite unlike anything familiar – was indeed. The reason you now think otherwise is explained by the psychology of perception and various additional filters and blinkers emerging from human emotional and social reactions.

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Eye to Brain. and Group-feelings {Psychology of perception  – 2500 wds]

Assumptions of ‘universal language’.  Many of those interested in Beinecke MS 408 come from a background in technical studies such as computer studies, engineering, mathematics or cryptography, where a problem is habitually solved without reference to the historical and social circumstances in which it was first framed.   It doesn’t matter to a mathematician whether a problem was formulated in England or in India, in the 10thC AD or in the 20thC.   The technical diagram, like the mathematical equation employs a ‘universal language’ differing only (as it were) by dialect. Astrological and horoscopic diagrams do belong in that category, which is why scholars specialising in the history of astrology and comparative astrology can say whether or not a diagram presents as of that type.

However, in Voynich studies we have theorists who are so accustomed to solving problems expressed in a ‘universal language’ such as mathematics that they tend to suppose that all imagery speaks  a ‘universal language’ and that is not true.  One cannot rightly interpret all images by using only the assumptions and habits implicit in images produced by one’s own culture, with its  traditional attitudes, hierarchies, forms and modes of expression.  Ignorance of this fact was a first, and is still a prevalent, error of perception in Voynich studies.

More curious yet is that people of intelligence and competence in computer studies, engineering and other logical disciplines become illogical when informed opinion opposes some theoretical model they like.  And do so even in the case of the month-folios not presenting as astrological diagrams.

This paradox is explicable partly in terms of the study’s history, and partly by the way the human mind works.  I’ll treat the history first.

From 1912-2012 the great majority of persons interested in the Voynich manuscript saw European and American urban society and  the Anglo-German school as admirable, the earliest having also inherited nineteenth century ideas about hierarchies within social, intellectual and national or racial ‘pyramids’.  Informed by the wealth and self-importance of the imperial nations, there came to be a belief that the ‘western’ way was the pinnacle of human development, and at once the larger as well as a qualitatively greater set.

So, for example, if someone pointed out that a pentatonic scale was characteristic of eastern modes, it would be pointed out that western music also includes a pentatonic scale. If, on the other hand, you pointed out that eastern art is indifferent to vanishing-point perspective, this would be taken as a sign that it was ‘less evolved’ than western art… and so on.

As we saw earlier, it was impossible at that time (i.e. before the end of World War II, and then in the Friedmans’ view of things) to imagine any manuscript ‘important’ unless imagined as “contributing to the intellectual history of western Europe”.  I have already spoken in general of this phenomenon (here) and the way in which it effectively blinded the Friedmans and, following them, Mary d’Imperio, when they were confronted with specialists’ assessments which denied their own expectation that the manuscript should be an expression of medieval western Christian (i.e. ‘Latins’) book-culture.  Specialists in a variety of areas said plainly that though bound in the Latin (and Armenian) style, the manuscript was not like western texts of e.g. alchemy or Christian art, but these opinions were brushed aside while the erroneous theory was maintained. And this is still largely the case, theory-focused approaches have become so normalised that for many in the ‘online community’ it has become impossible to imagine any opinion or information about this manuscript could be other than the result of some ‘theory’.

The interesting problem is then why highly intelligent people who consciously prided (and pride) themselves on thinking logically – whether intellectual, mechanical, cyrptographic or computer logic – should be  unable to accept  information from genuine specialists.

The shortest and bluntest answer is that the theorists didn’t know enough to doubt themselves.   A theory is formed from within the limits of what a person knows.  If the theorist’s knowledge doesn’t include the necessary information, they cannot form a viable and accurate explanation as ‘theory’.

The habit of assuming the Anglo-German tradition both the best and the ‘greater’ set also meant that things true of that tradition – such as interest in literalism, or depiction of single specimens in herbals – was presumed without any pause for thought – to be always and everywhere true.   And just so, it was assumed that all pictures speak a sort of ‘universal language’ for which no more is needed for their understanding than ‘two eyes’, a theory,  an agile imagination and a range of ‘comparative examples’ invariably selected by theory-driven criteria.

But that blunt explanation is far from being the whole story of why people can’t seem to see – let alone to read –  pictures. It isn’t about IQ.  It’s about what happens when the brain attempts to process something quite unparalleled in a person’s experience. And about how the viewer’s instinctive emotional and social links add further distortions.

When the brain receives from the eye a set of impulses for which no ‘match’ can be found in the person’s previous experience, the brain seeks a ‘nearest fit’.  This is absolutely practical and useful in everyday life and is something hard-wired into the brain because human beings have lived, through most of human history, within a fairly limited environment and exposed to relatively few moments when they saw something never encountered before by anyone in their small circle.

And ‘nearest fit’ was usually pretty right, even if it did mean ignoring certain points of difference in the hunt for ‘the next-like’.   I want to emphasise that it is not a bad thing; it has become hard-wired for a good reason, but it is not so good when the thing perceived is absolutely outside the person’s previous experience.  If the brain informs us of that – returns a ‘nothing remotely like…’ people may go into shock. The search for ‘nearest like’ has become hard-wired for good reason.

For example, in ordinary life, when a friend whom you saw yesterday with long hair and legs covered by blue jeans, turns up today with short hair and wearing shorts, you still recognise them.   The mind discards as irrelevant, or as second-level information, those differences of hair-length (or even hair-colour), of clothing and even such things as tone of voice or whether their eyes are covered.

It is this same capacity which allows us to develop scientific knowledge: we are able to create categories of things and at the same time to refine those categories.  We put ‘like-‘ness first, and ‘distinctions’ in second place.  This is so important that I’ll give examples.

An infant experiences each new ‘thing’ as unique, a ‘plant-thing’ (for example) but then the same thing comes gradually to be  recognised as a rose, while another plant-thing is classed vaguely as ‘not a rose’.  (Language assists, but is not essential).

Only later still, if inclined or permitted to learn more, might that person reach a point where they can remove weeds from a rose-garden without risk of uprooting the wanted plants.   And if inclined, or permitted, to expand the limits of their knowledge still further, that person may reach the stage of being able to identify and name minor differences between one type of rose and another.   But this may never happen, and (like many of us) their mental classifications may end at the simple stage of ‘red-flowered rose’ or ‘white-flowered rose’.

Within their area of speciality (if any) a person is able to recognise and understand the significance of small variations in appearance and to recognise what is, and isn’t a significant difference.  It is because their range of knowledge is greater that they can, when confronted with a hitherto unknown item, classify it correctly as ‘like’ or ‘unlike’. Their knowledge base being greater means their definition of ‘like’ is more precise and the number of ignored points of difference much smaller.

Since the number of specialists is small in proportion to a general population, the precision to be expected of any ‘majority’ will be less when an object is highly unusual – and yet, at the same time the fact that the majority are working roughly within the same, limited, range of experience means that the majority ‘consensus’ is more often an expression of general ignorance than a valid decision about what is true or false.   What ‘everyone says’ may be no better than village gossip.

Within a limited and shared environment, however, our brain’s hard-wired search for ‘like-ness’ works very well indeed.  It allows us to classify as similar objects which differ widely in appearance, forms, materials and ornament.  And it usually serves well.  It might enable a person to describe all the following artefacts as ‘coffee cups’.

 

 

But one of them isn’t.

The red ‘cup-like’ object is a filter,

 N.B. ‘Looks-like’ impressions aren’t enough to allow theories about an unfamiliar artefact’s origin and purpose. 

‘Group impression’ –  false consensus.

When the eye is presented with an unfamiliar object, and the brain receives impulses for which it finds no close match, we may not necessarily accept the ‘nearest fit’ but turn to our neighbour to compare his or her impressions with our own.  Social links may clarify the point – our neighbour may know more than we do – but it is important to realise that as social creatures we have this tendency to suppress our own perception if we find ourselves in a minority.  The difficulty is that our nearest contacts may well have closely-similar limits to their own experience and their ‘nearest fit’ may be no better than our own.

You might then think the natural inclination would be to seek better advice, but in practice this doesn’t happen so often.  In fact, forums will sometimes swamp or censure discussions which move beyond the ‘group opinion’. The dominant theory rather than the manuscript’s study, may even come to define what is deemed as ‘on-‘ or ‘off-topic’. Hard luck for the manuscript.

These social impacts on how we react to images are well illustrated by reactions to the  Rorschark ink-blots.  One person may describe their own ‘nearest fit’ impressions, but another who is present may be seen nodding, as if thinking, ‘Yes, that makes sense…’.

In fact, of course, it doesn’t ‘make sense’ at all.  What is happening is that the two persons’ having comparable social context and previous experience means that the ‘nearest fit’ for one person strikes a familiar chord in the other.   It is that social similarity, not any explanation of the image, which creates this feeling of consensus.  It tells one absolutely nothing about the origin or intended purpose for that ink-blot image.

And that is more-or-less how it happens that theory-groups form within Voynich studies.  One person asserts such-and-such; others find it easy to believe and so on… Social pressures prevent open dispute and even a specialist’s opinion may be treated as having little weight unless they are known to be loyal members of the group.

When a newcomer is instructed by other amateur Voynicheros to interpret a section of the manuscript in this way or that, it is socially and emotionally comforting for most newcomers. They are relieved of that stress involved in confronting the ‘nothing like’ feeling.  But what is being transmitted in fact is rarely factual and objectively verifiable information (which is one reason why citing sources is asserted ‘unnecessary’). What is being taught and promoted is the theoretical ‘nearest fit’ which seems plausible to a majority in that group.

The newcomer is often receiving no more than, so to speak, instructions on a party-line.  To test whether you are being given solid information about Beinecke MS 408, or an ‘approved line’, you need only ask to have and review the evidence and what debate (if any) led to the idea’s adoption.  If there’s nothing to it, there will be no non-Voynich source for the information, and no evidence of any informed debate.   So what you have will be speculation on guesswork on theory – and theory built more often than not on false perception of ‘like-‘ ness.

Because our minds themselves produce flawed comparisons at times, and our social impulses tend to see harmony given a higher priority than independent thought, the formalities of academic study have evolved, over the centuries, in ways providing a counterweight.

A scholar’s first loyalty is expected to be to their discipline of science or mathematics or history, and this means that the person is expected to know, and cite, precedent studies which affect the way a given subject is understood.  Next, their loyalty is to the particular object of their study: in the present case, Beinecke MS 408. This means that if something is asserted about the manuscript which your own research, or other studies in (say) cryptography or iconology show demonstrably untrue, you say so – citing sources for the opposing information and from the best and most solid external sources you can.  By this I mean that if the comment is about the manuscript’s vellum, you cite studies of codicology, not other Voynich writers.

Only after those two are one’s loyalties owed to colleagues and other fellows. If one or more of them disputes your own conclusions, the usual response is to accept (but check the references) for dissenting views and thank the other for the correction – because it has led you to a better understanding of your second-highest loyalty.  To  debate is not only acceptable, it is the meat-and-drink of scholarship, and one reason why Voynich forums tend to be counterproductive.  Debate is often perceived in a closed community as indistinguishable from dispute and spirited debate – even of the academic sort, without ad. hominem – may be terminated in the interests of harmony. I’m not suggesting you never join a forum; only that you do so understanding that the group-dynamic may be strongly influenced by a desire for agreement and conformity, along Henry Ford lines (‘they can have any colour they like, so long as it’s black’)

Nor am I saying that most Voynicheros are dishonest: only that a combination of limited knowledge, theory-driven approaches and social considerations serve to distort perception of these unfamiliar images.

To return to the ‘coffee cup’ example. Agreement between persons of closely similar, and limited, prior experience might lead a group to agree  that both objects shown below are, again,   ‘coffee cups’.  All have seen objects before which present as ‘nearest-fit’ and make that description  seem obvious, natural and consensual.

How far wrong may such decisions be about an artefact’s origin and intended purpose should be clear when I say that the container  on the left is a Mayan vessel made c. 7thC AD, while that on the right is a recent invention: an edible coffee-cup newly introduced in New Zealand in 2019.  (Need I add that the Maya had no knowledge of coffee?).

If the example above seems exaggerated, or unfair, consider the ‘matches’ which have been not only suggested but generally accepted and actively disseminated in the ‘Voynich community’.  As so often, the ‘pairing’ is not about explaining the manuscript’s image; it is about illustrating a theory – in this case of European Christian culture – and is aimed solely at persuasion. It is doing pretty much what a person’s brain might do if their range of knowledge was limited to the history of Germany.

Such errors of perception have affected study of the Voynich manuscript since 1912.  It is not a recent problem, nor the result of online forums.   It is a problem caused by our mind’s seeking ‘nearest-fit’ within too narrow a range of previous knowledge, together with the natural human tendency to maintain whatever opinions are found comfortable in the group regarded as the “us-group”.   The importance of the second is paramount for many and may alone be why an independent specialist’s assessment is rejected.  In fact, what we see in Voynicheros reactions to theory-opposing opinion from specialists may exceed the ‘just ignore’ response and become active denigration as the theorist continues to presume their theories must be right.   This pattern again is reflected in d’Imperio’s book, derived as it is from the theories shared by the Friedman groups.

In one place, she writes:

Balance

I expect that as well as understanding the issues, you may want some idea of how to correct for them.

The single best approach is to learn more – first about the discipline you want to engage – whether it is techniques of analysis in art or in cryptography and so on.

If your interest is in understanding the images in this manuscript, you might like to try a few exercises.  These are ones intended to help you become conscious of the ‘nearest-fit’ response and to help deal with the sort of emotional and social responses which arise when you are confronted by something quite unlike anything in your previous experience.

These exercises apply to images securely dated to the pre-modern period.

First,

Become interested in what makes the image ‘unlike’.  Actively seek to identify and to describe the very details that the ‘like-‘ seeking function has  automatically set aside or given a lesser importance.  

Don’t be persuaded by ‘matches’ in any Voynich writings – not even the essays (bar the materials essay) in the Yale facsimile edition.

As an example for countering the natural tendency to focus on apparent ‘like-‘ ness, you might consider one of those ‘matches’ offered between some detail from the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ section and illustrations from the Balneis Puteolanis.

Remember that you are comparing pictures, not objects or alleged subject-matter.    Now, look at the differences between the two ‘matched’ images and hand-write a description of the Voynich image, emphasising the points of difference from the alleged ‘match’.  This will also have an effect of calming you, because it puts that Voynich image securely within the range which your brain can recognise.  It gives a sense – false or not – that you are in control.  Slowly and carefully scanning and writing a description of the image is always a good practice in iconology, art history and especially in provenancing artefacts.

In this case, you might include among the observed differences – different attitudes to depiction of the human body; a different use of proportion; facial features (are males shown with or without beards, for example).  Note attitudes to perspective, the presence or absence of stylistic features (such as whether lines are drawn over areas of liquid to indicate ripples).  Is the maker interested in ‘realism’.  What about ways of representing landscape?  And so on.  You should also spend time thinking vaguely about the thing; ‘musing’ because this brings in the more flexible part of the brain’s activity.  It is when we most often realise some half-forming theory is untenable.

But do beware of any ‘lightning flash’ experience while you’re in the ‘musing’ mode.  You may experience it as a sudden flash of genius insight, but more often than not it’s the imagination going into overdrive and trying to stop the whole process by producing some ‘ultimate answer’ at random.

The task is to understand a difficult manuscript, not to create some ultimate theory.

And do keep the Mayan “coffee cup” in mind..