Is what we see an objective view of actually what is there in front of us or is what we see a projection that is created by our own consciousness of what we perceive to be there?
Anil Seth, a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience thinks that what we see is a controlled hallucination, “our brain’s best guess” of what is there made up of its own inference of the information it receives from our eyes.
I agree but it’s more complex than that.
Evolutionary theory generally accepts that vision, as an early part of the mechanisms that make up consciousness, was devised to give us perception at a distance so we could see our food and also avoid obstacles that blocked the path to our food so early optical apparatus would be pre programmed to distinguish between objects that offered us benefits, such as food and objects that hindered us, such as predators or obstacles. Those with the optical receptors that gave the best indications of things to go towards and things to avoid would pass their genetics along and those that didn’t would die out. So the organisms with the vision that best perceived fitness and gain over danger and loss are going to do better.
If our vision showed us objective true reality it would be unnecessarily cluttered and complex, more efficient vision would pare down what we see to a simplified system of icons that clearly showed us what we needed to see and not what we didn’t.
Think of a computer desktop, you’re not seeing the internal workings of your PC, you’re seeing icons as part of an interface that helps you efficiently navigate tasks without seeing exactly what takes place behind the scenes.
You get the information you require in a very simple form making your tasks much easier.
Imagine if you wanted to send an email using a computer with no user interface installed on it. You would need to understand the nature of voltages, microcircuitry and writing code among other complex interactions to get the task done. A user interface simplifies things by hiding all the complexity and giving you clear clickable icons to get you where you need to go.
It would be simple to destroy the interface theory by saying if what we see are just icons then why can’t I stand in front of a speeding car if it’s not really there?
Well if I found the document icon on my laptop screen for this piece I am currently writing and dragged it into the recycle bin on my desktop, I would lose all my hard work. So while what we see may just be icons to help us on our way, we still need to take them seriously even if we are prepared to accept that they may not represent objective reality.
We construct what we see. Our world comes from within. If we didn’t taste sweetness or bitterness, we didn’t smell roses or rotting meat or we didn’t hear music or screams would these stimuli exist at all? So if we don’t look at something, is it actually there?
Classical physics would back the idea that we see a truthful portrayal of objective reality as many of the laws it is based on require that. But remember that the mode of perception that was used to create the laws of space and time is the same mode of perception in question here.
If it turns out that our eyes don’t see truthful objective reality then the laws of space and time are in question as they were created under false pretenses.
We only have to look at what we are starting to learn in the quantum realm to see that the classical physics and classical ideas of perception are wide open for debate.
Electrons hold states called superpositions until they are observed or measured. This means that they can be in one of two configurations – spin up or spin down – until it’s position is confirmed by an agent observing.
Think, also, about how your perceptions of things change depending on your requirements.
If you saw a huge plate of your favourite food when you are hungry your neural activity feeds you messages of fitness that tell you this is exactly what you want. Now think about how you would feel about that same large plate of food if you had already eaten three of them. It is exactly the same plate of food but the messages regarding the fitness it will provide to you have changed considerably. Your senses are working together to feed you information regarding the fitness to yourself of what you see rather than just an objective truth of what is there.
Looking at the image above, this is an illusion called the Necker Cube, named after Swiss crystallographer Louis Albert Necker. Look at the face of the cube marked with a grey edge. Is this face on the front of the cube or at the back? We all know it’s neither. The cube is two dimensional so it has no front or back but you have a flip in conscious experience each time you view it one way then the other. Neural activity is feeding you information about what you see dependent on how you choose to perceive it. Even the fact that you see the cube as 3D although you know it is a flat two dimensional image.
Perception of depth or distance also something that helps us to perceive the fitness or lack thereof of what we are looking at. If you see some water right next to you and more water 200 metres away you are being given the information that the water right next to you will require less energy exertion by you to get something to drink than the water 200 metres away. Perception of depth also helps us to distinguish the difference between things that are small or things that are far away. Our sense of perception can be easily fooled, though, by things like 3D glasses and holograms which, with a few simple hacks, can make us perceive depth from flat 2D images.
Depth, distance or a third dimension is even being brought into question by the theories of physics. The holographic principle theorises that our perception of the universe is mathematics encoded on a boundary that surrounds the entire cosmos. This is quite difficult to envisage but it appears to work mathematically and ties in better with quantum theory than the classical theory of the universe.
Quantum Bayesianism or QBism is another philosophy of theoretical physics that takes an agent – an individual like you or me – to be the central concern of the theory and their actions and experiences dictate their own perception of “participatory realism”. Quite literally stating that everything we see is manifested from within. Or Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis in which he theorises that we are all living in a computer simulation. There are plenty of learned people who are confident to assert that our perceptions are not telling us the truth. The old classical Einstein theories of space and time could be finding their way into the history books as quantum physics and philosophy open up new ontologies and hypotheses.
True or not, I like the idea that reality is not what we think it is. It opens up new realms and possibilities that are not there if we glue ourselves to traditional understandings of how things work. It’s easy to overlook things that we take for granted like being conscious or using our senses to navigate through life. There is so much mystery and intrigue there that to not think and hypothesise about these mechanisms makes life seem much less interesting and lets us get bogged down with the mundane when there is so much magic and crazy unexplained phenomena that could easily provide a lifetime of interesting discussion and debate.
“It is my supposition that the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine”
John B S Haldane
“The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you”
Neil DeGrasse Tyson