Discussion of The Causal Basis of Perception

A discussion about this paper can be found on Facebook here.

1. One reader mentioned the importance of energy detection and its difficulties at the level of Quantum Mechanics.

My reply was as follows [which I have edited and expanded since that reply]:

Nicole Tedesco, Quantum Mechanics is itself an interesting and important topic for both scientists and philosophers alike. The sensory system does not need to be responsive to quantum level energy-object interactions. In fact, quantum theory is quite confused about the relationship between the observer (or the measuring instrument) in a quantum experimental ‘arrangement.’ The confusion involves the failure to separate out the macroscopic laws of entities on the one hand and the subatomic laws on the other.  Simply put, when a subatomic particle (electron or photon) collides with any ‘detecting’ device, including the visual system, there is no way to separate the quantum from the macroscopic context.  It is like trying to determine the position of a high-speed particle by firing another high-speed particle ball at it.

Ultimately the entanglement of the two particles (the subject of ‘entanglement theory’ in quantum physics)  makes it impossible to determine which part of the effect to attribute to which of the objects.  This is the basis of the uncertainty principle, a principle (first formulated by Werner Heisenberg) that attempts to quantify probability of a given outcome, since we are faced with absolute uncertainty before the final state emerges (or as QM would say ‘the quantum probability wave collapses’).

The uncertainty principle, based as it is on the impossibility of simultaneous measurement of two interdependent properties of a dynamic event occurring near the speed of light, yields stochastic probabilities and therefore human uncertainty about possible measurement outcomes in such an observational context,  is in essence an epistemological principle involving the limits of sensory systems (and their surrogate instrumental agents) insofar as all sensory perception is dependent on energy distribution gradients in response to the interaction between energy and matter [see The Physical Basis of Perception], thus limiting the observable to the events that are not informationally disturbed by energy interaction.  The ‘uncertainty’ in the uncertainty principle involves as well the fact that probability is itself an epistemological concept being the measure of cognitive uncertainty, i.e. as an attempt to quantify cognitive uncertainty in the face of multiple equally likely outcomes.  In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy the article on ‘The Uncertainty Principle‘ points out this epistemological problem:

But for γ-rays, the Compton effect cannot be ignored: the interaction of the electron and the illuminating light should then be considered as a collision of at least one photon with the electron. In such a collision, the electron suffers a recoil which disturbs its momentum. Moreover, the shorter the wave length, the larger is this change in momentum. Thus, at the moment when the position of the particle is accurately known, Heisenberg argued, its momentum cannot be accurately known….

This is the first formulation of the uncertainty principle. In its present form it is an epistemological principle, since it limits what we can know about the electron. — from  ‘The Uncertainty Principle‘ by Jan Hilgevoord in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Failure to grasp its epistemological nature is what makes the Bohr / Copenhagen interpretation of QM appear irrational. It seems to imply the primacy of consciousness, when it argues that ‘looking’ makes the facts (outcomes) come into existence. This is a profound epistemological error, which I will be discussing under another of my pages, titled ‘Aristotle and the Philosophical Crisis of Quantum Theory.’ Thanks, again for your deep interest and for your helpful comments.

2. Nicole Tedesco Good point from Flores,
“Moving with external pressures precludes awareness of them. Awareness requires resistance, the ability not to yield, a disparity between the body’s own movements and the movements in the space around it.”

My response:

Nicole Tedesco, in response to your reference to the comment by Flores, viz, “Moving with external pressures precludes awareness of them. Awareness requires resistance, the ability not to yield, a disparity between the body’s own movements and the movements in the space around it.” This is an important observation. The attempts by philosophers and psychologists to argue that the senses are unreliable because they do not respond absolutely or differentially to stimulation that the objector considers ‘important’ or ‘real’ is based on an entirely false assumption about the nature and, above all, the proper purpose or goal of perception. As said earlier, absolute energy values or merely energy difference values are not important to the perceiving organism, since they do not inform the organism about the layout of the environment relative to itself or itself relative to its environment.

Thus, as I point out in the paper, haptic pressure (‘skin touching’) in itself is not adequate for perception, since it does not provide the relational information important to the perceiver. It is rather the changing rate of haptic pressure that is informative. The same is true of other contact senses, for example the perception of ‘warmth’ or ‘coolness’. These are not responses to absolute energy properties of the object (or solution) being touched or explored. The sensation of warmth (as a tactile experience) corresponds to the relative rate of change at a given point of contact, of the flow of heat from or into the body. Given that fact about the true nature of temperature perception, it is a fallacy to argue that if two hands (one coming from a pan of cold water and one from a pan of hot water) each feel the room temperature water they are subsequently immersed in into as having a different ‘warmth’ or ‘coolness’ to each hand. The hands, in both cases, are registering the same facts, that the formerly ‘warm’ hand is losing heat and the formerly ‘cool’ hand is gaining heat. There is no illusion here. It is the error of arm chair philosophizing about ‘how an ideal sensory system ought to behave’ (while dropping entirely the context of the nature and purpose of sensory systems) that leads to the rationalistic charges that the senses are, even under normal conditions, not ‘reliable’ or subject to ‘illusions.’

3. Another comment that I made relates to the necessity to understand the nature and purpose of perception before entering into investigations regarding the physics of perception:

My Comment:

Perception cannot be understood by studying only its physics, nor by studying only its biology (physiology and neurophysiology), nor by studying only its psychology. Laws and principles at all three levels collaborate to yield the phenomenon of perception, were perception is defined as a direct (not-cognitively mediated nor cognitively supplemented) identification (or detection) of ecological features and properties relevant to the survival and flourishing of the perceiving organism.

Any theory of human perception must take into consideration the fact that perception is a functional adaptation to the information available to humans (and other animals as well) from their ecological context. That is why J. J. Gibson, as his final great work, wrote ‘ The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception’ http://www.amazon.com/The-Ecological…/dp/0898599598 Perception can only be understood as the achievement of external awareness by an organism in the context of its ecologically natural habitat. Thus a theory of perception does not apply to man’s sensitivity to either subatomic or galactic events. In that sense, perception is local to the perceiver’s ecological ‘niche’. The functional purpose of sensory systems is to enable the organism to identify its environment at the level of practical navigation, engagement and control. Thus any information that does not support that purpose tends to be filtered out or ignored by the sensory system. Perception is not a response to absolute properties of either energy or objects. It is a relative response to contrasting energy ratios across detectable energy boundaries. Color, for example, as a perception about energy and light refers not to the absolute frequencies or absolute intensities of light, since these facts are (1) irrelevant for specifying ecological layout and constant object properties, and (2) if responded to, would overwhelm the sensory system with rapidly fluxuating energy events, ultimately causing perceptual failure. No, color (i.e., color constancy) corresponds to the contrasting ratios of frequencies of light energy gradients. Note: ratios, not absolutes, not differences. It is ratios of contrasting energy frequencies across energy boundaries that specify constant, and therefore ecologically important, properties of external objects.

4. Nicole Tedesco Comments: In fact, the whole issue of color constancy is a muddle of confusion. The very terms “color constancy” and “lightness constancy” are highly misleading. These terms are usually meant to imply that our senses tend to preserve the “true” or constant local colors or brightnesses of objects. But this is false.

[Indeed, it must be false, otherwise our ability to recognize objects would be drastically reduced WHEN absolute values changed.]

My Response to Nicole:

Nicole Tedesco, agreed, color constancy is not (or should not be) about ‘preserving’ as ‘constant’ the inherent color properties of objects. Color perception is not about detecting color for its own sake. It is about mapping contrasting ratios of adjacent light frequencies to yield the same ‘color experience’. Color, as perceptual quality, is telling the organism something about the contrasting ratios of light frequencies that allow the perceptual system to identify important facts about object ‘color’ that are constant at higher-levels of invariant-transformation. That’s how it is for perception, and it is the only way that color can be informative and useful to an organism in its ecological context. Again, we cannot allow the physicist to tell god how to build a good sensory receptor (i.e. one that satisfies the interests of a physicist’s needs to register absolute energy properties). That is a category error. Senses are not ‘like’ the physicist’s, cameras, microphones, or any other energy registration and measuring instrument. If the senses were ‘designed’ to work at the level absolute energy detectors, perception of the world would be impossible.

On Color Constance and Adaptation.  Just added by bioperipatetic: Nov. 27, 2014 @ 1:34 am

“Sensory adaptation can be understood as the effects of active mechanisms that tend to alter the sensory system’s criterion of adequate stimulation for perception by neutralizing sensor effects that are caused by neural activation patterns that are either strictly energy-specific or receptor-specific.  Energy specific effects are those that do not vary as a function of directionality, i.e., which are equal or which do not change precipitously as a function of receptor registration of directionality. Adaptation to overall energy amplitude or intensity or to any omnidirectional energy component, such as a specific energy frequency, represents sensory {82} adaptation to energy-specific effects.  Adaptation to systematic distortions of energy contour curvature, or to systematic spectral contour fringes, as are caused by wearing displacing optical prisms (see Gibson, 1933; Kohler, 1962), or adaptation to orientation-specific global energy shifts, such as those produced by wearing split-field colored goggles (Kohler, 1962), or the perceptual instability and disappearance of “fixed” retinal images (see Heckenmueller, 1965), are three examples of sensory adaptation to receptor specific stimulation.” — from bioperipatetic The Causal Basis of Perception: VI. A Summarization and Restatement of the Theory:  The Physiological Basis of Perception: Point (9).

5. On the issue of the objectivity of perception, I commented as follows:

It is quite valid, epistemologically to hold that our senses give us veridical knowledge about the world. But that is not sufficient, for we must, as scientists, discover and explain HOW that objectivity is achieved, given the challenges of energy gradient issues, sensory receptor issues, neurophysiology issues and cognitive integration and retention issues. The challenges overcome by our sensory systems are enormous and subtle. It seems, in the face of these challenges, almost miraculous that perception can be achieved at all, let alone objectively. The HOW of perception is at the root of the quest underlying my paper.

6. To this comment, Klaus Nordby  Commented:

I have not yet read all of your paper, Jack, though I shall. I just want to remark on this line of yours above: “It seems, in the face of these challenges, almost miraculous that perception can be achieved at all, let alone objectively.” The concept of “objectivity” does not strictly apply to perception — it’s a conceptual level only term. Perception is the *basis* of objectivity, of course, but perception itself is “beyond” that. How best to express what you are aiming for here? You use the term “veridical” above, and that is a better one — but even that is not ideal, as it’s rooted in “truth,” which is also a non-perceptual, conceptual phenomenon.

My reply:

Klaus Nordby, my point about the objectivity of the senses is not misplaced nor epistemologically inapplicable. The entire history of perception theory is about whether the senses alone can give us objective contact with the external world, as contrasted with subjectivity of every possible flavor, proposed by most philosophers and psychologists with regard to the nature of perception.

Epistemologically, objectivity was defined by Ayn Rand as that category of facts that depend on the interaction between facts of consciousness and the facts pertaining to the world independent of consciousness. Thus perception has both an objective and a subjective set of facts that define its nature. The objective facts are those processes that are responsible for the proper identification of the facts given to man at the sensory perceptual level. The subjective facts are, for example, the forms in which the identified facts are held by human consciousness, for example the subjective fact of the psychological experience of color, taste, sound, and odor (to mention but a few subjective dimensions of consciousness).

The objectivity of concepts depends on the objectivity of perceptions. Our sensory systems do not unconditionally yield objectivity (true, non-subjective, non-distorted, identification of external facts), they yield objectivity only if they are functioning properly (i.e., are not in a pathological state nor in a state of information deficiency, such as can occur under conditions of sensory deprivation, fatigue, malnutrition, neuropathology, or even psychological distress). As with conceptual processes, so with perceptual processes, the individual seeks clarity of isolation, differentiation and focus, these processes involve volitional control of the sensory-motor system. Since all of our concepts are based on ‘the evidence of our senses’ all objectivity depends on the objectivity, cognitive reliability of our senses and the extent to which we use our senses to focus on the given facts of existence.

In response to a beautiful painting  “Keeper of the Flame”  by Maureen Thompson:

Keeper of the Flame - by Maureen Thompson  I commented:

Color as well as lightness/darkness are the product of the visual systems detecting contrasting rations of long vs. short light wave frequencies and intensities across optical light gradient boundaries. Thus color does not correspond to wave length (this would have no survival value) but rather to contrasting ratios, which always produce the same visual ‘color’ perception and the same visual brightness perception. Ratio detectors are much more stable in a world of dramatic energy fluctuation. The alternatives are: (1) absolute energy detection. (2) difference energy detection. (1) Will destroy the sensors and yield overwhelming and useless information about the external world. (2) Yields better by still quite inadequate and unreliable information about the world. Remember, the purpose of our senses is not to accurately identify absolute energy values, but rather to identify objects in terms of reflected energy gradients. For details, see ‘The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems’ by James J. Gibson. Comment on FaceBook.

Painting the world ‘as we see it’ is a challenge to painters.  For they must place their paint in patterns that reflect the contrasting adjacencies that underly our perception of the external world.  Adjacencies that are carried from the painting to the eye of the observer, only then do we see what the painter saw (or wanted us to focus on).  Thus paintings are not illusions, but objective reproductions of the ambient gradients that are actually ‘out there’ and which account for (are the physical aspect of the causal basis for) our perception of the external world. Through the detection of invariants under transformation of the dynamic ambient gradients of light energy (as we move through our environment) we see objects and their interrelationships to each other and to ourselves as visual explorers of our ecological embeddedness.  This is taught by J. J. Gibson in his book ‘The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.’


Latest revision:  August 26, 2015 @ 7:08 am 

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