The point of view about the sky - “The sky isn’t blue, it’s just our perception of it.” - was posted in a discussion on the Virtual Muser, a Facebook forum. And it made me think.
What, I wonder, is not perception? Isn’t everything merely perception of what the brain takes in through the senses and then interprets in order to make a story that makes sense to us?
The fact that we see a coherent picture, is akin to miraculous, considering that images do not hit our brain at exactly the same time and that sights, sounds, smells are processed by different neural parts and at different times. Yet all are coordinated in order for us to perceive a coherent picture of what is happening.
Yet it is all perception. Colours differ as a result of different wavelength intervals and frequency intervals. The physics is not important (at least not for this post), but the point is that colour is a result of how we perceive the type of lightwave that our eyes pick up.
So does it make sense to talk about what is “real”? What is it that we see that is not “real”? What is the “real colour” of the sky? What is the “real colour” of red? And how do we know how anybody else sees the colour that we call red? In what way is a mirage not real – the fact that it disappears when we approach?
If our perception is of what is not real, what is “real”? Not the colour, but the light wave? Not sound, but the wave before it hits our ear? The mirage when we don’t see it?
If all is perception, then are we living in an unreal world? If so, should that worry us?
No, I don’t think so. If all we have is perception, then that is our reality, our normality. It seems to work, since we all get around and see more or less the same things in the same way.
We can console ourselves. We call insane those who see the real world.
“Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination”-Gerald Edelman, biologist.
But it’s like a slippery slope. Once one accepts the principle, there is a traumatic cascade of intellectual collapses. For, if I say that the sky isn’t blue, it is just my perception of it, I am instantly into the problem of contradiction. For to say I am perceiving ‘it’ as though it is something separate contradicts the premise that all I have available to me is perception. In other words I would have to create the fiction that there is a thing to be perceived, whilst simultaneously asserting that all my experience is perception.
Whereas all I can reasonable assert is that the belief that the perceived thing is separate is solely interpretation. It is a theory that, by virtue of the formulation of the theory, cannot be tested. For if what is being tested is that the perceived thing is ‘there’ whether perceived or not, it conflicts with the very notion of testing, which requires evidence in the form of some type of perception. It is a theory that can never be evidenced, a fantasy. It is not even improbable. It is logically impossible for it to be true.
Yesterday I was discussing this. Why do we love theories so much? I have a theory that it is something to do with entertainment. It seems that over the centuries we have told stories beside the fireside. The wonderful thing we have, imagination, the ability to create any world we choose and populate it with any types of beings and non beings. It is indeed like being director in one’s own theatre workshop. Maybe there is a reassuring sense of control in an untestable theory, given the ability to leave reason on the cutting room floor.
Today’s physicists are the modern storytellers, stage magicians all the more alluring for their powerful conviction in the impossible, and so skilled in misdirection that they themselves appear unaware of it.
Thanks for that, Roland.
In general, I agree with you. But contradictions produce other contradictions. I understand that your objection is to the implication of there being an “it” somewhere. If there isn’t, though, we will not be able to talk about perceptions at all, since the perception itself would be the “it”. The point, though, is that the sky is blue as far as we are concerned. Perhaps the question should be about “is” (as per Bill Clinton), rather than about “it”.
As for your condition that theories need to be testable, this is problematic in the light of your theory about theories, which is completely untestable. Don’t misunderstand: I like the imagery of our ancestors sitting by the fireside and creating their own worlds. It may or may not have happened in that way. But their untestable theories do not make your theory testable.
We love theories because it is a way of putting ideas into the open. I do think you are being a little harsh on physicists, who have, after all, increased our knowledge of how the world may or may not work. If there is misdirection, it is only because they haven’t yet – and never will – get to the end of the story.
The conundrum of perception is the question whats beyond it
Testability is I think one of the most interesting ideas.
Why do we want testability? Presumably the idea is that for a theory to represent some experience, there has to be an experience to be represented. A theory of ‘not-experience’ is entertaining, perhaps, but cannot ever be consistent with experience. I believe this is the essence of scientific method. Namely that the process of science is to create consistency between experiences and ideas.
So as a fundamental point, can a theory, the essence of which relates to that which cannot by virtue of its definition ever be experienced, be considered scientific? I argue no, because such a theory opposes the intent to describe experience, and instead seeks to describe non-experience. I have never heard a defence to this that does not beg the question. Definitions like ‘science is the study of the natural world’ are question-being theories in disguise.
Is my theory of theories testable? Insofar as it related to what another person thinks, no. But if it explains my experience, I suggest it may be testable. At least it is not logically untestable.
Which raises another very interesting point. For if everything is perception, nothing can be tested that is outside of perception. And as perception appears to require an observer, and as the perception is essentially a property of that observer, the idea that anyone else can perceive is also untestable. Which means that I cannot accurately make ‘we’ statements that purport to express a collective perception. Or, perhaps, that any such statements should be prefixed with ‘it appears to me that we…’
Can I ever do more than establish what seems to me to be consistency across my field of perception?
Thank you Ronald
Every time I read one of your posts I have to take a deep breath; I’m always worried that your musings are going to completely dismantle my already ‘shaky’ belief system (beliefs which I believe, are purely ‘perception’ anyway ) I loved this entry. One question that has frustrated the life out of me for years is ‘how do I know that the yellow ‘i’ see is exactly the same ‘yellow’ seen by another person… I’ve never tried to find out if the answer exists. but years before hearing the idea that everything is perception, that question was there, and pops up every so often, just the other day in fact. and now here it is again.