The Green Frog Test
The Green Frog Test
A green porcelain frog sits on my desk. It is one of those cheap gift shop ornaments, found two-a-penny in some seaside towns; and there is certainly nothing special about it. Yet it turns out that this frog is something of an ‘objet celebre’ amongst my past students because it marks their very first step in their individual attempts to get into Oxbridge. Indeed, for some years I was unaware of the special status this frog had in the eyes of my students. As far as I was concerned, the frog was neither a symbol nor an ornament, but a tool. It was simply the best way I knew of determining which category a potential entrance candidate to either Oxford or Cambridge fell into. It was just a preliminary test to assess the intellect of a student; and if they passed it, I was more than happy to take them on for tuition in order to prepare them for entrance to Oxbridge. It was only when former students of mine started to drop in after having left Oxford that I began to find out just how significant this frog was to them. They always asked to see it, and clearly cherished it as their own personal symbol of the mental ‘rite de passage’ they had to go through in order to get into Oxbridge. At least that is how I saw it to begin with. But as more and more students added their weight to the idea that I should write a book in order to capture some of the things I normally taught them, I began to realise that the green frog meant a lot more to them than just a bit of nostalgia. They still saw it as a test, but at a much higher level than I was using it at. As one student put it: ‘That frog is like Blake’s idea of seeing the universe in a grain of sand, only the frog is a grain of sand in the universe of human meaning, so it’s really a test of what we know about ourselves.’ Whilst another student sees it as ‘the greatest test facing science today: to put that frog where it belongs.’ But I run ahead. First, let us look at the test as I use it on students.
The green frog test is simply a means of ascertaining the quality of a potential Oxbridge candidate. It provides neither a definitive index of the qualities required by those two institutions, nor a definitive assessment of the student. Nevertheless, it does seem to provide an excellent yardstick for the qualities that, combined with personal tuition, lead to success at entrance. To that end, the test examines for only three levels of performance. The candidate can be one of only three categories – a ‘no-hoper’, a ‘hoper’, or a ‘dead-cert’.
Superficially, the test is simple. The student is presented with the invitation: “Please say as much as you can about this green object, here on the desk.” They receive a smile of encouragement, and the silence unfolds.
As you can see from the picture, the frog is just a cheap and simple ornament. So the test should be easy: the frog represents a familiar image, and the invitation to talk about it is almost entirely free of restrictions. Why then is it that most candidates find this test represents a major challenge to their intellectual ability? After all, what could be less technical and less demanding than to have to say something, in fact anything, about a little green frog, a small green ornament?
Well, there seem to be several reasons for the silence of the candidates. The first little ‘killer’, and I am referring to conversation here, is the fact that the invitation fails to offer the student any specific pointer as to where the question is aimed. There is nothing to indicate what issue should be discussed, nor is any assistance proferred as to how it might be approached. The hidden agenda of the test is concealed behind the blandness of the ornament, and the vagueness of the challenge. For students used to specific questions about things they have already discussed in detail, this constitutes an understandably mind-numbing challenge. The second obstacle is the fact that the green frog is extra-curricular. It is rare for schools to have the time (or need) to prepare their pupils for questions outside the curriculum. Present the student with a real frog, or a poem that uses a frog as a metaphor, and a scientific or literary angle is available from within a particular syllabus or tradition. However, conventional forms of education do not readily provide a way in which the frog as ornament can be classified or discussed. This means that there is no conceptual support for the candidate to fall back upon; no frame of reference, no body of knowledge that will give the frog a footing in what the student knows and understands. Again, this pushes the student outside normal school experience, to test his own native intellect rather than his acquired knowledge and understandings. Thirdly, the frog is just one of those things in everyday existence that most of us take entirely for granted. After all, it poses no questions, and we ask nothing in return: it just stands there, on the mantelpiece. To sum up this third difficulty, we might say that the frog is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand.
How then do Oxbridge candidates respond to this challenge? The strange thing is that the response really does seem to fall into three distinctive groups: the no-hopers, the hopers, and the dead-certs. Nevertheless, it is hard to do anything more than caricature typical responses from each of these groups because so much of ones assessment is intuitive. Individual cases can, of course, be discussed in great detail, and I must admit that when I have done this with other tutors, I am always surprised at the degree of consensus that exists between often quite different people. So it is with some confidence that I present the following typical responses.
It is not surprising to find that members of the first group, the no-hopers, just sit there, looking puzzled and bewildered. When coaxed, they seem generally to come up with descriptive comments based on the object directly in front of them, the most common of which is naturally enough: ‘Well. It’s a green frog.’ Then there is more silence, as if the undeniable reality of the frog in front of them has taken away their power to think of anything else, but the literal truth. After more encouragement, they generally offer more description. ‘It’s just a green frog, sitting there with a big grin on its face.’ And? ‘Well, nothing really. Its obviously happy, and it’s just sitting there. I mean, what do you want me to say exactly?’ ‘Well, how about saying something interesting about it?’ ‘What? You mean that it’s happy, or something like that? Or why it’s happy?’ I sit back, unable to say more without ruining the test, and wait. At this point it really does often seem as if the no-hopers, are unable to tear their eyes away from the physical presence of the object before them. Rather like the novice on the high diving board who refuses to leave the comfort and solidity of the platform for thin air. Certainly they know more is required of them, but a frog is a frog, and that is all there is to it. ‘It’s a frog.’ Well, clearly in circumstances like these, when the challenge is obviously too much for the student, I salvage the situation as best I can, and explain what I was looking for. If this meets with indifference or incomprehension, then my diagnosis to them and their parents is simple: do not apply for Oxbridge.
‘Hopers’ often start out the same way, looking bewildered or asking for guidance. They throw out a descriptive comment or two, whilst obviously seeing that something more is needed from them. However, after encouragement, they progress to more generally descriptive comments such as: ‘Well, it’s an ornament. People seem to like ornaments that represent animals.’ Further encouragement may then make them pose a simple question. ‘Where did it come from? One of those cheap souvenir shops?’ Some come up with more critical comments, such as: ‘Real frogs never sit like that.’ or ‘The features of this frog are exaggerated to make it more appealing; more human-like.’ Some are confident enough to make a judgement of its aesthetic worth. ‘It’s not exactly art is it? I mean, I would never buy something like this myself.’ Others may joke about its identity. ‘Judging by its grin, this species must be forgetting its place in the food chain’. It is at this point that further progress can then be made. Once the candidate has raised the discussion to the level of an issue, away from straight description, and into questions about the nature of say taste, caricature, and art; the interlocutor can guide and support the student along the way, just as occurs in the typical Oxford tutorial, and a fruitful dailogue can then ensue.
‘Dead-certs’ need no such initial guidance and provocation. The unusual challenge of the frog is stimulus enough. Indeed, once the object has been fully scrutinised, such candidates often turn their eyes away from the frog altogether. As if the physical presence of the object somehow impeded their imaginations by keeping their attention turned outwards, facing to the front, eyes skewered, as it were, on lines of light. Whereas really their attention should be pointing backwards and inwards, for it is only there that the frog is truly to be found. For it is inside the mind, and not outside the skull, that this frog really exists. It is in the head that the frog has its origin, habitat and home. I am sure that the reason some candidates instinctively tear their eyes away from the literal reality of the object is that they intuitively know that the actual object is merely an aide-memoire, and that the real answer lies within. The lump of ceramic is a distraction from the landscape of the imagination, and the physical representation of the frog should be nothing more than a convenient focus and point of entry to this mental domain.
I think that what most distinguishes the dead-cert from other candidates is the ability to see the underlying questions implicitly posed by the frog. This is why the test does not fit in with the approach typical of conventional education, where success lies in the provision of answers rather than the quest for questions. It is this ability to sense and formulate good questions in novel situations that is the most immediately obvious sign of a good mind, and this is nothing new. After all, the key to success in both the creativity and research that forms the basis of the arts and sciences lies very much in this ability to see the question, so it is not surprising to find that this ability is valued highly by Oxford and Cambridge. But what sort of questions are we talking about here? What would a dead-cert be able to say about the frog? Here is a list of possible questions that a candidate might want to raise when confronted with the green frog. They are presented in no special order, and are certainly not intended to be exhaustive.
1) Why are frogs such a favourite of the popular imagination (for example, ‘Toad of Toad Hall’, the muppet frog ‘Kermit’, and the tale of the frog prince)? What is it about frogs that gets them such major attention?
2) How do we know that this object represents an animal made to look like a human, and not a human made to look like a frog?
3) It can be said that ornaments like this are produced simply to make money. So we can ask how far its existence is explicable in terms of the profit motive, and to what extent it defies such an explanation.
4) Could we call this frog ‘a piece of art’? If not; why not, and in this case, what category should we place it in, and what worth would we give it?
5) If a member of an advanced alien intelligence, and a person from a stone-age tribe were to stumble across this frog for the first time, what would they make of it?
6) If a real frog had features like this, what would that tell us about its habitat? Could such a creature evolve on earth?
7) This frog is a physical object, and can be described purely in those terms. Will we one day know enough to describe the human response to this frog purely in terms of physics?
8) Green frogs can come in many forms: it might be a real animal, a clockwork toy, a cuddly doll, a pond ornament, a piece of serious art and so on. How could we programme a computer to distinguish between these many forms?
9) Why do we like to think of animals like this frog as human beings? Why do we like to think of some humans as animals?
10) If the frog was real, it would be easy to talk about because science provides us with a vocabulary of ideas covering its existence. But we are closer to this object than that because we created it. So why is it that we somehow know less about it than a zoologist knows about a real frog?
11) This is clearly a model of a happy animal. But can animals be happy? And if so, can they also be sad, or angry or amused, or is this a myth?
12) Why is it hard to imagine somebody putting an ornament of a tadpole on their mantelpiece? Why is the idea of a big black ceramic squiggle so silly?
13) Why is the frog hollow? How was it made?
14) Why are ornaments so often just copies of things?
15) Is there something that this frog, the requirements of this tutor, and my desire to get into Oxford, all have in common?
16) How might a tribal people react to this frog, and what might its equivalent be in the tribal context? Is tribal society just as anthropomorphic as modern large scale society when it comes to material culture?
All this selection does is illustrate the range of possibility opened up by the presence of an apparently simple object. There is no single right response to the initial challenge posed by the frog, but obviously the more questions raised by the candidate, the better his score. Naturally the ability to then discuss these issues is critical, but my experience is that once a student has thought of a good question, a discussion about it can then ensue without difficulty. Here are three semi-fictitious examples of such discussions. They feature the performances of three high-fliers that I imagine any college at Oxford or Cambridge would be glad to take as undergraduates.
‘Please say as much as you can about this green object, here on the desk.’
A ‘Well, it’s either a frog behaving like a human, or a human dressed up as a frog. Personally, I’d go for the frog option. It’s obvious that it’s that way round, but I’m not sure why.’
‘Have a go.’
A ‘What? You mean say why it’s obvious? OK. How about the idea that most of us think of frogs as being pretty much like this ornament represents them to be? So the question of an alternative is ruled out from the start. And on the other side, when we think of ornaments that represent humans, they tend to show people in their normal dress. Shepherds or whatever. So the idea of a person in a frog outfit is a bit unlikely, though it is possible.’
‘And if dressing up like a frog was a popular folk tradition in your community, would that make a difference to your judgement?’
A ‘Hmm. No. I’d still think of the object as a frog. Which suggests that there’s something more basic to my choice, and I haven’t realised it yet. Alright, how about this? I’m calling it a frog because physical features are more basic than behavioural ones, and as the human part of the frog is behavioural, and as the physical part is all frog, I put my trust in the solid part, and say it’s a frog. Behaviours can change, but bodies are more solid indicators of identity because they’re, well, more solid. Yes, that’s probably it. Unless you’re a puffer fish…’
‘Good. Now, you said earlier that the frog represents how people see frogs in general. Could you elaborate?’
A ‘You mean, why do we prefer to twist nature into a human shape, and ignore the beauty of living things in favour of a Disney-fied animal kingdom full of popping eyes and cuddly smiles?’
‘Er, yes. That must have been what I meant. So why do we? Why do we go in for this ‘Disney-fication’, as you call it?’
A ‘Because we understand and relate to things in our own terms. At least to begin with. Then, we grow up, learn to see things more objectively, and appreciate reality as it really is. It’s like the kid who starts off with a soft cuddly frog, later exchanges it for the real thing – a pet frog – and ends up writing a thesis on the physiology of the amphibians. Ah. No, that’s not it. Well, it’s true that adults don’t play with soft-toys, but we still pray to human-shaped gods, and though modern society is based on the power of science, much of that know-how is used to create entertainments that are entirely human-centred. Which means that humans are objective and subjective at the same time. We want it both ways, as usual.’
A ‘Well, put it this way. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.’
‘Yes. I take your point. Right… Do you think there might be a pattern to this need to be both objective and yet human-centred?’
A ‘Hmm… Well, I would have thought that in kids, the need for a human-centred view of the world was greater than in adults. Subjectivity is a luxury that adults can’t always afford. No use looking at the world as a soft toy with big eyes and a nice smiling face. Could turn out to be a tiger. And maybe it’s not just the individual that this applies to. Maybe you can talk about societies this way too: some surround themselves with the cotton wool of a comforting ideology, whilst others face the void of loss and death with greater honesty and sophistication. It’s as if both people and peoples grow up through the same stages – well, hopefully we grow up.’
‘Grow up, and lose our sense of wonder in the process perhaps?’
A ‘Yes. Perhaps. And maybe our sense of security as well. And a feeling of security is probably just the thing that the seeds of wonder need for their germination. Personally, I’m never sure whether our sense of wonder has increased or decreased. People argue that the effect of science is to decrease wonder. I can’t see that myself. Science doesn’t close down the skies, it opens them up. Literally. We see further, and marvel at things never dreamed of in the past. Who could have conceived that this planet was once ruled over by dinosaurs? Who could have anticipated a modern home? Who would have thought that space and time were’nt absolutes? Maybe a sense of wonder just comes down to personality, and has nothing to do with age or culture.’
‘What do you find is the greatest source of wonder for you personally?’
A ‘The sky. Definitely the sky. Both night and day aspects. The thing I most dislike about urban living is the lack of sky. At night, the city lights pollute the stars, and during the day, you get a crick in the neck finding it. The urban sky is just a blue ribbon squeezed between the tops of buildings. It’s just such a contrast to the wilderness of nature, where the sky can be three thirds of the view. No wonder no wonder survives in the city.’
‘Why the sky though? In fact, why nature? What about human creations? Creations that, after all, may be designed precisely for this purpose: to inspire a sense of wonder?’
A ‘What. You mean like this frog here? Sorry. Just joking! Well, art. For example, a painting of the open skies? Well, yes… But compared to the real thing… Nah. The trouble is that man-made stuff lacks mystery. Both its origins and its purpose are too obvious. And it lacks scale. In fact, the man-made stuff that is inspiring is generally big in some way. Cathedrals, skyscrapers, large ships – with their height and vast size. Bridges, space shuttles and telephones, – with their reach. That sort of thing. I suppose the question is, why do large scale things cause the greatest sense of wonder?’
‘You tell me.’
A ‘Is it because it makes us feel small? I think it is. Nothing liberates the ego as much as the sense that one is totally insignificant. It must be that.’
‘Next year, I must remember to install a larger frog. Meanwhile, as you have put this particular frog in its place, let’s get onto another question. So, why did you decide to choose Oxford…?’
‘Please say as much as you can about this green object, here on the desk.’
B ‘Can I?’
‘Yes, please do. But don’t drop it.’
B ‘Well, it’s an object of a certain weight, composition, shape and temperature. Then again, it’s a green frog. Then again, it’s neither of these; it’s an ornament that goes on a desk or mantelpiece.’
B ‘So…it’s probably a decoy frog… allows the others to get away.’
‘Hmm… You mean, like a decoy duck?’
B ‘Sort of. Well, I’m not sure about that. The decoy frog is used by real frogs to distract the attention of the predator. But a decoy duck is used by the predator, man, to attract the attention of the real ducks. Ah yes, I see now. It’s the same principle. Just used by different sides. Anyway, it’s clearly a decoy frog.’
‘Er… Good. I’m glad you spotted that. And the smile?’
B ‘Yes. Quite. I suggest that gloomy frogs don’t look too good on a mantelpiece.’
‘Ah. So we’ve left the pond behind have we?’
B ‘Yes. But only because smiles and nature don’t go hand in hand. The thing is, frogs are like dolphins. They’re born with a constant smile on their face. That’s why they’re so popular. In fact, frogs are probably more popular than dolphins because they’re more familiar. Also, they look more human. Toad of Toad Hall; the whole idea of the frog prince; the number of frogs in children’s stories? Yes, frogs are definitely popular.’
‘You said ‘smiles and nature don’t go hand in hand’?’
B ‘Well, the question is: ‘Can nature wear a smile? Can animals be happy?’
‘Well, can it, and can they?’
B ‘Put it this way. I think that if a human could only experience the same levels of happiness and sadness of an animal, and had the same intelligence as a dolphin or a chimp then… then, basically, we would think of that person as a vegetable.’
B ‘Yes. Maybe a happy vegetable. But what sort of happiness? I mean, the sentient happiness of a lizard basking in the sun, or the obvious excitement of our dog when I suggest the word ‘Walk?’ is a form of happiness. But is it really comparable to the feeling we get on a nice beach, or say skiing in the Alps? The question is, are animals more human than we think, or is it vice-versa? OK. In practise, it’s nice to treat animals as if they are marginally conscious beings. It’s important aesthetically, just like its nicer not to walk through a wood stamping on the bluebells. But whether even the higher animals experience true happiness I don’t know. Maybe they do, and we don’t!’
‘So for you, this frog is a symbol of the way people feel about animals?’
B ‘It’s certainly a symbol of how people are unwilling to look at animals on anything but human terms. Otherwise… well, it could be a symbol of almost anything. I suppose it could even be a symbol of what it takes to get into Oxford.’
‘Ah. You’ve jumped to the meta-level.’
B ‘I have?’
‘Yes. The level above the normal level of consideration is the meta-level. For example, metaphysics is the level above normal physics. You see? Good. So how would you explain your own particular move to the meta-level?’
B ‘OK. Hold on a minute. Well… the question about the frog is based on a hidden question about whether I’m good enough for Oxford. So what’s happened is that I’ve moved from talking about the frog to talking about talking about the frog. That must be it.’
‘Correct. So, to come back to the level of the question, what other things might the frog represent?’
B ‘Right. Well, what about that famous bit In Blake’s poetry, where he talks about seeing the universe in a grain of sand, and eternity in a wild flower. Meaning that every tiny detail in the universe carries the stamp of the whole, and thus reflects it. Just like every fragment of a hologram is supposed to carry the entire image within it. So let’s say this frog, which admittedly lacks the poetic force of a grain of sand or a wildflower, is a gate to everything. At least in theory. I mean, in practise, it would take rather a long time to reach many of those bits of everything.’
‘How do you think a scientist would view Blake’s idea?’
B ‘Well, I’m no scientist, but don’t we live in a space-time continuum? Which presumably means everything is connected to everything else, all stemming from the big bang, where the universe began. Actually, that could be a good place to set up ones uh.. viewing platform. Probably the best, as it’s the start of time, and the centre of all space. Grains of sand, wildflowers, and ornamental frogs were later spin-offs, so they’re less good as candidates for the ultimate viewpoint. Start at the start. In fact, instead of ‘the restaurant at the end of the universe’, you could have ‘the poetry meeting at the start of the big bang’. Though you’d need something to eat anyway.’
‘Quite. Just as the original idea behind Darwins theory was survival of the fattest, so the universe through the grain of a sandwich is probably what Blake actually wrote,. OK Good. Let’s discuss your reasons for choosing this particular course…
‘Please say as much as you can about this green object, here on the desk.’
B ‘It’s a typical example of a mass-produced ornament. It’s hollow – presumably to save on ceramic. Hmm… Could be a result of how it’s produced though. Wonder how they do it? Spray on the inside of a mould? Anyway, it’s always interesting to see how much a design is market-driven, and how much production-driven. Is the frog hollow in the interests of the consumer, or because it’s easier to make it that way? Well, I expect it suits both. Lighter, and cheaper for the buyer, cheaper and quicker to dry for the producer.’
‘What about the purpose of the frog?’
B ‘Well. The business that makes these frogs would say that the purpose is to make a profit. Money making the world go round etc. The problem is, that’s a fairly banal answer. Money is only a driving force because of what you can do with it, and once you start talking about what it buys, the simplicity of the equation is lost. It’s simply an intermediate in a jungle of human purpose and cross purpose. Like language. And, like language, it’s largely neutral. For example, I know that some people argue that money is a source of evil, and they presumably do this because it’s always involved in human transactions, but that’s about as stupid as saying that language is the source of the worlds problems.’
‘What about the other side of the equation? The buyer?’
B ‘The buyer represents human purpose. And the price reflects the demand and availability of the product. So the price of this particular frog would go up the more people wanted it, and the less easy it was to get hold of. Or, to put it another way, I imagine it was rather cheap. It does look cheap. Nothing personal… But it is interesting that cheap can mean poor quality and bad taste, and even mean. We may base prices on human assessments of worth, but once we know the price, we base our assessment on that.’
‘It seems you think this frog is in bad taste?’
B ‘Well, yes, it is. For example, it would be worth more if an individual had crafted it, instead of a factory. And if a sculptor had formed it in the exact shape and colour of a real frog, then at least we could see that as clever representation. Like those Dutch oil painters who did such good still-life paintings of fruit with a fly on top that it looked like the real thing.
B Oh, right. But these days, the surprise of a good representation is minimal, compared to the past, I mean. So we go in for other well, to us, more sophisticated art. Stuff where forms are interpreted, and where things that don’t have form are still represented, just as if they had. Which means that if you want a model of a green frog to command a good price in an art gallery, then it should be an interpretation of the real thing.’
‘Like this you mean?’
B ‘No. Not even slightly. The interpretation has to avoid sugar and cliche. It has to be original and compelling. Monstrous perhaps. Anything, as long as it avoids being a green gob of cuteness and subjective goo like that thing on your desk. Yes, I know I am, myself, being intensely subjective here. And I can understand that such a frog appeals to the popular taste. And maybe there’s no such thing as objective good taste, so I can’t even argue my case in a way that makes the whole thing culture-free or class-free. But I can’t help my reaction. It’s cheap and nasty, and it certainly doesn’t fit in with all those things on the wall over there.’
‘So define taste.’
B ‘Define taste? Hmm… Well, it’s odd that we use the tongue as a metaphor for sight and sound discrimination. Almost as if the taste buds were an aesthetic organ of some kind. And if having ‘good taste’ means knowing how things should look and sound, then what is ‘bad taste’? Is bad taste a lack of discrimination – the frog is neither good nor bad? Or is it simply an alternative set of choices – this frog is a nice thing to have on the mantelpiece? I think it must be the latter… because it takes a positive choice to buy this ornament, and put it where it’s visible. Which means that good taste is what we like, and bad taste is what others like.’
‘Like in terms of sight and sound?’
B ‘Not exactly. For example, nature does’nt have good taste. It just is. So when we talk about aesthetic matters, we mean things created by man. The frog only becomes an aesthetic issue when it moves from the pond to the mantelpiece and becomes a bit of pottery.’
‘And what if the frog on the mantelpiece was real, but preserved in some way?’
B ‘Yuk. Ohh… I see. So it’s a piece of nature, but a matter of taste in its placement? Like a garden or something. OK, then we have to change the definition a bit. ‘Aesthetic’ means things and conditions manipulated or created by people. And I suppose we better say something about the purpose of this activity. The aesthetic purpose is distinct from the functional, where the aim is to satisfy simple needs, such as eating, drinking, mating, fighting, moving, staying warm and dry, and keeping free of damage. Loosely, it’s about how things look, not about what things do. It’s about what happens when our physical needs have, at least momentarily, left the room.’
‘Yes. Doing things for their own sake. Free for a moment from the human struggle. A moment of eternity, before the door opens, and the room in ones head once again becomes the nerve centre for the body, and the information processor for its master, the human ego. Milk and sugar?’
These three samples are not representative of most candidates. Nor are they typical of the dead-cert response. They are simply there as illustrations. Illustrations that reveal just some of the many ways in which the green frog test can be answered.
The Open-Ended Question
If there is no right answer to the challenge of the green frog, then this test is different from the tests employed by conventional education systems around the world. This is because the conventional view is based on the idea that questions are posed in order to obtain the right answer. And this formula of a question leading to a single answer is entirely rational. Students are required to learn not only facts, but ways of handling them, and both aspects can be tested effectively by directing answer-directed questions at them. And in real life, the situation is often similar. A solution to a particular problem is sought, and the knowledge that a right answer exists offers a useful target to aim at, even if the nature of this answer is unknown.
The difference between these two forms of question is a difference in emphasis, and reminds me of something I once read in an article on how to chat up members of the opposite sex. There was, I read avidly, a difference between posing an open-ended question, and a closed one. A question that invites a simple yes or no answer is ‘closed’ because it puts the ball back in the initiator’s court immediately. A new return is then required. This is fine in a game of tennis, where an immediate return is the point of the game, but in a conversation, a more leisurely approach is desirable. The point of the open-ended question is that it obliges the other person to respond fully, leading to a conversation where facile ‘chat-up-lines’ are superfluous. So, for example, asking whether a person enjoyed a film is less effective than asking them what it was about. Instead of a stark yes or no, a description and opinion is elicited, and this furthers the dialogue.
This distinction has its echo in the difference between a conventional question and the sort of question symbolised by the green frog. It is true that a conventional exam question will ask for more than a yes or no answer (though multiple-choice papers are close to this). Indeed, essay questions allow the candidate a certain latitude in the facts they deploy, and the way they approach a problem. But the need to have a standardised marking system, where examiners agree on what constitutes the right answer, leaves little room for the much more flexible system needed when the question is open-ended. When there are many ways to answer a problem, such as that posed by the green frog, then the conventional system has to be replaced by a flexible system, where the examiner is more independent, and takes greater responsibility. Necessarily, the open-ended question poses a greater challenge to both student and examiner.
Why make things more difficult for both parties? The answer is simple. Originality and independence of mind, creativity and the ability to argue an unusual opinion, are qualities of mind that are hard to test through conventional methods. And if the teacher has less of these qualities than the student, then that student may be appreciated less, or even be considered ‘troublesome’. There are certainly students at Oxford and Cambridge who were branded in this way prior to their sudden success, and there should be a lot more of them there, especially from state schools, but the branding often damages their chances, and I suspect there must be many under-achievers in this category.
Open-ended questions are also useful in assessing intellect because they elicit more than the conventional question. The price of this freedom is lack of support. For example, the invitation to talk about the green frog is vague. It offers no indication of what is wanted. It makes no suggestion of a theme that might be considered useful, and it gives no clue as to which approach might be best. Furthermore, any normal expectation of a target in the form of a right answer is absent. If the question was about an object or matter within the school syllabus, there would be a rich resource of ideas and questions to draw from. But the green frog comes from part of an unmapped domain: the domain of human experience and meaning. The school syllabus falls short of this, leaving the student to face the void alone. Which is precisely why the invitation is so effective as a test for independence and originality.
So, it seems correct to suppose that there is no right answer to the green frog test, at least as far as a student in an interview is concerned. However, it is interesting to speculate on whether the green frog will continue to have this status in the future. After all, our knowledge is increasing at a great rate, and it seems reasonable to assume that such progress might one day result in a single unified system of understanding that puts all the various possible answers into one coherent framework. A system of understanding that reveals a pattern of logic underlying what, at present, seems to be a miscellany of meanings and a myriad of possible pathways. So how about this? What if there really is a single correct answer to the question posed by the green frog?
Pictures in an Exhibition
Behind the immediate invitation to talk about the frog lies a fundamental question. Namely:
Where does the green frog belong in the ultimate scheme of things?
Around the world, the most common type of answer to this question would be a religious answer. This is not because there is anything sacred about the frog itself, but simply because most people place the contents of the universe within a religious context. How then could such religious thinking help us in the search for a unifying and underlying pattern? Well, it would helpful if there was only one religion in the world. And if there were only one theology to deal with, it would be nice if there was consensus amongst its priests about the details of this ‘ultimate scheme of things’. Then things would be simple. There would only be the one view to consider, and the lack of choice would no doubt encourage our belief in its absolute truth.
However, religious belief is not like that. Because around the world, we see a vast spectrum of different beliefs about the nature of the universe, and our place in it.
And it is this principle that diversity of belief is a good thing that leads us to a question that threatens to stop the search for a single picture before it has really begun. Namely, if variety is the spice of life, then why bother looking for a single underlying pattern? However, the answer to this dilemma lies in the question begged by the assertion that diversity is a good thing. Diversity is good because a true picture is more likely to emerge when there are a variety of approaches to the same problem. Yet it is precisely this search for a pattern that accounts for the existence of each belief system in the first place. So clearly, there is nothing new about looking for an ultimate scheme of things (it is just doubtful that such a quest began with a green frog).
On this basis, it is not necessary to gain permission to create ones picture, and hang it on the wall with all the other pictures of how things are. Except that in real life, these pictures are like organisms trying to capture the light, jostling each other to take the best position in the public space where their relative merits are to be judged. The bigger the picture, the bigger the picture, so to speak. This raises some interesting questions about how a new picture could ever take over the whole gallery, which is where this discussion is, of course, really leading.
In the past, when travel and communications were limited (and amounted to the same thing), each culture had its own special picture hung in its own special place. These places had special importance, and were built or arranged to increase the impression created by the picture, and its attendants. They ranged from volcanic rims and the tops of mountains, to great clearings in the forest, and leafy pools in remote rocky springs. And in these places, huge stone circles, magnificient buildings, great wealth and beautiful ceremonies were created and held. This was a time when pictures from far-off lands and peoples were hard to come by, and amounted to nothing more than travellers tales. The one true picture had no rival.
In the present, where a mesh of satellites and computer links have captured the future in a net of communication, maintaining sovereignty of belief is becoming more and more difficult. Much of the world has now become painfully conscious of the plurality of human belief. Real contact takes that knowledge further: devotees of other pictures of life are just as sure they are right as you are, and their places of devotion are just as impressive. Certainty and the power of place are no longer exclusive. What then does this do to the power of the one true picture?
In the past few centuries, a new picture of unparalleled power has been emerging. Unlike other pictures, it does not stay still. In fact, it moves in every way imaginable, and this is not surprising, because at its centre is the crucible of the human imagination, and at its periphery is the outer edge of the expanding universe. So where does this picture come from, and what is its name?
An Objective Picture of the Subject
Imagine a small community in the nameless past, where stories around the fire, songs, ceremonies and paintings on rocks are used to celebrate and maintain the groups own local picture of the world, and how it works. These are the forms of transmission that carry the sacred history and wisdom of the group. They are its memory. Consequently, they are never allowed to deviate from the established patterns of the past. For example, tellers of stories are cherished for their good memories and fidelity to both style and content. If a story-teller decided to put in a few of his own characters, change the plot, or even just improve the language, there would be horror and great concern.
It is hard for a member of a large-scale technological society to begin to appreciate the gravity of such an act. For example, our horror when we learn that the great library of Alexandria was burnt, and that hundreds of great works and Aristotles own library were forever lost to the world is quite trivial in comparison. This is because the picture that the modern world has of the universe remains quite untouched by the loss. It is difficult to imagine an equivalent in modern terms of the damage done by a myth turned slightly fictional, or a song turned slightly personal. It would have to be an event that threatened all the values and understandings that we hold dear, bringing with it a fear of a dark age that would obscure and defeat the very picture the west has been so long in creating.
In a small-scale community that lacks writing and other recording devices (apart from art), the danger of individual interpretation and creation is considerable. The world picture will stay strong only if it holds to the past, and to origins beyond the merely human. So within this picture are the values that ensure such commitment. Individuals are not given credit for modifying small parts of the total view unless they can claim the authority of their ancestors or divine inspiration, and this is almost impossible as few are allowed to make such claims.
Somehow, somewhere, and sometime, this reliance on the past changed. Probably this change happened many times before it finally led to a world picture that esteemed the individual freedoms which were to lead to what we now call the arts and the sciences. Because from out of legend and myth came forth fiction and fact. The artist and story-teller became free to create their own view of existence, as did the thinker and maker. Images and models could be used to represent reality through the eyes of a particular observer, and reality on its own terms. No longer was it obligatory to subsume all thought and creation to the needs of a single world view. Instead, a new and more complex view was born.
How does the existence of the arts and sciences further us in our attempts to place the green frog? Certainly, it does not make the search for a single picture any easier, adding as it does to the sum total of the pictures in the gallery of world views. In fact, it is hard to argue that the arts even represent a picture because so many of its novels, poems, paintings and musical pieces seem unique. Even when clear traditions within subject or style emerge, such as in science fiction or the impressionists, it is hard to see how these views could be grouped into something intelligible enough to be called a world picture. They are critically important as interpretations and extensions of reality it is true. However, they do not provide us with anything like an ultimate scheme of things; nor do they pretend to aim at such an ideal. On the other hand, the arts are not aligned to the directives of a particular ideology. It is therefore to the sciences that the search for such a goal is bound to go.
An Objective Picture of the Object
Inevitably, the seeker after an ultimate scheme is bound to gravitate towards the sciences. The novelty, scale and power of the sciences makes its world picture the one that every other belief system judges itself against. One might say that the temples, shrines, cathedrals, mosques and palaces of religious and political power have a hard time competing with the new world opened up by science because technology has made the whole of the known universe its cathedral.
One attraction of the scientific picture is its relative freedom from the human orientation. Science can be considered ideological because it has an ideal at the heart of its unwritten bible, but there the comparison ends. It is different to the political, ethical and religious ideologies in that it makes no pretence of knowing what is good or bad, and is constantly revising and improving its version of what is true. It is different in that it aims to take nature on its own terms, and therefore emancipate itself as much as possible from the subjective predilections of the human race. Sometimes it fails in this, at least temporarily. Generally though, it is a truism that the sciences have succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of the past. Clearly there is great power and clarity to be had from looking at nature on its own terms, and just as clearly, science has succeeded in doing precisely that.
One example of the way in which science both unifies and illuminates its subject lies in the modern understanding of organic life within the domain of biology. Who would have ever thought that the extraordinary diversity of life on this planet could brought together in a single, albeit complex, understanding of how animals and plants exist and change? Yet that is exactly what modern biology offers us. An exciting and detailed account of life that questions how it arose, how it maintains itself, how it inter-relates, how it differs, and what it shares in common. For biology makes a living unity of the creatures and plant forms on this earth, whether one is looking at the family tree from simple sea creatures to the first invaders of land, and then onto sophisticated land forms, or at the continuum that links cell organelle to cell to organ to organism to breeding pair to population to species to community to biosphere. If only Darwin had been allowed by some quirk in the fabric of space/time to see what we now know. If only Darwin had been able to see the beauty of DNA, and all the systems that surround it. If only Darwin had been able to hear all the questions that our knowledge now enables us to ask.
Neo Darwinian biology gives us a clear demonstration of the way in which a relatively small set of ideas can unify and illuminate a highly complex level of reality. Exactly the same can be said of the physical sciences. Although physics has yet to establish a unified theory (based on quantum and gravitational mathematics), its scope of explanation is impressive, and the picture it gives us of the universe is remarkable. However, neither science has much, if anything, to tell us about the sort of behaviour we see represented in the green frog. This is not surprising. Human meaning lies outside both physical and biological frames of reference, which is why a new branch of science had to be set up to face this challenge. The physical and biological sciences certainly present us with an inspiring example of the power of objective analysis, but it is the social sciences that we must turn to if we are to resolve the nature of the green frog.
The problem with the social sciences is that they have not yet come of age. There is no general theory, and no unity within the various disciplines that may or may not include themselves under the scientific umbrella. Sociology, psychology, linguistics and economics are, according to many of their practioners, scientific. Psychiatry and social anthropology are less obvious candidates for this title. Philosophy, history and literary criticism all have useful contributions to make to a systematic understanding of human nature, yet they are clearly well outside the social sciences as far as the conventional use of the term is concerned. Indeed, within this academic and scientific area, there are so many -isms, -ists and -ologies that one is irresistibly drawn to the image of the tower of Babel. To suggest that there is a communication problem within the study of man would be to understate things nicely.
It would be either brave or foolhardy to claim that nowhere, within all the wealth of insight inside and outside the social sciences, was there any answer to the question posed by the green frog. On the contrary, there is probably enough material to furnish dozens of different answers. However, it is precisely this mulitplicity that is the problem. It is true that many answers are better than none, but this quest is for an answer that embraces the many possibles answers in a single unified format. Which means that our search has now exhausted all the possibilities.
What does this mean? Does it mean there will never be a theory of meaning that will put the frog in its place? Or does it mean that our search is still a little premature, and that we should wait until the early twenty-first century for the problem of meaning to be resolved? Or shall we push this quest a little further, and try to gain a glimpse of what this future theory might look like? Well, these questions are obviously rhetorical. The direction this book is about to take has now become clear. For when we ask where the frog belongs, we are really posing one of the three greatest questions that intelligent life can ask itself. Namely –
Where shall we have Lunch?
Here I must give due acknowledgement to Douglas Adams, who has used the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to propose his own triplet.
“The History of every major Galactic Civilisation tends to pass through three distinct and recognisable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases.
For instance, the first phase is characterised by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?”
Staying within this frame of reference, and concentrating on the inquiry phase for a moment, we can say with all seriousness that:
The history of every major intelligent life form tends to pass through three distinct and recognisable stages within its inquiry phase, otherwise known as the Before Life, Life, and Beyond Mere Life stages.
For instance, the first stage is characterised by the question What is the nature of all those stars out there? the second by the question What is the nature of the green and brown blobs growing on some of those planets? and the third by the question What is the nature of the blob that posed the first two questions?
To put this in rather more prosaic terms, I would predict that the development of objectivity in any intelligent life form would always take the following course: the first science to emerge from its cultural medium will almost invariably be the physical sciences, followed by the biological sciences, and finally by the social sciences. Which is strange when one considers just how alien the subject matter of physics and chemistry is on the one hand, and just how familiar the human subject is on the other. This will have to be explained, but not just yet.
Interestingly, and not by chance, the three inquiry stages can be phrased in terms of the green frog:
What’s it made of? (Physical sciences)
What made the first frog? (Biological sciences)
What’s the point of this representation? (Social sciences)
Earth culture seems to be at stage three at the moment. A Vogon would laugh at my miserably earth-bound assessment, but it seems to me that the human race has done rather well on the first great question (how does the physical universe work?), and is making major progress on the second (how does life work?). So what is the third question? What is the question that lies behind the question about where the green frog belongs?
When I was a kid, I had one of those silly ideas that never goes away because its simplicity is just too tantalising to be beaten down by later sophistication. It was based on the familiar observation that language consists of lots of oppositions, such as: black and white, true and false, physical and cultural, good and bad, up and down. The idea I could never quite get rid of was that when language first started, it began with a fundamental opposition that then slid sideways on itself, and made further oppositions which, when the process was repeated, made a complete language. The twist to this idea is that the original binary opposition is still there, somewhere in every language. The only problem is, it looks like all the other oppositions, which puts it into deep cover. So how can it be found? One clue might be that the best opposition to find it would be the opposition one is looking for. This is somewhat circular, but then the recursive nature of the mind trying to understand the mind is bound to come out somewhere.
Pulled free from the context of language, this idea has its merits. The world of human meaning carries within itself a code. It was the code that set up the universe of meaning in the first place, and this code is still there, buried deep within the incredible complexity engendered by its own action.
To express this in terms of the three stages, and the three great questions that every intelligent life form has to go through and, particularly, to put this challenge in terms of an earthly metaphor, we may ask:
What is the DNA of human meaning?
In order to see what this question might lead to, another animal must be considered. The inquiry now moves from a frog to a rabbit. To be specific, Bugs Bunny.
The Mid-Air Runner
Animated cartoons of the ‘Bugs Bunny’ variety often feature the familiar picture of a figure running off a cliff; and continuing in mid-air as if it were still on terra-firma. Only when the figure looks down does it realise the lack of support. Frantically, it tries to run faster, or regain the land it has left behind. But it is too late, and it plummets to the ground far below.
Now, although the cartoon depiction of a figure running through a landscape is compatible with the laws of physics, the notion that it can continue this progress across an empty space is not. Air provides neither the support nor the purchase for this kind of continued movement, so what gives the still running figure its lift?
The short answer is that the force which is now supporting and propelling the figure across the void is the imagination. In particular, it is the creative force of the humorous imagination that has run the figure off the edge of physical space, and continued its progress in a line with social, rather than natural, logic. For, in objective terms, this scene constitutes a radical denial of the physical laws of the universe. It is only in social space that denials of such gravity can be made with (what is effectively) the single stroke of a cartoonists pen.
According to the laws of social space, the creative imagination of the cartoonist is allowed to suspend a figure in mid-air for the sake of humour. Inevitably, there are rules to this imagined reality, just as there are rules to the patterns of force in physical space. The cartoonist must conform to a code, or his work will lose its credibility, and fail. We can look at what this means in practise by studying the figure just prior to its return to physical space.
Although the figure runs into social space when it hurtles off the cliff edge, it only continues in this way for a brief period. Once it looks down, it panics, and is claimed by gravity. That is, the resumption of physical laws is caused by a change in the mental state of the cartoon character itself. So the figure that hesitates and falls meets with an intuitively-accepted principle of the imagination which is that the worlds of both physical and social space are equally real, and that both may affect the other according to their own inalienable logic. Only believe you can fly, and you will. Only have faith, and you will transcend physical reality (but don’t look down).
It is worth noticing that in many of the animations that use this particular twist, the figure does more than just fall. It plummets. As if the force of gravity had built up during its own suspension, and was now reasserting itself with many times its normal force. Apparently the resumption of the laws of physics is only allowed to last a moment, whereupon the imagination switches in again, this time attributing a new property to gravity. Namely, the property of storing up further force during its denial. Which is what people do when their emotions are damned up by some obstacle. In short, physical logic has been made to follow emotional logic. And when the figure finally hits the ground, it does so with a thud the size of an earth tremor; and then gets up totally unhurt a moment later. This time, the miracle is biological. But whether the miracles appear to be of a physical or a biological nature, they are really the miracles of social space, only comprehensible in terms of the patterns within this reality, and meaningless beyond them.
The example of the runner in mid-air is a classic illustration of social space because it shows the play between the laws of the imagination, and the laws of the physical universe. It reveals the creative freedom of the human mind in a scale of conjecture that reaches beyond the constraints of normal reality, and yet at the same time reaffirms the objective loyalty of the imagination by reasserting these constraints a moment later. And it is in this tendency of social space to reach beyond the reality of physical space that we begin to see its real character. It was precisely this power to reach beyond normal reality that caused its emergence from physical space in the first place. Now in order to appreciate this critically important point, our next step in describing the nature of social space must be a step backwards in time, and outwards in space, for only by taking the widest view can the origin and overall position of social space be understood. Identifying the context of social space is the necessary first step in identifying the nature of meaning, and the place of the green frog within that meaning.
The Three Levels of Reality on Planet Earth
The first age of the planet Earth began around four thousand million years ago. An age of alien and desolate beauty, it was the exclusive arena of the primal forces of nature. A world of liquid rock and solid seas, bathed in fire, and encrusted in cold. A place where huge eruptions and upheavals were separated by vast periods where time stood still, with only the slow grind of geological and chemical process to mark the passing of the millenia. A theatre of war between the three states of matter, where huge seas crashed against major land masses, each expanding to the loss of the other in a titanic series of collapse and renewal. For this was the age of the elements, the birth of a planet, and the only unifying forces were the pull of gravity and the forces of molecular attraction. Wow.
This is the reality of “physical space”. Physical space is what we see when we gaze up at the night sky, live through an earthquake, or picture the atomic nature of matter. For the true scale of this domain is as vast and small as reality ever reaches, and within its compass, the particular identity of our own planet is a just a tiny detail. That is, the Earth is just a small window on a much greater reality that ranges from the smallest particles in the universe to the ultimate limits of space and time. Nevertheless, it is this window that provides the so-called ‘hard sciences’ of modern-day astronomy, physics, geology and chemistry with their picture of the nature and scale of the physical universe.
Then, at some point in the development of our own tiny portion of physical space, and about three thousand million years ago, a new level of reality began to emerge. A reality that was to seed the virginity of physical space with a continuous proliferation of organic replicators. A reality that was to populate the land, air and waters of the Earth with an ever-changing carbon-based circus of complexity and diversity. A level that leafed and grew, sucked and sat, basked, ran, and jumped its way into a whole new level of existence on this planet: the reality of ‘genetic space’.
Genetic space was born entirely out of the substance of physical space. This makes organic nature the classic example of the principle that the whole amounts to something greater than the sum of its individual parts. For although life is entirely composed of inorganic components, its fauna and flora represents something genuinely new in the history of the planet. Almost as if a discontinuity in the fabric of physical reality had occurred three thousand million years ago. It was to handle the results of this jump that a whole new body of ideas and principles had to be created: a body that we now recognise as the language and understandings of the biological sciences.
Physical space is as wide as the universe, and as small as the electron, with events ranging from a period of a nanosecond to a millenium of geological time. Genetic space is, however, much smaller in scale. In the universe at large, living nature consists of a small set of pigmented blots, scattered here and there within the vastness of physical space, for life is a local thing. True, its units range through an impressive set of ‘levels of organisation’ (macromolecule, organelle, cell, tissue, organ, organism, mating pair, population, species, and community), but these units are never as small, nor as large as the components of physical space. Yet within this restriction of scale, the organic world displays a fantastic variety of structures and behaviours, and what it loses in scale and stability, it makes up for in levels of complexity and rates of change. For the beings that populate this level of reality have notched up the pace and diversity of existence by a furious margin, leading us to consider them as part of a whole new dimension in history, complete with a whole new timescale; the timescale of biological evolution.
Then, at some point in the recent history of genetic space, a particular combination of structural and behavioural possiblities from the animal kingdom came together to make a new, and tertiary level of reality. Again, the combination derived entirely from the components of the previous level, and again, this created a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. It is the result of this new combination of elements that gave the planet its third level of existence: the reality of ‘social space’.
If physical space is the universe, and if genetic space is a series of pigmented blobs on a certain set of planets within that universe, then social space is a very small number of blobs within the bodies of a very small number of the blobs that make up genetic space. Which on planet Earth means that social space is to be found within the circumference of the skull of a particular species of animal.
Putting social space into context gives us the first general step in identifying the place occupied by the green frog. In order to take this further, here is the discussion from a high-flier student from the year 2020. Again, the conversation is idealised to show what is possible, rather than what is actually necessary for a candidate to gain an offer. In this case, we find that the student is quite authoritative on where the green frog belongs, and that the working assumption of the situation is that there is a right answer to the challenge of the green frog.
‘Please say as much as you can about this green object.’
There is a studied pause.
‘Well, it`s an object that uses inorganic materials from physical space, and phenotypic information from genetic space, to make a material representation in social space.’
‘Yes. That`s good. An equation with a nice rhythm to it. Indeed, to have made the point that the phenotypic information is both frog and human would have spoiled the balance a little, so let’s just ignore that for the time being. Please continue.’
‘Well, the frog is clearly ‘out there’ in physical space, yet its material origin would be impossible to explain in terms of physical science.’
‘OK, let`s say the frog is spinning in outer space, and is found by an alien robot. And let’s say the robot is programmed by a long extinct culture to focus on physical space. So it can’t detect meaning, or the presence of organic life. Obviously, it would ‘see’ the frog as a column of figures denoting its weight, volume, temperature, shape, consistency and elemental nature. The question is, would it also find something that it couldn`t explain in terms of physics and chemistry? Well, I think it might. The physical forces that make objects wouldn`t normally end up with a piece of matter this pure, and so finely coated with a uniformity of glaze at just this one level of reflectivity. The robot could be puzzled that such a precise set of physical conditions arose.’
‘Could the biological sciences explain it?’
‘I don’t see how. To start with, the frog is inorganic. And it does’nt look like the sort of inorganic home that a coral might create, so it’s not part of genetic space that way. Mind you, it’s possible that an alien life-form may not be based on carbon chemistry. So the biologist would have to look for an information system that could replicate, and manipulate energy and matter to that end.’
‘But surely a biologist would recognise something biological about this frog?’
‘Well, it has no cell, tissue, and organ levels of organisation, and no DNA, though it does show bilateral symmetry. On the other hand, it does represent the phenotype of an amphibious chordate, and that does make it a bit tricky to just overlook. I suppose another question is would the resemblance be recognised by other frogs? Hmm. Doubt it. Even if it did fool other living things around it, the effect on the ecosystem would be zero. Still. Maybe fakes like fish lures and decoy ducks have a bigger effect? Anyway, this frog was’nt made to exploit genetic space, so it’s not surprising its living presence is zero. Especially when it looks like that. So. The biologist would note a resemblance with a known member of genetic space, and leave it at that. It cannot be explained in biological terms would be my answer.’
‘Which leaves us with the frog`s address in social space…’
‘Yes. That`s right.’ (Pause) ‘Okay, the frog obviously owes its existence to the forces of social space. It didn’t start out as a dot of spawn in a pond, and it didn’t go through the tadpole stage. It came out of another kind of jelly: the jelly of the human mind. Its germinal disc, so to speak, was an idea. An idea clothed in a green body. So although it’s a member of physical space, in the sense that everything is physically based, it’s actually a piece of social space in physical clothing.’
‘So what is social space?’
‘Social space is the third level of reality on planet Earth and… it’s where we live. The world of the imagination. It`s physical location is the human head, and from there it extends out through the body to physical space, mainly through through ‘the twin agency of the hand and the mouth’, unquote.
‘What do you think that image means?’
‘Well, our minds relate to the outside through more than just the hands and mouth, but the mouth is a neat symbol of communication, and the hand is a good symbol of physical action. So the phrase just uses a pair of symbols as icons. As icons of a highly complex reality that is. The thing is, we need simple symbols, even in science. Otherwise, complexity will always compromise our statements about complexity. If you see what I mean.’
‘Quite so. For example, we shouldn’t allow the fact that the mouth can be used for actions as well as words, and the hand for communication as well as action, compromise the basic distinction about how we relate to the outside. Which is right. Symbols are as essential to the description of social space as arithmetic symbols are to the description of physical space. Alright. What then is the address of the green frog within social space?’
‘Yes… Quite. Well, technically speaking, the frog is a ‘copy’, which makes it a cousin of the word and symbol. Copies are two, or three-dimensional representations that offer certain freedoms (and limitations) to human communication as a direct result of their physical nature. I suppose you could say that the copy is the offspring of the hand, just like the word is the offspring of the mouth. And like the word, its essential purpose is to communicate information. So for example, copy domains such as er… toy-shops, puppet theatres, film sets, model-shops, architects offices, classrooms, craft-shops, art gallerys, etcetera, etcetera, and not forgetting shops that sell ornaments… Well, anyway, these places are rich in copies.’
‘Alright. The frog is a copy, and copies have this dual identity as both physical objects and sets of information in social space. Now, would you say copies are exclusively for sending information, or can they play a part as physical entities?’
‘Hmm… there are entities in genetic space that copy each other. That`s what mimicry and camouflage are all about. But they`re not copies in the way defined here, so… I`m sorry, what was the question again?’
‘No. I wasn`t referring to copies in nature. I was questionning your statement that copies are all about information. Let`s put it this way: can copies do real physical work, like a a cog in a machine, or a key in a lock?
‘Oh, I see. So if you make a copy of a key, then that does actual physical work. Well, OK. That’s not surprising. As soon as a copy becomes part of physical space, it becomes an object, and an object can act as well as inform. Just like the mouth that can bite as well as talk, and the hand that can sign as well as grasp. Fine. Hold on though. Are’nt copy keys called ‘duplicates’? And aren’t duplicates technically distinct from copies in some way? They’re not copies at all, if I remember right. Doubles that act are called duplicates, and doubles that communicate are called copies.’
‘Where do you draw the line?’
‘Tricky. Acts can be as much information as they are physical. In fact, we constantly trade on this ambiguity. For example, whilst apparently walking to the beach, a girl can show off her body in a way that turns a mere path into a cat walk. The body walks and talks. In fact, we actually call it body language in the first place. Anyway, aren’t you covering that in the next chapter?’
‘Mmn. To some extent. The chapter looks at the line between copies and images as exploited in cartoon humour, it’s true. But the main idea is to go from abstract generalisations about the nature of things to the things themselves. And you can’t get further from abstract theories than the details of humour. So it’s a good test. In fact, it’s a lot harder than the green frog test. But then, you don’t have to do this one, do you?’