Perpetual Illusion And Abilities

I keep thinking about the perpetual illusion scenario. That is the scenario where baby’s brain is put into a vat and connected to a sources of random electrical impulses. It so happens that by mere chance, the impulses happen to be such that the baby is under illusion of living normal life within society. So, in few last posts I was defending the possibility that I am such brain, and I also was discussing different issues related to this, like:

  1. How is this possible? I pointed that while the subject doesn’t become aware of anything real while subject of perpetual illusion, she may become aware of different possibilities. For example, she may become of the possibility that there are things, movement, multitude of things, possibility for there to be certain number of things, and so on…
  2. Related to this, I pointed to the principle that if she can think of those things, she can also think a priori about those things. The easiest to point to was the example with the numbers, where proofs of mathematical theorems that she learns (comprehends) while being subject of perpetual illusion, will be the same proofs that we comprehend in real world.

Here, I want to discuss another issue related to the scenario, and that is, if we become aware of those possibilities while not being presented with real instances of those possibilities, does that mean that we have innate ideas of those possibilities (e.g. possibilities of things, motion, numbers, language, colors, and so on)?

It is pretty attractive idea I think. We would say that because in the illusion those notions were not present, it can’t be that those notions came from “outside”. So, those ideas must have been in “our minds” even before we became aware of them. I guess, for the last sentence to make more sense, we would be inclined to say that we remember them, or recognize them. That would take care of the issue of how could they be “in our minds” but we weren’t aware of them.

I don’t buy this story. When I become aware of something new, I don’t remember it. It is a fact that I was never aware of it before. And in the phenomenology, I don’t experience it as something that I recognize, but I’m usually mesmerized – I feel that my awareness of the world is getting bigger – I’m now aware of something that I wasn’t aware of, something which I had no idea of before, something that I wasn’t expecting before also. Take a case of the subject of perpetual illusion for the first time seeing an illusion of red thing. From that experience she becomes aware of the possibility of there being red things (even not seeing a real red thing), but is she really remembering the possibility that there be red things? I think not, I think this new color is that – new color for this subject. It is not something which was there in her mind the whole time, it is something which she became aware of only in virtue of this experience.

So, the phenomenological description doesn’t imply at all that we are remembering or recognizing in some way those notions. We become aware of those in virtue of the experiences. But, we are back to the problem that those notions (or as I said possibilities) are not there in the experience itself.

To me it seems that good way to approach this issue is to relate this to innate abilities. While we might not have those notions in ourselves as such, we might be born with the abilities to become aware of those things (‘be born with’ should be taken in a loose way, as those abilities might be developed also automatically later in life, e.g. in early childhood). It seems that this is pretty common-sense approach. We aren’t aware of things before we are born, but when we are born we can become aware of the things through our perception. It is our perception which is this ability to become aware of things. We also have the abilities to become aware of colors, sounds, movement, multitudes of things, numbers of things, and so on…

This can be related to this different approach to the issue of other minds, that I’m pointing to from time to time. One of the approaches to other minds issues (the issue of how do we know that other people are conscious) is analyzed through the idea of theories which relate the behavior of the people as a thing that we see directly to the “invisible minds” which are behind those actions. But, why not say in this case also that we are born with the ability to see subjects qua subjects. To see them as acting with intentions, to see them as aware of things that we are aware of, and so on (one can point to the researches here which show that we can be very precise in figuring out where the other person is looking at.)…

Anyway, back to the topic. The general idea is then, that our abilities are such that we easily become aware of some things. Be that the objects around us, where they move, what other people look at, what they are doing and so on. Simply said, we are born as beings which can become aware of things. And this our ability is limited, and focused – we become aware of some things more easily than of another things.

But we are not out of the woods yet, as even we allow that we are born with abilities to become aware of those notions, it doesn’t answer the question of how come we become aware of those, when they are not even there (in the case of perpetual illusion)

I will think/write on it in the next post I guess…

The Meaning of Few Different Words Within the Illusionary World

For the few past posts I was thinking/writing on the issue of how I could be a brain in a vat, to which random electrical impulses are fed, but so it happens that by mere chance, I’m under illusion of living a normal life in society.

Keeping inline with my externalistic preferences, I said that while in the vat the subject can’t become aware of anything real, she can become aware of different possibilities. She will become aware of possibilities of objects, multitudes of objects, multitude of objects sharing some similarity (kinds), possibility of other subjects perceiving, possibility for open possibilities in the world, related to this acting and practices, related to this possibility of language as practice, and so on.

I want here to add few thoughts on the words used to describe the scenario, like ‘brain’, ‘vat’, ‘electrical’, ‘impulses’, ‘chance’, ‘life’, ‘society’, ‘illusion’, and so on. I want to comment on the issue if those words could have same meaning unrelated to the fact if I am a subject of perpetual illusion or not.

‘Vat’ seems pretty unproblematic. A large container used for storing or holding liquids. Vats are surely not natural kinds, nor is having idea of one dependent on there being one. I guess in general for artifacts we could say this… for one to create (engineer) something new, one needs to be able to think about the possibility of such thing, even before there are such things. The issue is though, how abstract those possibilities are. On one side we could have abstract things like for example Turing machine, with abstract algorithms (e.g. Quick Sort), but maybe the idea of vat (the awareness that there could be vats) is little more problematic, as it depends on the idea of liquids. I don’t know… I don’t see liquidity as problematic either, it seems to me that it describes a possible property of a substance, and that we could distinguish the liquidity as property from the reason for liquidity. And liquidity as a property there is related more with what how the substance behaves, and as such we can become aware of possibility of such behavior.

Brains… What do we mean by ‘brains’? Generally, we tend to find this organ in humans and other animals higher animals’ heads. So, I think we need to put attention to ‘humans’, ‘animals’, ‘organ’ and ‘head’. ‘Humans’ in one sense are a specific natural kind, and as I said, I’m inclined to think that our words within the vat that was supposed to mean natural kinds can’t refer to real natural kinds (as they weren’t based to real multitudes – so similarly to how proper names can’t mean real things, as they weren’t based on those real things). But, from another sense, ‘humans’ might be taken to mean – the species to which I belong. And the idea of ‘species’ along with the idea of ‘animals’ and ‘kinds of animals’ seems much more abstract that it would refer to the same thing, be I under perpetual illusion or not. Of course, it might be also that for the case we have here, we don’t need to go as far to other animals, and kinds of animals, but just to think of the kind to which I as a subject belong (defined thought the possibilities of becoming aware of all those different things, and possibilities for acting), and further the idea of having body, and having head, and having something in the head which is related to being a subject.

‘Electrical’ seems very problematic, as it refers to a specific natural phenomenon, which isn’t much a specific property of the things, but something that we figured out through science. I don’t know though… The physical laws take very abstract form, and the notions which are related to the physical theories (like atoms etc…) are also kind of abstract.

The possibility of other subjects is i think non-problematical, and the possibilities for those subjects to act in different ways when together, including possibility of communication, different social relations and so on – I think if one becomes aware of those as possibilities within the vat, and if thinks of those within the vat, those are the same things of which we may think of. I think it is similar to the case with engineering I described before. The communication, or different ways of acting towards other subjects are I think possibilities of which one might become aware even before those ways of acting towards others exist. For sure, we might be inclined biologically to take some of those ways, but we also think and invent new ways of how to relate to others, how to solve problems in our relations, how to better do different things, and so on. And if some person becomes aware of some of those possibilities within the vat, I think he can then, when outside of the vat share the same ideas with others (real others).

I guess it is much more important what the scenario meant to point to, and that is a certain possibility which is more abstract than the words that were used to describe the scenario. And the possibility is that I as a being which can think, perceive and so on, can be in fact subject of perpetual illusion. And ‘illusion’ is I think less problematic in this sense. As I described in some past post, it is about possibility that the subject can’t distinguish between two different experiences in which he takes part. And I think the brain in a vat which is under perpetual illusion, and us, when thinking of illusions are thinking of the same thing.

Anyway, after I noted in last post that there might be some problems in the details, I thought it would be interesting to do some analysis, so… that’s about it. Probably, if nobody objects, I will have another post (or two) about the perpetual illusion scenario.

Doing Metaphysics In A Vat

Starting with the scenario from previous posts…

A baby’s brain is put in a vat, and connected with wires to a generator of random electrical impulses. By mere chance, though random, those electrical impulses happen to be such that the subject which is related to the brain is under an illusion of living what we would call normal life within a society. (If you think that other parts of the body are needed for such an illusion to be possible, just imagine the whole body in the vat, like in Matrix)…

I don’t see anything contradictory with the possibility that I, myself am subject related to such brain (or body) in a vat.

Accepting this means that I accept that whatever I said, has same meaning, unrelated to the fact if I am living real life or pure-chance-random-generators life. And that I can think of this issue, unrelated to the fact if I am subject of illusion or not. (Though of course, there are some problems with the details here. First there might not be any electrical force in the real world, or there might be no such things as brains, but I think that what is important that the general idea of being a subject of perpetual illusion is the same thing be I subject of perpetual illusion or not.)

As one, if I am subject of illusion the things I’ve seen are not real. So, the people, objects, animals, etc… were not real. But for me to be able to think and say this, I need to have a valid notion of ‘real thing’, to distinguish those from ‘illusions’, and so on. The problem is of course, if nothing I’ve seen is real, how can I have notions like those.

In the past post, I presented the idea, that while I never became aware of anything real while subject of perpetual hallucination, I’ve become aware of possibilities of different things. It is interesting, relating to the issue of what kind of notions I need to have in order to be able to say that I might have been subject of perpetual illusion, to think about what kinds of possibilities I might be aware… So, here is some list of important notions, I think I am having, unrelated to the issue if I was subject of perpetual illusion or not…

I must have had become aware of the possibility of objects, multitudes of things, kinds of things, perceiving things, others perceiving things (by ‘others’, I don’t mean necessarily people, at least not in biological sense, as there might not be such things as people), possibility of open possibilities in the world and acting in order to actualize a possibility, possibility of communication as a way of acting (in different ways – like to communicate what one knows, to ask, to order, and so on), possibility of all kind of different social relations.

We can contrast those things with a)I have simply been wrong in using name to refer to the illusionary thing, as there wasn’t anything there to which I was referring – I was simply wrong. It was similar to fictional things, and as such as much something in real life is alike that illusionary thing, I can’t say that I meant that real thing, by using the name. b)Also, to some amount when talking about multitudes of illusionary things sharing some similarity, as much the similarity can be seen as possibility, it is questionable how much to this notion it is critical that the multitude is seen as a real multitude, about which we can figure out more truths. So, I would be inclined that in lot of cases to say that if we referred to illusionary kinds, those words can’t mean real kinds, like lemons, water, and so on…

Given this contrast, I want to propose this principle (let us call it… metaphysics while in illusion principle, or maybe better just P1):

P1: We can think a priori about (and only about) things of which we can think of, even if we were subjects of the perpetual illusion scenario.

This will include notions like object, multitude of objects, kinds, possibilities and acting, society, practices, communication, numbers, change (also time and space), good and evil, and all those other notions, that a subject could think about even living life under perpetual illusion, and which are the same things that we (living real lives) are thinking of.

So, what would be the argument for P1. Let me attempt to give an argument…

Given that I can think of something while subject of perpetual illusion that other people which live real lives are thinking about, there is nothing which would determine the reference to that thing which is not already there, when I have the thing in my mind

Given, that we have this thing (this notion) clearly before our mind, we can then try to figure out possibilities and necessities within or related to that notion.

OK, that was I guess kind of a bad argument (in the sense that I don’t think it is very convincing), but besides the argument let me also point to one case of notions on which lot of people might agree with P1. That is the case of mathematics… While I would think it is pretty straightforward that science done under illusion can’t be real science or tell us anything about the world, the case with mathematics seems different. I can think about triangles, angles, sums, and so on while in ‘hallucination-world’, about the same triangles people think in the real world. But also if I become aware of the proof of Pythagorean theorem, because some illusionary guy on illusionary place seemed to teach it to me, it won’t make the knowledge I gain in such way wrong. What is important that I understood and comprehended the Pythagorean theorem (even as it happened – as a result of very peculiar events). So, while specific case, I think this can nicely pump your intuition into accepting P1.

Becoming Aware Through Illusion

I wrote about the following scenario in last post…

A baby’s brain is put in a vat, and connected with wires to a generator of random electrical impulses. By mere chance, though random, those electrical impulses happen to be such that the subject which is related to the brain is under an illusion of living what we would call normal life within a society. (If you think that other parts of the body are needed for such an illusion to be possible, just imagine the whole body in the vat, like in Matrix).

I don’t see anything wrong with the possibility that I, myself am a subject related to such brain (or body) in a vat.

Personally I think that central notion in the relation between the subject and the world is the notion of awareness. First, we can think only about things of which we became aware of, things that somehow appeared as intentional content of our perceptual or other cognitive acts. And second in other as basic requirements for thinking and communication in general, the intentional content needs to be intrasubjectively and intersubjectively transcendental – i.e. it should be such that I can think about it multiple times, and also such that other people can think about it (the same thing) also. Given those requirements those things of which we think can’t be literally in me, or can’t be literally in my mind, and I think again the notion of awareness nicely captures that relation in which the person gets acquainted with something which is not himself, but which can become now subject of his thinking.

So, for me, in the case of the vat-scenario, the questions relate to the awareness of the person related to the brain in a vat…

What can be said about the awareness of the person in the scenario described? If we allow that the person is aware of something (minimally allowing that I’m such brain in a vat, I should be aware of enough things so that I could understand such scenario), then how could he become aware of those things even he was subject of perpetual illusion?

I guess first it is straightforward to say, that if I’m the person subject to such illusion, that nothing I have seen is real. That is, none of the people I have seen, none of the animals, none of the objects, plants and so on is real. So, it can’t be that I become perceptually aware of any person, animal, plant, object, and so on, through my life under perpetual illusion. And yet, for me to even say what I said, I need to be aware of the notions of objects, animals, plants and people, (and of course the notions of illusion, brain, vat, random electrical signals, chance, and so on)…

In the discussion of the meaning of common nouns, however I was saying that there are no concepts in our heads, that are meaning of those nouns, but that their genesis in our becoming aware of multiplicity or possibility of multiplicity of things which show certain similarity. So, in this case, what I should say is that though I never become aware of the things belonging to any of the kinds of things I named, I became aware of the possibility of multitude of things which would show certain kind of similarity – that is, I became aware of a possibility of kinds of things. What about specific kinds?

I would say yes. Given that the similarities in question are possible, I became aware of possible specific kinds, and when I talk about trees, animals, humans, and so on, while those might not be multitudes in the real world, they are possible multitudes which share certain possible similarity. Hence, I think there is nothing problematic for me to think about those kinds, and talk about them, even I never became aware of anything which belongs to them.

Interesting question here appears if it might turn out there to be real multitudes of things which relate to the kinds that I became aware of while subject of perpetual illusion. I would think that some minimal overlapping has to be possible, if I want to still claim that I could be a brain in such a vat.

Of course, if we follow Kripke and Putnam, even I became aware of possibility of some stuff which I call ‘water’ while under perpetual illusion, it won’t be true that I became aware of water. That is, not just that I haven’t seen any water while under perpetual illusion (which is really non-problematic I think), but because I haven’t seen any water (nor I’ve been in contact to anybody who has seen water), it can’t be that I can be aware of water. I guess, I need to be careful with my intuitions on this point, as it is easy for them to be tricked by the complexity of the scenario. I will continue thinking about this issue in the next post…

Cartesian Externalism

I never saw anything contradictory with the idea that we might be subjects trapped in Matrix type scenario – a brains in vats scenario. Really, given the developments of things like computer generated virtual realities, in which we immerse ourself through gaming, it is easy to imagine the possibility of the simulations being so good that they are indistinguishable from our experiences in real life. And I can’t see anything contradictory with the idea that my body when I was a baby was hooked up to some virtual reality.

Now, there are arguments like Putnam’s one against brain in vats, which are related to certain theory of meaning of the words, but the possibility of virtual reality is so clear, seems to me, that denying the possibility that we are brains in vats on base of that argument, seems to me on par with denying that there is movement based on Zeno’s argument. Certainly there is value in Zeno’s paradoxes, but the value is not in proving that motion is impossible.

Anyway, not just that I don’t see anything contradictory in me being brain in a vat, which is placed within a virtual reality controlled by machines, but I don’t see anything contradictory with the idea that my brain was put in a vat, and that what it was and is getting from the inputs are signals generated by a random process, and that only by mere chance those inputs ended up such that I’m under the illusion that I’m a subject with a life I have, with wife, with kids, with all those experiences.

I think that even this turns out to be true, and every individual thing to which I was acquainted in my life turns out to have been an illusion, I will still have idea of wives, bachelors, chairs, books, philosophy, vats, brains, language, and so on… And, if by mere chance, it also turns out that these illusions were fully inline with what is there really in the world, my intended meanings in the virtual reality, will be fully inline with the meanings in this real world. I will be able to express my previous thoughts (the same thoughts I already had) about bachelors, about books, about brains, language, and so on…

What is interesting to me is how to relate my thinking that those kinds of scenario are possible with some of my externalist inclinations.

As I said, I believe that there is no such thing as ‘phenomenal experience’, and that ‘experience’ properly (and traditionally) refers to the events in the world in which we participate, and by which we are affected or from which we learn, OR (in alternative sense) it refers to the knowledge gained in that way.

Further, related to this, I don’t think there are concepts, if by concepts we mean some constituents of our thinking which would be some things in our heads. As said, I think that words like ‘bachelors’, ‘chairs’, ‘books’ and so on, refer to multitudes of things which are part of certain (and real at that) phenomenon in the world – a phenomenon of which we are aware. (I don’t think that concepts are Platonic ideas neither.)

I would also take externalist position on words meanings also, as I think they only have meaning in the context of language as part of the practices in the society, so again, would take externalist stance on this also.

So, I guess there is some kind of tension between those views. A very interesting dialectic here.

Hidden Person

Here is an interesting visual illusion (via Spluch) …

People at Spluch say that you should move away from the screen to see the face better, but you can also try looking at the image while shaking the head left/right or squint the eyes. Of course you can also move away from the screen, squint the eyes, and shake your head left/right. (You can try few dancing moves while you are at it).

I guess this is a good example of how rod cells pick up more information than cone cells can?

Different, But Indistinguishable Experiences

Richard over at Philosophy Sucks!, posted a PowerPoint presentation of his paper Consciousness, Higher-Order Thoughts and What It’s Like. The great thing is that he has integrated his reading of the paper, so that the whole experience is much better (at least it was for me) than reading a paper.

Anyway in discussion of that post Richard gave few objections to the view of perception that I’m playing with on this blog in few previous posts (for example the posts on illusions, “appears” vs. “is”hallucinations and dreams, and also few follow up notes).

I don’t want to clutter comments on his blog with those issues, so I will quote Richard’s objections here, and try to answer them.
Richard says…

I just don’t see how this kind of view doesn’t fly in the face of all of brain science…for instance you say that you can have a pain in your finger and yet not feel it, but we know that there are no pains in fingers, pain is in the brain (as evidenced by phantom limb pain) so to have a pain in the finger is to be in a mental state that represents the pain as being somewhere. How do you avoid this conclusion?

I don’t think that it is problematic to say that the pain we feel is in the finger just because there is possibility of illusion. We don’t say that the rabbit we see is in the brain, just because there is a possibility of illusion. Both cases seem analogous to me, and as one can accept that the objects we see are not in the brain, one can accept that the pain we feel is also not in the brain. I had more detailed analysis of this, in the post about cyborgs sharing the pain.

The other objection Richard gives is the following…

Also there is the obvious problem of dreams and hallucinations. I know you have addressed this issue, arguing that it is the imagination that has something to do with it, but this answer is no good because we know from brain imaging studies that when you dream about things the actual visual cortex is active but this is not the case for imagining. We also know that we can stimulate the visual cortex directly and generate visual experiences in the absence of objects, so how can objects themselves be the constituents of experiences if we can have experiences in the absence of objects?

I want to thank Richard for pointing to the issue with connecting imagination and dreams. Adding imagination there was wild speculation on my part (as it turns out – wrong), but I don’t think it was essential to the argument. The general idea was that some kind of *seeing affector* can be used to explain the possibility of hallucinations and dreams, and still leave open the possibility that when we see real things it is the things themselves that are constituents of the experience.

The idea is that the word “experience”  should be read in an externalist manner, and not as something private and internal to the subject. I don’t think this is problematic, and that even aligns better with the everyday usage of the word “experience”. I guess I will argue this in separate post. So, “experience” being read in this way, we can say that while two experiences are different (say seeing a box and pyramid from certain side), they might be indistinguishable by the subject. Same can be said about two different experiences, e.g. seeing a rabbit and hallucinating one – that those are different experiences, but they might be indistinguishable by the subject. In this way, we can say that the possibility of illusions doesn’t implicate that the objects themselves can’t be constituents of the experience. The same reading can be used for the cases of stimulation of visual cortex.

Of course lot of things in this view depends on issue of how to read “experience”, and what this thing philosophers call “experience” is supposed to be. That’s why I asked few posts ago for some clarification of what representational theories mean by that word. (The only ‘official’ answer I got was Pete Mandik’s – who said that experience is supposed to be a theoretical concept, and not something of which we are directly aware).

Few Notes on my Position on Perception, Ending with a Rant

I will try shortly to explain further my position on perception that I wrote about in few previous posts, and how it stands in relation to some other positions…

First to start negatively – this position isn’t representationalism – it doesn’t say that experience represents the world as being somehow, nor for that matter that there is veridical and falsidical experiences which would depend on the issue if the experience represents the world as it is, or not. Even less it is qualia (or sense-data) view. It is negated that any such thing as “phenomenal seeming”,  in any sense in which it might remind of Cartesian theater.

Instead in this view the objects in the world are constituents of the appearance (or experience). However the appearance is also constituted not just by those objects and their characteristics (towards which e.g. the seeing is directed) but also by the act of perception, and the characteristics of that act (e.g. the presence of fog, the distance from the object, the angle, subject wearing glasses, and so on).

So, according to this there are no mental states at all which represent the objects of our perception and which would somehow give rise to the phenomenon of “phenomenal experience”. Instead the “experience” and “appearance” is to be read as something not in the head, but constituted by the objects and their characteristics, the act of perception and its characteristics, and any other things and their characteristics which contribute to the appearance because of its nature. Such is the thing with a fog, or with the glasses for example. They are not some necessary constitutive part of the seeing something, but because of the nature of seeing, the objects put between the eyes and the object affect the appearance of that object. Because of adding all those things to the appearance, this view can talk about such things as illusions and hallucinations both:

  • Without a need for representation which would be veridical or not. Instead this view sees the illusions and hallucinations matter of appearing-same of different things given the variation of constituents of the appearances and their characteristics.
  • Without denying the transparency of experience (which would be case for sense-data theory), and even because of the immediacy of the appearance, removing the need to talk about “phenomenal experience” as some kind of entity, which would be connected to what-is-it-like.

What about the what-is-it-likeness then? Where do we put it in this view? Well, it is so to say everywhere…For sure IT IS like something to see a rolling ball from three meters distance while wearing glasses, and looking through fog. What is it like? Well, it is like seeing a rolling ball from three meters distance while wearing glasses, and looking through fog.

I guess lot of people might not buy this as any kind of explanation, and require some reduction. Physicalists and dualists will say that we have a physical world, made from molecules (or maybe quantum foam), and that what-is-it-likeness should metaphysically or at least nomologically supervene on that.

But to me it seems this is looking at the things from wrong direction. Why can’t we instead ask this? – What will we find on physical/chemical/neurological level if we analyze the situation in which I’m looking at a rabbit. Now, we can analyze that situation, and say that in such and such case, there are photons bouncing off the rabbit’s fur, coming in the direction of our eyes, getting focused by our eye’s lenses, fall on the retina, where they affect the rod/cone receptors, and so on… , after some time resulting with specific movements of my lips tongue, jaw, synchronized with specific changes of tension of the vocal chords and controlling flow of air through them.

But, this won’t be explanation of the first situation, it is merely another description, in different terms. Now the terms are not “see”, “rabbit”, “5 meters from me”, all of which carry implicitly some what-is-it-likeness, but is speech in terms of different entities, which carry fully different what-is-it-likeness (what is it like to detect a photon, what is it like to base a belief there are photons on base of the explanation of photoelectric effect, etc…; what is it like to understand different kinds of organizations and emergent information processing of the neurons in a neural network, or to observe neurons through microscope, etc…).

So, on this view, the what-is-it-likeness is, so to say – just the consequence of the being a person which can see a rabbit, and which is seeing a rabbit. Of course, physics in its approaches ignores those things (justifiably) because of its nature, that only things which can be objectively evaluated count. However the consequence of it is that it can’t produce them back  from the impoverished picture of the world that it produces.

The picture of the physics is merely a picture which shows just an aspect of this world. It is an abstraction, and not a ground of the world.

Hallucinations and Dreams

In talking about illusions few posts back I said that the first thing to consider about illusions, is that two things can appear same depending on the characteristics of those things, but also depending on the characteristics of the act of seeing. That is, depending on the things like how far are the things, the angle from which we look at them, if there is maybe a fog, if we look at the things through some colored (or distorting) glass. One can also add to this facts about the person looking, like that the person is tired, that he has poor vision and has no glasses, and so on…

Once one accepts that two things (or situations, events, etc…) can look the same depending on all those characteristics even the things (situations, events, etc…) are different, we have easy explanation of what illusions are. They are phenomena where one of those situations is taken as standard, and the other one requires some complications, so that we use the “looks like X”, or “seems like X”, to explain how this second thing under the specific circumstances appears as the standard situation X. (Of course this isn’t isolated on appearances of single things, we can for example that it seems that someone is home, and that usage can be covered with explanation given here, we just say that the things in the house appear as they would if the person is at home. For example the person’s shoes are there, or his coat, or there is a sound coming from the TV, etc…)

The idea here is that we don’t need to suppose that there are such things as “visual fields”, or “phenomenal experiences” or “phenomenal appearances/seemings” which would be used to explain the possibility for illusions. But, what about hallucinations and dreams. After all, we can say that in the case of illusions, there is really two things that under certain circumstances appear same. But in the case of hallucinations or dreams… There is nothing. So, is this a proof that one can’t do away with those assumed “visual fields”/”phenomenal experiences/appearances/seemings”, and that we need them to explain dreams and hallucinations?

I think not. Imagine that we have some semi-transparent glasses with some (semi-transparent) picture painted on them. When we see through this kind of glasses, the picture from the glasses might contribute to the seeing in such way, that what we look at appears mixed with the picture on the glasses. For example when we look at a blank wall, it might appear as if the picture on the glasses is on the wall. Now imagine that we have something analogous to semi-transparent glasses “behind” the eyes. This “seeing affector” will affect the seeing in similar way to semi-transparent painted glasses, i.e. when we look at the wall, it will appear same as when we are looking at the wall which has picture on it.

I guess it is clear where this is going – the idea is that we can look at the back of our eyelids (or whatever we are looking when we have our eyes closed), but that the “seeing affector” can affect the seeing in such a way, that that “darkness” in fact appears as when thing appear in normal situations. (As argued in the ‘Appears as a Red Ball’ vs. ‘Is a Red Ball’ normal situation is that in which we learn the concepts and where we are ignorant of possible complications). So, anyway the idea is that something like this happens in the case of dreams – that what we look at in those dreams is actually nothing (taken in the sense how in the situation where there is no light, we can’t see anything), but that some “seeing affector” makes it appear as the cases in which we are seeing some particular things. Hallucinations would be similar case, just in those cases the “seeing affector”, affects seeing in such way that the situations in the world appear as it would appear when there is something there, which in fact in those cases isn’t. I’m not sure if in the hallucinations the hallucinated things are mixed with what we see in the real world, but if it does, then the analogy with semi-transparent glass might make even more sense…

Anyway, what is this “seeing affector”? I think that it is connected to what we call “imagination”. In the experiments done by Perky in 1910,published in the text called An Experimental Study of Imagination, she found out that the subjects were failing to distinguish banana imagined on the screen from a projected imagine of a banana on the screen (they instead e.g. reported that their imagined banana started rotating). So, the imagination there seems as a perfect candidate for this “seeing affector” (of course seeing is juts one perception, and there is no reason why it would be special, and why we couldn’t talk about general affect on the senses), as the way it affects what is seen seems very similar to the semi-transparent painted glass analogy.

Also one can point to the case of Zoltan Torey, which was presented on the All In The Mind radio show some time ago. Zoltan eyes were hurt in an industrial accident, so he was permanently blinded. But this is what he says in the interview:

Evidently the visual cortex, far from going blank and atrophying, it has picked up in acuity, and it is now totally under my command, so I virtually live in a visual space that I constantly produce myself. It is not really a canvas that I’m looking at, it is really visual space, so that I am—in the middle of which I find myself. So if I turn around, for example, I see what’s behind me, and as I turn my head around in the room where I am, so I orientate into the objects and furniture which I’m facing. It’s a completely technicolour, textured, visual world which apparently I continuously produce.

This points even better of the potential role of imagination as a “perceptual affector”, which I assume as an explanation of dreams and hallucinations.
Of course, this is not an argument against the idea of phenomenal experience, however I think it shows that one can argue about perception being directed to the outside things, or so to say that we are aware of the things themselves, and that we don’t need any middle entity which would be used to explain phenomena like illusions, hallucinations and dreams.

The Web of Belief – A Reading Note 2

Continuing from the paragraph quoted in previous post, Quine further writes (my italics):

In an early page we asked what sorts of things were the objects of belief. Then we gratefully dropped that question, noticing that we could instead talk of sentences and of believing them true. Now a similar maneuver conduces to clarity in dealing with the notion of observation: let us ask no longer what counts as an observation, but turn rather to language and ask what counts as an observation sentence.

What makes a sentence an observation sentence is not what sort of event or situation it describes, but how it describes it. Thus I may see the dean of the law school mail a birthday check to his daughter in Belgium. Saying so in these terms does not qualify as an observation sentence. If on the other hand I describe that same event by saying that I saw a stout man with a broad face, a gray moustache, rimless spectacles, a Homburg hat, and a walking stick, putting a small white flat flimsy object into the slot of a mailbox, this is an observation sentence. What makes it an observation sentence is that any second witness would be bound to agree with me on all points then and there, granted merely an understanding of my language. The witness would not be bound to agree that it was the dean, whom he or she might not know, nor expected to know anything about the check or a daughter in Belgium.

About agreement on observational sentences… As I’ve said in the past posts about illusions, it seems to me an obvious fact that different things, (and there I mean completely different things), can appear same way, depending on…

  • characteristic of things
  • which kind of sensual modality (or access) is in question
  • the characteristic of that sensory access. For example in case of seeing – where we are seeing the things from, from what angle, do we wear glasses, are we sleepy, is there a fog, has anybody tampered with our brain, etc…

So, I think, that instead of “second witness would be bound to agree with me on all points then and there, granted merely an understanding of my language”, it would be better to speak that in case of observational sentences the second witness would be bound to agree that the situation seems such and such (granted merely an understanding of the language).

However, when we give up the possibility of sense-data language, I don’t think there is much sense to talk about infallibility of this kind of observational sentences. As there is not some factual state to which we have infallible access.

  1. This IS NOT going back to sense-data description, or to some
    “phenomenal seeming” which would be divorced from the world, and about which we could give some statements.
  2. According to the given analysis, the usage of “it seems that T” doesn’t mean that T is the case, but that among other things if T is the case, it would appear like whatever is the case appears now.
  3. Seeming or Appearance are always to someone. Something can’t appear except to someone. (Notice the symmetry with e.g. One can’t see without seeing something) So implicitly ‘seems’ is ‘seems to me’. And this further acknowledges that there might be limits to my perception, or limits to what I have focused on, or what I’m ignorant of, because of which it appears to me that T.

So, the report is then not a infallible report of some phenomenal fact, but just report of a judgment that we do. Something like “That might be car, but maybe it is not.”. It is hard to see that as some kind of infallible report (though of course, it is hard to see how it can be wrong too).

The Quine’s position on this issue is not like the one I’m presenting here though. He seems to acknowledge that there is some kind of “private experience” and sense-data, and that there are such things as “I’m in pain” and “I seem to see blue”, which would be reports about that “private experience”…

We remarked that some philosophers have identified observations with events of sensation. It is thus not to be wondered that in some philosophical writings the title of observation sentence is reserved for sentences very different from observation sentences as we have defined them. It is reserved for introspective reports like “I am in pain” and “I seem to see blue now.” Such reports also have been rated as infallible. It must be conceded that they tend to be incontestable, because of the speaker’s privileged access to his or her private experience. But on this very point they differ diametrically from observation sentences in our sense. The situations that make them true are not ones to which multiple witnesses could attest.

What Are Illusions?

Chris at Mixing Memory has a post discussing few visual illusions, and also pointing to the announcement of the Best Visual Illusion of the Year.

As illusions came out also in the discussion we had with Richard in the comments, I thought I write a post about them.

What are illusions?

I guess the first intuitive answer would be: “the illusion is when something appears differently from how it is”. For example… two lines are same length, but they appear as having different lengths. Or… some color is gray, but we see it as yellow (check under Colour Perception illusions here). Or, there is no painted skull on the wall, but it seems to us that there is a skull. And so on…

But saying that “things appear differently from how they are”, has certain problems…

To point to one of the problems, I will point to a simple illusion. Take a white ball, for example. The ball is white and seems white. Now shine a red light onto it. The ball seems red, right? But what does “seems red” means there? We can say that white ball when under red light appears same as red ball under white light. But why put priority to how the red ball appears under white light? Why not say that red ball under white light appears as white ball under red light. What is so special about white light?

It seems to me, all we can say here, is that “red ball under white light” and “white ball under red light” appear the same. But if we don’t put priority on the one of those situations, where does the illusion come from?

Let me now propose the different description of what illusions are about, and then try to discuss it further:

Desc*: Illusion:One thing can appear as some another thing even if the things are different. In the course of our lives, we are encountering one of those situations more often, and the other situation usually requires a deliberate setup, or unlikely conditions which rarely occur. So, when we encounter the second situation we tend to judge it to be the first situation.

Illusions are then, not inherent in perception but are problem of the judgment, and usually of our ignorance of the complications in the situation, including the ignorance of the limits of our senses of perception.

So, how this differs from that first explanation that was proposed… Here is I think main differences:

1. That first explanation seems to imply that there is some such entity as “an appearance of a thing”. The logic is, if two things appear as same or similar, there is something identical in both cases, and that which is identical is “an appearance”, then this “appearance” is reified as independent thing, and most likely located in the mind/brain of the subject. (I will explain why in the next point). And because the appearance is something in the mind, to which we have direct access, if there is some mistake it has to be in the appearance itself. Instead of this kind of thinking, in this other way of looking at the illusions, we can negate that there are such things as appearances. Instead we speak about things appearing some way to us, that is, “appear” is used just as a verb and points to a relation between the thing and a person, and not to some other specific entity.

2.When talking about “the appearances” as entities in the previous case, they are imagined as simple, and things to which the subject now has some kind of direct and infallible access. It has to be infallible in this model, because if it is fallible then we haven’t solved the problem at all. Because of this fallibility it will be possible for the “appearance” to appear differently to the subject. And then we need to assume another level of “appearance” and so on…

3.Instead of that, in Desc*, we can include in the picture different properties of the subject’s access to the thing. To be more precise, in one case of appearance,  we can talk about:

  • the intentional content (that to which we access through our senses – it can be a dog, cow, box, etc…)
  • the type of intentional access (e.g. seeing, hearing, etc..)
  • the different characteristics of the intentional access (for example, when we talk about seeing, a person can have glasses, the object might be put under different light or context, there can be fog, can look at the thing from different angles and distances, his eyes might be tired, someone might have rewired some things in the brain, etc…)

All those complications now become possible variables which might be tampered with, in order for something to look like something else.
For example we can say things like “a red ball in normal context appears like a white ball when one sees it through red glasses (or other way around)”, or “two lines with equal lengths drawn on paper with added arrows at the ends, look like lines with different lengths seen in perspective”, or that “gray circle in certain context seems like purple circle in normal context”, or that “a wall after we tamper with our eyes by fixing our eyes to certain color, appears like wall with a circle on it”, and so on…

So, in general there is nothing problematic here that is not present in simple case where a box, and a pyramid can appear same, if we look them from proper side. Things appear same because of limits of our perception, and some of those require a deliberate setup and are rarely encountered, so we will tend to judge such situations as others.

Take for example, a case of afterimage illusions. It requires first fixing your eyes at a specific place for certain time (say 20-30 seconds), and then looking at some blank wall, and not moving the eyes, in order to trick us into making wrong judgment. But we usually don’t make wrong judgment, and say that it “seems” because we are aware that the situation just seems like that other situation (as both situation seem same), and not that it is that other situation.

If you by chance glance towards the sun, it is pretty easy after that to tell that you have problem with the vision. It is not that we are thinking that world has gone weird and some green patch is moving over it.

Examples of Neural Adaptation – Visual Illusions

If you look at one of the white X-es in the colored circles (just look at the X, nothing else) on left side for 15-20 seconds, and then look at the X on the right side, you probably will see an afterimage, which will be in what Paul Churchland calls chimerical colors. Those are colors which can not appear to you in the normal looking at the things (for explanation of why afterimages happen, you can check this post at Mixing Memory, or check the page with videos on this blog, for a link to a presentation of Paul Churchland). Anyway the short story is that there is neural adaptation, a process where the neuron after given period of being excited with certain input, will “get tired” and go, all by its own, to its “normal” state. If after that the excitatory input goes away, there will be aftereffect such that the neuron will go to inhibited state, even that there is no input which inhibits it. Or the other way around, if inhibitory input is present for a longer time, and then removed, the neuron will go into excited state even there is no excitatory input.

As explanatory model it explains the afterimages (though of course doesn’t explain the phenomenal “look” of the colors, and taken by itself doesn’t explain some other visual illusions). But what is interesting is that this kind of aftereffects can be seen not just in case of color, but also other “more complicated” features. In the following picture there are faces of prototypical female on left side, prototypical male on the right, and a female/male morph image in the center. Try and concentrate on the left picture first (for e.g. 30 seconds), and then look at the center picture. Does it look as male or female? Then concentrate on the right picture for 30 seconds, and then look at the center picture. How about now?

If all is successful, this should show gender adaptation phenomenon, and if we connect this to the theory about how aftereffects in colors happen, should mean that probably there are also neurons in the brain which are used for recognition of gender. (also check Mixing Memory post for more).

BTW, I took the pictures for the second example from the Beauty Check site. It is about how morphing of multiple faces affects attractiveness of the face. Check it out here.