Man or machine.. Jacob Epstein’s Studies for Rock Drill (1913)

Last week I was the subject of a ‘psychophysical’ experiment, designed to work out my cognitive responses. Though I cannot see anything but good motives in this piece of research, I was struck by the impersonality of it all. This research was run by a person, but their direct mode of assessment was a computer program shown on a large screen. I was sat in a dark, padded room, and a rest fixed my head in place looking at the screen, with intermittent breaks, for an hour.

There is this physical element. There is also the mental one, or the problem of intentionality. Intentionality simply indicates the apprehension of a subject (in this case, me) to its object (the screen of the computer). My intentionality during this experiment involved how I could respond to the program’s demands- that of matching a sound with its origin. There is also the intentionality of the computer towards me- after all, it is demanding that I finish its tasks in order to complete its study. If the computer is my object, then I am also the object of the computer.

But this reflection is not equal. I attempted to protest the game, and the computer did not. Consider the steps of my process:


Starting the game, I intended to play as best I could. It was instantly clear that the dots it showed were there to put me off in an otherwise fairly straightforward task. I matched the sounds as best I could to where I believed they came from against this distraction.


This effort could only last so long. My realisation that I was probably giving a lot of the wrong answers a few minutes in led me to change tack. I deliberately chose the wrong answers instead, sure that this would confuse the computer and the analysis of the data after this experiment had ended. I was playing my own games against the computer. 


This too had its limits. I realised that the data would just be able to realise where I was second-guessing. So as the test wore on, I drifted into autopilot, comatosely issuing commands over the ZXCVB keys that were still being demanded from me. I invariably drifted in and out of awareness, and if I did regain a proper consciousness and flip to the tactics of (a) or (b), this was very short-lived. The experiment finished. 

I played these games. The machine did not. It is an assemblance of inputs and outputs determined by the researchers of this study. As far as I know, it has no consciousness, let alone an awareness of how it could try to challenge me in terms of intention, as I challenged it. Yet the computer won. Because no matter what I tried (the tactics of a, b, c), what I did not realise was that, whatever answer I gave could be interpreted in accordance with my intentions. The psychologist looking through this data will be able to analyse my responses as not undermining the computer (as I tried to do), but trying, and failing, to work against the study.

If I gave inaccurate answers only for the period of one minute during the entire test, the psychologist will be able to pinpoint this area as the period where I tried to oppose the object of the game. This meant that all my mental actions could be explained from the commands I gave on a computer keyboard.

Though a small and insignificant study for the purposes of my own life, this experiment made me think, and I didn’t like all the conclusions it led me to. It is this: we consider ourselves subjects, inasmuch as everything we perceive unfolds around us. Yet this is problematic; even the pronoun ‘we’ itself necessitates the knowledge that other people (our ‘objects’) are, themselves, subjects. They in turn see us as objects. We are thus all both. This leads to a key Kantian dilemma: how can I be both an empirical object of my representations and the transcendental subject of my representations?

The truth is I cannot, and the experiment laid out above crystallises why. Though I felt my own intentions led to keying commands, my behaviour will be explained scientifically by this very action. I thus know why I acted, but so does the person analysing the data.

If this is true, there there should be an equivalence to the status of accuracy for both the perceived (me) and the perceiver (the psychologist). So where does the true knowledge of my actions lie? It would seem to be midway between both me and the scientist. That is to say, that I, or more broadly humans, must both be irreducibly transcendental and empirical. As Foucault argues in The Order of Things, the problem for the modern subject is that its identity is separated from itself by a distance which is both interior to it but also constitutes it.

What we have here is an epistemological problem. If we accept, as modern science tends to argue, that we are the products of overarching structures which determine our genetic, cultural and behavioural qualities, what we are doing is tracing over the things we do not know with regards to how we examine things scientifically. This is self-referential because our scientific methods therefore explain our own tendency to scientific reasoning. At the moment I am not sure how to solve this. It seems that mental activity is conceptually split between one’s own experience, and that experience alternatively relayed through scientific data. In which case our experiment above seems to only provide half of the data that it assumes it will ascertain the whole of.

Leave a Reply