Saturday, February 28, 2015

When our eyes fooled us

Sometimes whatever I'm thinking about at a given moment magically comes into focus in the public sphere shortly thereafter. Such is was the case yesterday when, less than two weeks after I reflected on what it means to perceive objects, social media was abuzz about a photograph of a dress which could be mysteriously interpreted in two very different color pairings. It didn't take long for the inevitable modern reaction to play out.

  1. The image went viral, and everyone immediately formed an opinion about it.
  2. Vicious arguments ensued.
  3. An investigation into the origins of the image proved conclusively what color the dress actually was.
  4. A scientific explanation rationalized our disagreement, supposedly revealing something about ourselves, at least to those of us enlightened enough to listen.
  5. The image has instantly become a cultural artifact of our time, and will be the source of thousands of sarcastic comments to come.
It's that fourth point that hit closest to home. I'm part of that large demographic that eats this stuff up:
Light enters the eye through the lens—different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image. Critically, though, that first burst of light is made of whatever wavelengths are illuminating the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object. “Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” says Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. “But I’ve studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.”
Notice the language used here. Let me isolate one of those sentences with emphasis added:
Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object.
For all of the scientific materialism that permeates this kind of explanation, it remains stubbornly dualistic. There's you, and then there's your brain, and also your eyes. You, in this model, don't have access to what's "real" (in quotation marks, because how can we be sure there is such a thing?) because it's all mediated to you by something in between, namely your eyes. This is a consistent theme in modern scientific explanations of ourselves--as much as we would like to explain everything mechanistically, we can't seem to include ourselves in the explanation, even though we are clearly part of "everything".

Let's go back to that point 2, which, as the Wired article says, is "just another Thursday" on the Internet. A common explanation for these arguments is that people just like to be quarrelsome, especially in an anonymous setting like the Internet. That is certainly a good explanation for the magnitude of these arguments, for the eruption of emotion that accompanies them. Still, why exactly do we care enough to argue in the first place?

It really wouldn't make sense for us to argue about what our senses are telling us if our senses were separate from ourselves. To get a better idea of what is going on, I think one should take a look at a few of the hilarious customer reviews which have been added to the Amazon web page of the now infamous dress, including, "This dress is a glitch in the Matrix," "Not as described -- wrong color, ate soul," and "Carves a crooked path through perceptual reality and leaves behind it a wake of confusion and existential crises." One of my friends posted on facebook that the dress taught them how easily their world could be shattered.

These comments are funny not because they are false, but because they are true. No matter how many illusions we see, no matter how aware we become that our senses can "fool" us, we still remain attached to our sensory judgments as true experiences of the world, only to find time and time again that our vision must change as we experience things in a new way. If we could be equally honest about more serious controversies, we would say the same thing (and sometimes we do).

That is because sensory experience is not a signal being sent from my eyes and my brain to me. It is, rather, an initial vision of things, that spontaneous image created by me, using the tools I have (which happen to be eyes and a brain). This is not a mere turn of phrase. The point is that my sensory organs are not flawed sources of information. Indeed, the only way I will ever learn that I was wrong to see white and gold is by again using my eyes, not by dispensing with them. The problem is not the means with which I encounter the world, but rather the level of patience I have when doing so. If I cling to my initial conception of reality, I will later face the painful process of having that conception torn to pieces.

Modern scientific rationalization of our perceptual failures is probably dualistic for this reason. We wish to distance ourselves from our mistakes. No, we didn't fail--it's our organs that failed, and we need to learn not to trust them. Applied to more important issues, such as religion and politics, we blame difference of perception on cognitive biases. If the brain is a tool, we just need to figure out why that tool doesn't always work right. Then we will all naturally agree, because we will be able to filter out all the errors.

But all controversies are really the same. We don't simply try to receive information about the world and then attempt to filter out the errors. Rather, we imagine the world in an attempt to relate to it. Being told you are wrong is always personal, even if it's over a very trivial thing. It's like being told that a person you know isn't the person you thought they were. In the less important cases, it can be disconcerting, while in very important cases it can break your heart.

Of course I believe that we should try to eliminate bias and errors from our thinking. I am simply saying that the solution is not to distance ourselves from the "instruments" that supposedly cause these errors. Our eyes are not fooling us--we are simply clinging too tightly to what we spontaneously imagine to be real. Our brains are not the product of evolution--we are the product of evolution, that is, of history, both our own and that which has come before us. The way to correct ourselves is through humility, realizing that things are not always as we imagine them, but that there is endless joy in trying to reimagine as we experience more.

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