Posts Tagged ‘perception’

People are constantly talking of reality.  How often do we hear words such as : “get real” : “the reality is” : “it really is true”.  It is as if we believe that the human senses and the human mind possess a mystical quality that enables them to transcend the material world and take a privileged view of it.

But is it true that human beings are capable of perceiving reality?  Might it not be case that a herring has a better, truer appreciation of the world than we do?    Are we wise to assume that the size and complexity of our brains has made us better at perceiving?  Is it possible that all our complicated vocal expressions that describe the world are merely noises without any particular meaning?  Might it not be the case that our consciousness is simply an elaborate deception – an evolutionary accident that is leading us to a dead-end?

There is so much to ponder here.  And we will not be the first to ponder it, for certainly the world’s great religious thinkers have given much thought to the matter since the very earliest times.  In fact, most likely, it is with this pondering that religion began.

It is interesting to reflect that, if we did perceive reality, we could never make a mistake about what we see.  We could never mistake one person for another or one thing for another ; we could never mis-hear somebody’s words.  Also, if we did perceive reality, there would be no science being done today ; all knowledge would have been completed long ago.

But, as ever, there are other ways of looking at the matter ;  and some of those ways offer hope to those who believe that reality is within our grasp.


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An old woman - a witch

The picture of the old woman, whose name is Cracklebones, with the huge hooked nose and cruel thin lips, and wearing a dirty-white headscarf, reminds us of a witch ; it also reminds us of our tendency to make judgements of people ; judgements that are often based on little evidence.  Is this prejudice?  Well, it might be and it might not ; it depends on what we conventionally regard as valid evidence.

The nature of evidence is itself interesting.  People often assume that it consists of objects.  For example, if young Matilda is found dead in the forest very near the witch’s haunted house, we are apt to think that she has been murdered.  And, since Matilda shows no sign of injury, we are inclined to think she has been either poisoned or killed by a dastardly spell.

And if we then find the wicked witch sitting nearby, stirring a pot that smells of hemlock, stroking her sinister black cat and cackling to herself, we are inclined to think that it was she who committed the murder.  The witch murdered the young lady, Matilda.  Was it jealousy that made her do it?

But, actually, all these physical signs – the body, the old woman, the hemlock, the cat, the cackles, and the gloomy cottage  in the woods – do not amount to anything at all.  They are just things.

It is only when we think about those things that they become evidence.  We have to think about the things and then link them, one to another, in a chain of reasoning.  Evidence is derived from reason and from consciousness, and not merely from things.


So much for the evidence, but what about young Matilda?  She is quite a beauty.  In the picture below, she is looking away from us, so that we see her rather delicate jaw-line and a narrow, elegant neckband ; she is wearing soft fur stole of the best quality. She wears a feather above her brow.  She appears to be rather a shy young lady of refined manners.

A young lady


In my experience, most people are able to make the switch in perception, so that they can see either the witch or the young lady.  But I know no-one who can see both at the same time.  We tend to see either one or the other.  On reflection, it is quite remarkable that the same identical picture can give rise to two contrary perceptions.

It reminds us that the picture ‘out there’, outside of our brains and bodies, is not what we actually perceive.  What we perceive is what our minds make of the picture.  From the same ink marks on the paper, we can make two very different cognitive models.

Also it reminds us that making a mental image of what we see is not just a question of processing sensory data ; it is a question of thinking about that data and about previously-learned data as well.  Though that thinking is normally done so rapidly that we are usually not aware of it.

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Of all the world’s wonders there is none greater than human consciousness.  If we were not conscious, then there would be no world that we could speak of.  No doubt there is something outside of our consciousness, but it is not the world ; for the world is a construction made of distinctly human cognitive (mental) models of the information that our senses bring to us.  We are able to construct those cognitive models because we can think about the sensory data.  And we are further able to think about the relations between those models. We are able to do science, as it were.

But perhaps there is something greater than mere human consciousness.  For we also possess self-consciousness.  We are not only aware of the world, but we are also aware that we are aware of the world.  And, because of that self-awareness, we are able to think about our relations with the world.

It is interesting to ponder these things in the context of science.  As one reads scientific papers and journals, one is struck by the heavy emphasis given to the relations between the things that scientists are conscious of.  But almost no attention at all is paid to the relations between the scientist and the things that he studies.

It is as if scientists do not realise that what they are studying is their own cognitive models ; the phenomena that their own minds have constructed.

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People talk about space as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  But is it?

When one looks into the night sky, one is aware of a multitude of points of light.  Because were are able to separate these points of light into separate objects, we say there are spaces between them.  We go further ; we say that we can see the spaces.

But, suppose there were no stars in the sky?  Take them all away, and what would one see?  Nothing.

It seems that space is not an object that can be seen, heard, felt, smelt or tasted.

So, what is it?   It is something we infer by virtue of it’s being unavailable to our senses.   It is surely a product of our imagination.

Likewise for those unsensed things that people believe exist in space – atoms, electrons, quarks, fields of this and that.  All are products of human imagination – and often of highly trained imagination.

But is space, and all the invisibles that are in it, real?  I see no reason why not, although our understanding of them might need adjusting in the light of future disciplined imaginings.

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In the field of cognitive psychology it seems fairly well established that our knowledge is comprised of complex chemical compounds distributed within the networks of nerve cells of the brain.  Thus my knowledge of the shape of an apple, say, is actually a chemical construct which would seem to bear no geometrical  relation to the actual apple.   Similarly, my knowledge of its hardness, texture, temperature, smell and taste are said to be chemical constructs in the brain.

Somehow, between the apple on the table in front of me – and the workings of the brain – the apple has been altogether lost.  What resides in my brain is not an apple but a neuronal model of the apple ; a collection of bodily substances, chemicals.

One obvious question arises : what is the relation between the neuronal model and the apple itself?  If it were possible to examine the chemicals that comprise the particular neuronal model, would I recognize them as representing an apple?

Perhaps before plunging into such a quest, I might pause to ask another question.  If my knowledge of the apple is made of chemical constructs in my brain, then surely it follows that my knowledge of my brain and its chemicals is also a neuronal model.  My knowledge of my brain is not my brain itself.  And, of course, my knowledge of the chemicals is not the chemicals themselves.  So what is the relation between the chemical constructs in my brain and my brain itself?

It is strange to think that, as we look at the world around us and even as we look at our own bodies, we do not neurologically perceive what is actually there ; we actually make chemical models of what is there.  We simplify the situation for ourselves by making conscious pictures, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings – cognitive models – all apparently derived from the chemicals.   We assure ourselves that our conscious awareness of the world is a true representation of it.  But that assurance does not come from either psychology or neurology.

Our models – neuronal and cognitive – are evidently deficient of explanatory power.  Or perhaps our theories of perception might just be plain wrong.

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It’s Monday morning, and the overcast sky encourages a meditation of sorts.  How much kinder the world would be if Nature gave us a rainbow to contemplate on every cloudy day.  But she doesn’t ; for she waits until there is a particular disposition of sunshine and of particular kinds of clouds.  And sometimes she sends a single rainbow and sometimes a double one.

Everybody knows that if you approach a rainbow it will disappear long before you reach it, or it will move somewhere else.  But, even though it disappears from your view, it will remain in someone else’s.  We don’t have to plunge into the theory of light and refraction to appreciate and marvel at this.  We can just gaze in wonder and then let our thoughts wander a bit.

We don’t need to reflect too deeply on the natures of water and refraction.  We can just ask, “Where is that rainbow?”  I am quite sure that our remote-ish ancestors asked this question.  And I’m pretty sure that their answers had little to do with what we should call science.  They simply observed that the rainbow only appeared to be in the sky.  And I’m pretty sure that, one day, a towering genius among them came to the astonishing conclusion that the rainbow existed only in his own mind.

I am sure that Noah realised this.  He may even have done the experiment.  He may have done some long walking on a damp day ; he may have noticed that where the rainbow touches the hillside, it is misty and the air is full of water droplets.  He may also have noticed that, if he could see the rainbow, he could not see the water droplets ; and, if he could see the droplets, he could not see the rainbow.  He could not both have his cake and eat it.

Now this must have impressed Noah very deeply – this realisation that rainbows do not seem to be of the same kind as other objects, such as trees and rocks and mountains.  And yet it produces the same effect as other objects – provided he maintained his distance from it.  The rainbow surely exists, but it must not be approached.

By re-living old Noah’s experience (as we imagine it to have been) we can allow our thoughts to be drawn to an even more profound realisation, and perhaps many such.  For example, we know that the existence of a rainbow requires at least three things to be present :  the sun : the water : and a human mind.  Can these preconditions apply to the seeing other kinds of objects?

Some other thoughts on rainbows.

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Conventions bring us comfort, if only because they lend structure to the world we live in.  They provide us with points of reference with which to compare one event with another.  And it is these points of reference which make the ever-changing world relatively stable.

One of our major conventions concerns the physical world.  When, for example, our eyes tell us that we see two tree before us, one tall and the other short, we are curious to know whether the tree that appears to be short is really short, or whether it only appears to be short because it is further away.

We know much about space because we have followed up the apparent oddities of its appearance to us.  We feel that we know these apparent oddities well ; so now they are not often oddities at all, but conventional representations of the world.

We have developed fine measurements for space.  We know that we can locate an object in space by specifying just three measurements – length, breadth and height.  We call these the three dimensions of space.  And we can see along these dimensions at will.  We can see to the left and right of us ; we can see backwards and forwards of us ; and we can see above us and below.  And we can see as far as visibility allows.

We also know that time is related to space ; we even call it a dimension.  But there is something apparently mysterious about time : in the ordinary sense, we cannot see along it.  If we wish to know what lies earlier in time, we must rely on our memories for what once was.  If we wish to know what lies later than us, we must use our imaginations to guess what might come to pass.

Of course, a short discussion of space and time must necessarily leave many matters unsaid.  But it’s interesting to meditate on Time ; and to wonder why it is so mysterious to our senses.

Why can we move freely in the three dimensions of space, yet only move ‘forward’ in time?  Why can we move at almost any speed in space, yet be confined to a fixed speed in time?

Are we really constrained to these limitations in moving in time?  Or is it our conventions about time that hold us back?

It is in this context that such things as precognitive dreams are so interesting.  Perhaps we know more than we can say about time.

Timeless beauty

Timeless beauty

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