Friday, 24 January 2014

Perception (information or use?)

When we see the sunrise, do we perceive an illusion? We know that the sun is stationary with respect to the earth yet we say that the sun rises and falls. Are we misinforming ourselves, or, worse still, do we think that the sun presents misleading information? Philosophers talk of “accuracy conditions”, of “illusions” and “elusive appearances” but are these terms really appropriate? Is it even true to say that things present information to our senses? If we take the view that things do indeed present information then we are forced to conclude (though we should probably deny) that the sun presents inaccurate, imprecise or contradictory information about itself.

Many philosophers claim that experience has what they call “content” and this is either rich or sparse depending on your philosophical view. Others disagree. And so they should. The sun doesn’t emanate information and nor do the many surfaces from which its energy in reflected. So, it doesn’t follow that the appearance of the rising sun is inaccurate, elusive, deceptive, illusory etc.

The reason we commonly say that the sun rises and falls is because this has proven again and again to be a useful description of what we see. When some of our specialist needs changed (about 500 years or so ago) we eventually worked out that the sun doesn’t in fact revolve around the earth. Yet we continue to describe it in this way – not because we are misinformed, but because this is the way that continues to be most useful for our earth-bound needs.

So, what do we actually perceive when our portion of the earth turns towards the sun? Well, if you ask philosophers, you’ll get as many answers as you can fit fairies on a pinhead. But perhaps the most revealing way of approaching this issue is by asking what we can usefully do in response to the things that we see. And one of the most useful things we have learnt to do – especially with ungraspable things like the sun - is to represent them.

Perhaps one day it will be obvious that perception isn’t something we gain possession of (content we get) but rather something we are capable of doing. And, of all the things we are capable of purposefully doing, representing is probably the most fundamental.


cloudsandraindrops said...

How we perceive things isn't necessarily how things are in reality but yes, surely how we experience them is what really counts.

Jim Hamlyn said...

That's the standard view isn't it? I don't mean to be argumentative but how do you suppose that you know “how things are in reality" if not by perception?

cloudsandraindrops said...

I don't think we do know. But it seems likely that how we perceive it is shaped by such an enormous aggregate of thoughts , impressions, responses etc that shape our perception. Perhaps if we can recognise or even consider how much we might be deluded by our own perceptions we might begin to strip away layers upon layers of obstacles to a more accurate perception.

Jim Hamlyn said...

What you are describing as perception there is what I would think of as reflective thought. What I am concerned with is what we are immediately able to do as a consequence of being sensorily hooked-up with the world. Biological evolution would not have provided us with the weaknesses that you claim we are subject to. If our perception was so fickle we would have gone the way of the dodo long ago.

cloudsandraindrops said...

Thanks for the clarity. I was thinking of perception in more general terms. Isn't it related to the still unresolved(as I understand it) matter of Free Will for example? Isn't that an illusion? That's the question Michael Siverstein asks. The argument seems never ending.

Mark Hallet says that Free Will exists as a perception, rather than as a power or a driving force.

It reminds me of Benjamin Libet's conclusion that perception precedes decision and that the decision to act is an illusion. Libet's suggests that people can be easily fooled when assuming ownership of their perceptions.

An old argument, I know but philosophers such as Daniel Dennit continue to suggest that a lot of the time our brains are deceiving us.

We survived as a species for thousands of years while perceiving the world as flat. Surely, we still have delusions. Lets hope they're not helping us bring the entire planet into extinction!

Jim Hamlyn said...

Ah yes, then you might also have encountered Dennett's thoughts on Libet's work in
"Consciousness Explained". He notes that there are other perfectly plausible explanations of Libet's data. He's also quite a vociferous critic of determinism too. I'm not sure though that he would agree with your characterisation that our brains deceive us. He would want to know where this "us" is exactly, if not issuing from the very thing that is supposed to be doing the deceiving.

We make mistakes for sure, and we are capable of contemplating future states and acting upon these anticipations only to find that we should have taken one or other of the rejected alternatives. Perhaps that's what you mean about our threat to the planet.

The fact that we are prone to underestimate the consequences of our actions is definitely a cause for serious concern. But the cost of acting too soon is thought by many to be an unnecessary or avoidable extravagance. There's no deception though, just a selfish disregard for the plight of our neighbours.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Published just yesterday: "Blame the Brain"

cloudsandraindrops said...

Thanks for that. Yes, that's what interests me. Where's the 'I' in this? But, perhaps even that's only half the story. I am also interested in Tor Norretranders explanations of consciousness and how our perception can help us relate more usefully and intimately with the world around us. For example by representing it.

Thanks a lot for your replies- they're appreciated.

Jim Hamlyn said...

The best response that I have come across to the big "Where is the I in me" question comes from Gilbert Ryle (he supervised Dennett's PhD by the way) who described this kind of speculation as a "Category Mistake." He gives the example of a visitor to a university who, after a full tour of the campus, says: "Yes, but where exactly is the University?" I can really recommend "The Concept of Mind" - it's a stunning example of what a skilful bit of conceptual analysis can do.

I don't really know much about Norretranders, though I've encountered his work once or twice in the past. From the reviews I've read it sounds like he draws upon good science but his extrapolations from the facts leave a lot to be desired. Daniel Kahneman is possibly a better bet. The distinction often drawn in these theories - between two different kinds of purposeful behaviour - seems to be extremely robust, but opinions differ over where and how the distinction should best be drawn. My view is that it all turns on the capacity to physically produce representations. We just don't know how to determine to what degree animals are capable of representing the things with which they are causally engaged.

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