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Potentates II Presentation

Page history last edited by peterga 11 years ago

I often see discussions or arguments upon something like the morality of certain positions which lead me to believe that the argument is rather futile and pointless unless the parties have examined and forged some rudimentary agreement on underlying questions such as what is morality?  This presentation does not address that question, nor related questions such as whether free will exists and the nature of consciousness, but rather aims at increasing your scepticism that they are what they appear to be.  It is about illusions.  It is primarily composed of puzzles and perceptions that we have discussed before, but which I hope you will be patient with for two reasons:  The first is that I believe that these illusions have a powerful sway over our thinking even after we have recognized them as illusions, and repitition should not be underestimated as a learning tool, particularly when the lessons are counter-intuitive.  The second is that I will try to relate these fairly directly to some areas where we've not much discussed the effects of such illusions.  Again, I will not direct this toward certain conclusions about free will and etc., but rather my goal would be to encourage cognizanze of some of the ways that our brains tend to fool us when considering them, and how problematic it is to rely on our intuition.  Then I'd hope to go into more detail on these in future meetings and conversations.

 

 

So let's start with some puzzles.  I've started to track my favorite puzzles on a Pete's Puzzle Page.  (Review Vowels and Even Numbers and Married Looking at Unmarried , and implications re. our perception)

 

Of course I am going to talk about visual perception.  Vision and color perception are the primary sensory proxy for understanding consciousness, and like other senses and consciousness itself, it subjects us to many illusions.  I'd like to talk about three different levels on which illusions affect our understanding of the world:

  1. Illusions in which we can easily recognize how reality differs from our perceptions
  2. Illusions where one is not aware of the difference between the illusion and reality (i.e. we don't recognize it as an illusion at all); and
  3. Illusions that we understand intellectually, but which we cannot prevent from continuing to fall victim to in some way

 

Let's start by considering what we refer to as  optical illusions.  With the typical optical illusion, it is readily explained to us how our perceptions differ from reality.  E.g. by fixing our gaze on specific portions of the imagine, it only takes us a few moments to figure out that nothing is actually moving in the Rotating Snake illusion or the Blue and Yellow Dots illusion   Note that recognizing the non-moving reality of these pictures does not stop us from perceiving motion when we look at them, but with the limited times we are exposed to them, when we see them in the future we immediately think of them as illusions.

 

This is somewhat different from more persistent illusions such as colors seeming to be properties of objects in the external world (i.e. external to our brains).  We may intellectually recognize that although these objects have shape and chemical properties, colors are something invented entirely within our brains, and are a code the brain uses to represent the objects, not qualities of the object itself.  But even so, I submit that we cannot keep assuming, at some level of consciousness, that the fire engine is red.

 

Evolution has left us with many such illusions, which lead us naturally to intuit  that our perceptions are recognizing realities of the outside world when, in reality, our brains are creating those realities to better propagate our genes, in what Daniel Dennett calls Darwin's "strange inversion of reasoning."

"It stands to reason that we love chocolate cake because it is sweet.  Guys go for girls like this [hot girls in bikinis] because they are sexy.  We adore babies because they are so cute.  And of course we are amused by jokes because they are funny.  This is all backwards.  It is.  And Darwin shows us why.

...

There's nothing intrinsically sweet about honey.  If you looked at glucose molecules until you were blind, you wouldn't see why they tasted sweet.  You have to look insight our brains to see why they're sweet.  So if you think first there was sweetness and we evolved to taste sweetness, that's just wrong.  Sweetness was born with the wiring that was involved."    ( http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_dennett_cute_sexy_sweet_funny.html )

 

We'll return to this later, but for a moment let's consider how perceptions like this led to misperceptions of how vision works.  For example, let's consider the belief that visual perception works via tiny emmissions from the eyes.

 

This "extramission theory" of vision dates back at least as far as Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 B.C.), who spoke of a "fire" that emanated from the eye during vision, which "coalesces with the daylight ... and causes the sensation we call seeing."  Later, Greek mathematician Euclid (circa 300 BC) described "rays proceeding from the eye" during vision."   ("50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology," p34)

 

Now you may think that this type of thinking about vision strictly predates modern optics, and that eyes emitting rays now exist only in comic books.  But the belief that we see by emitting something from our eyes remains quite common.  57% of elementary school children say that something comes out of our eyes when we see.  So something about this idea seems to be strangely intuitive.  And while this belief declines with age, surveys have found that 30% or more of adults also claim the belief when asked if the eye emits rays or particles that enable it to ee objects.  (Ibid)

 

Beliefs about visual perception that have been soundly debunked by science are surprisingly common.  E.g. when I googled "primary colors," one of the top results I got was this definition from About.com.

 

Let's consider the basic stages of understanding how color perception works.  It seems to me that these are:

  1. Colors are simply intrinsic properties of objects and percieving colored objects is simply seeing the world as it is.
  2. "The tree is green because it reflects green light"
  3. The brain simply maps certain colors to certain light frequencies
  4. Modern scientific understanding

 

#1 is simply the intuitive view, the one pretty much shared by the entire world before Newton.

 

#2 is the view we learn in school, and which leads to the belief that light wavelengths somehow contain color.  We've known that this is false since Newton himself ("The color is not in the rays." -- Isaac Newton), but we keep misleading school children in this way -- and my impression is that many if not most educated first world citizens have never really recognized that colors do not exist at all except in our brains.

 

#3 is critical, in my view, for a basic understanding not just of our perceptions, but for a basic understanding of the nature of the world.  I will return to this huge step in  a moment, but for now I'd like to note that shortcoming that still exists in this view -- i.e. the misperception that color perception works like a spectrometer, and that the brain simply correlates certain wavelengths fo light with certain colors in our brain. 

 

First of all, the brain never receives information of a "pure" color or a single wavelength of light. 

 

This is an especially quaint anachronism from the 18th century, and it is wrong from several points of view. If a paint really were "pure" and only reflected a single wavelength of light (which is the "purest" possible color stimulus), the paint would have a luminance factor near zero and would appear blacker than the "purest" black paint.    (handprint.com)

 

Light information to the brain always comes in the form of the numbers of the three types of photoreptors sending strictly binary information ("Yep, I got one of those") to the brain.  It always arrives with and contrasting information and absolutely relies upon this to create color.

 

Second, if the brain just consistently mapped specific lightwaves to a specific color, this would have been of so little use that we almost certainly would not have evolved color perception at all.  Consider that color perception arose to accomplish tasks like telling ripe fruit from unripe and identifying a "red" fruit within "green" foliage.  Now consider how hopeless that task would be if color perception worked like a spectrometer.  After all, as atmospheric conditions change during the day, entirely different wavelengths of light are bouncing off that fruit.  Similarly, as the earth rotates throughout the day and the sunlight slants though the atmosphere at different angles, it's diffused rays are again resulting in entirely different wavelengths of light landing on and bouncing off the fruit with each passing hour.

 

Color perception would be of little or no help if we never knew what color the fruit and what color the background were going to be at any given moment.  What makes color a useful encoding method is "color constancy," i.e. that facility of our brains to constantly make an apple look red -- regardless of the atmospheric conditions -- by comparing the light bounding off it to the light bouncing off the things around it, and using this to continually adjust which wavelengths it encodes as red.  A "perfectly accurate" encoding of wavelengths, ala a spectrometer, would be of little or no use.

 

Recognizing the complexities in the correlation of perceptions to the real world -- and recognizing that our perceptions are designed not to give an accurate view of the world, but rather to give a useful one, helps reinforce the critical lesson of step 3 and our understanding the differences between what really exists in the outside world and what exists strictly within our brains to help us function in that world.  This help is welcome because it is not easy to bear this in mind.  It is difficult to "grok" this even if we understand the explanation.  Our tendency is to sense that light is giving us information that lets us determine the true color of an object, not that color is something made up in our brains to give us infomation about the shape and chemicals of the object.

 

And it's the same for the other senses.  No matter what our intellectual understanding of the science, we still tend to think on some level that smells and sounds exist in the outside world.  But of course smells and colors are no less subjective than other perceptions, such as pain.  A sharp knife may correlate to pain when it strikes the body, but pain does not exist outside our conscious minds.  In exactly that manner, colors have correlations with light waves, but the correlation doesn't make them exist in the outside world, any more than pain does.

 

So now let's consider consciousness itself.  Consciousness is also subject to illusions -- a fact, as Daniel Dennett points out, that people too blithely ignore when forming opinions on how our minds and consciousness work.  These illusions contribute to the widespread belief in types of dualism -- basically the belief that there is an incorporeal part of the mind beyond the physical workings of the brain.  Science has now clearly abandoned dualism, but it is still widely held today not only among religionists who believe in the "soul" but within many prominent philosphy departments.  Here's Christof Koch:

 

Although such dualistic accounts are emotionally reassuring and intuitively satisfying, they break down as soon as one digs a bit deeper.  How can this ghost, made out of some kind of metaphysical ectoplasm, influence brain matter without being detected?  What sort of laws does Casper follow?  Science has abandoned strong dualistic explanations in favor of natural accounts that assign causes and responsibility to specific actors and mechanisms that can be further studied.  And so it is with the notion of free will.

(Scientific American Mind Nov/Dec 2009; emphasis mine)

 

What other parts of our consciousness and sensations can be mislead about the nature of reality by illusions like colors and smells?  Koch again:

 

Over the past decade psychologists such as Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard University amassed experimental evidence for a number of conscious sensations that accompany any willed action.  The two most important are intention and agency.  Prior to voluntary behavior lies a conscious intention.  When you decide to lift your hand, this intention is followed by planning of the detailed movement and its execution.  Subjectively, you experience a sensation of agency.  You feel that you, not the person next to you, initiated this action and saw it through.  If a friend were to take your arm and pull it above your head, you would feel your arm being dragged up, but you would not feel any sense of being responsible for it.  The important insight here is that the consciously experienced feelings of intention and agency are no different, in principle, from any other consciously experienced sensations, such as the briny taste of chicken soup or the red color of a Ferrari.  (Ibid)

 

 

Consider the implications of our inability to rely on our subjective intuitions about consciousness.  Consider some of the experiments on the brain that we have discussed and that you have read about.  What are the implications of the fact that when you electrically stimulate a certain parts of the brain, you can create not only a movement of a limb but the perception of the subject that they decided to move the limb?   What are the implications for our concept of self that split brain patients can not only have one hemisphere acting without the knowledge of the other, but that the subjects subsequently concoct stories to explain how and why they controlled such actions?  What are the implications for free will that we have one channel for vision that we perceive, and another separate channel that can lead us to act and perform complex interactions with objects in the outside woruld without visual perception?

 

At minimum these must tell us that our consciousness and the interaction of our mind with our actions is not quite what it seems.  If we are to try to understand things like free will and morality within the constraints of Chucke's rule of explanations ("There is no magic"), we must be willing to consider the most obvious truisms of our own minds in doubt, and be open to science that debunks them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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