The Munker Illusion: Science and Philosophy

The Munker Illusion is offered as yet another example of a so-called optical ‘illusion’.  Illusions have historically been offered as proof that we cannot trust our senses and that all ideas that depend upon sense-perception are therefore unreliable, leading to absolute skepticism, solipsism, and subjectivism, ideas that dominate modern philosophy.

The interpretation of the Munker effect as an instance of perceptual illusion,  is the consequence of failing to grasp the true nature of perception, the nature of what our senses are ‘designed’ to detect and process, and attempting instead to rewrite the laws of perception to meet the philosophical demands for ‘valid’ contact with the ‘real world’, typically implying unmediated or unprocessed interaction with the real properties of the physical world.  A typical example of such a demand is the assertion that if our senses were valid they would allow us to sense the real colors, temperatures, density, geometry, odors, sounds of objects ‘in themselves’ and not be limited to the subjective experiences that are the result of processing and filtering the ‘information’ sent to our senses by external objects.

Property Identity Fallacy versus the Proper Nature and Function of Perception:

This demand (a species of the psycho-physical property identity fallacy) is totally misguided, both biologically, and epistemologically.  The facts are these:  (1) The purpose of the senses is not to apprehend absolute physical properties of external reality, but to provide us with a set of processes for identifying only those properties of the external world, and our relationship to it, that allow us to effectively engage the world in order to  explore it and live in it.   (2) How this is accomplished involves a complex process depending on the simultaneous interactions between  energy gradients, propagation mediums (air and water for example), sensory organs that register, process and filter the dynamic structure of simultaneous contrasting energy gradients across energy patterns and boundaries.  (3) Necessary for this processing is an active conscious organism that is able to simultaneously engage with and respond to the object-specifying patterns in the energy flux registered by the organism’s sensory system, such interaction constitutes the necessary condition of sensory/perceptual ‘exploration and discovery of the environment.’   (4) As a consequence of the sensory/perceptual processing, what we perceive are not the simple energy mapped properties of the external world (i.e., their absolute energy values corresponding to physical wavelength, thermal intensity, acoustical frequencies, or baric pressure).  Instead, our perceptual systems identify  complex information features such as dynamic invariants within simultaneous contrasting energy values across sharp energy gradient ‘cliffs’.  If this sounds like J. J. Gibson, it is because my views are deeply informed by that great perception scientist and by his brilliant wife and scientific collaborator E. J. Gibson. (See more about their work below. Also see my master’s thesis entitled The Causal Basis of Perception,  based on Gibson’s theories of perception.)

To what do Perceptions Correspond?

As a consequence, the psychological experiences of such conscious events as ‘color’, ‘sound’, ‘touch’ correspond to complex relational physical constancies (contrasting rations of long to short wavelengths across a visual edge), rather than simple physical local constancies (wavelength, for example).  Thus the perception of ‘red’ corresponds not to the detection of light waves in the 620–750 nm range (as many physicists and philosophers would have it), but rather the contrasting ratios of wavelength (or frequencies) across a physical ‘edge’ or ‘optical boundary’.  That perception of ‘red’ is always reliable and always tells us exactly what long-short contrasting rations exist at that moment in that given optical direction in the real world.  Thus, surprisingly, perception tells us far more than we expect it to tells us.  It identifies a physically complex fact and not a physically simple one.

The Causal Basis of Perception as a Scientific Question:

While a valid philosophy can tell us that our perceptual awareness of the world is reliable and the necessary basis for conceptual ideation, it is the job of science, not of philosophy to study and understand the underlying causal nature of perception as a psycho-physical-biological developmental capability of the conscious organism.  In other words, it is the job of science to discover how our perception of ourselves and the external world, specifically ourselves in relation to the external world, is achieved.

Gibson as the Key to Understanding the Causal Basis of Perception:

There is much science to learn before understanding how the senses give us true reliable perceptual knowledge of the external world.  A good place to begin is by reading the works of J. J. Gibson, especially his brilliant and challenging thesis: The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems  as well as his magnum opus, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.   J. J. Gibson is an advocate of epistemological realism (as contrasted with the many flavors of idealism on the one hand and materialist reductionism on the other).

In his 1967 paper New Reasons for Realism,  Gibson wrote:

 If invariants of the energy flux at the receptors of an organism exist, and if these invariants correspond to the permanent properties of the environment, and if they are the basis of the organism’s perception of the environment instead of the sensory data on which we have thought it based, then I think there is new support for realism in epistemology as well as for a new theory of perception in psychology.  – Gibson – New Reasons for Realism, Synthese, 17:2 (1967:juni) p. 162.

In the Summary of this paper, Gibson wrote:

Both the psychology of perception and the philosophy of perception seem to show a new face when the process is considered at its own level, distinct from that of sensation.  Unfamiliar conceptions in physics, anatomy, physiology, psychology and phenomenology are required to clarify the separation and make it plausible.  But there have been so many dead ends in the effort to solve the theoretical problems of perception that radical proposals may now be acceptable. – op. cit., p. 171.

J. J. Gibson began working on the problems of visual perception with his future wife and collaborator Eleanore J. Gibson whose major extensions of J. J. Gibson’s work was her deep research into perceptual learning.  E. J. Gibson extended J. J.’s work reflected in his  The Senses Considered.  Her first important book was Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development.  Later her collaboration with J.J. on ecological visual perception inspired her magnum opus  An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development.

Sensory ‘Illusions’ as a Species of Functional Isolation and the Argument from Pathology

Returning to the issue of sensory illusions, the most important concept to realize is that no theory of perception can be built on theories of perceptual or sensory illusions.  Why? For the very same reasons that no theory of biology or physiology can logically be built on the basis of biological functional pathology.   Pathological systems are by their very nature malfunctioning systems.  Pathology is explained as corruptions of healthy or properly integrated and functioning physical, biological or psychological systems. Illusions are the consequences of the carefully contrived  ‘unnatural’, ‘deficient’, ‘constrained’ or ‘restrictive’ presentation of isolated visual (tactile, auditory, etc) sensory ‘stimuli’.  It is the very fact that these presentation techniques prevent adequate exercise of the subject’s full perceptual capacities that leads to the ambiguity and vagueness that characterize so-called sensory illusions.  When inadequate sensory information is presented to the subject, it should not be surprising that the resulting experience is to that very extent non-veridical and always associated with the feeling of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Similarly in the realm of neurophysiology, experimenters typically isolate some part of the nervous system (often using severe isolation) so that only the most primitive sensory-motor phenomenon can occur and be accurately observed and measured.  It is a methodological illusion to believe that the results of such anatomical/physiological isolation, such as the extensive experimental work on ‘the reflex arc’,  represent the primitive bases for and are revelatory of the neuromuscular principles underlying normal integrated behavior.   This approach fails to recognize and appreciate the implications of  The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (Sir Charles Sherrington, 1906)  .

Similar errors occur in the study of embryological development, where local isolated phenomenon are mistakenly taken for fundamental biochemical elements of biogenesis.  See the work of Paul A. Weiss,  an innovator and mentor in the field of neurophysiology.  Weiss once wrote: “Of what do we deprive a system when we dismember it and isolate its component parts, whether bodily or just in our minds? Plainly, of the interrelations that had existed among the parts while they were still united.” – from  Paul Weiss, “One Plus One Not Equal Two” in The Neurosciences: A Study Program, pp. 801-821.

This fallacy of construction by structural or functional decomposition permeates much of science, particularly biological science leading to may false doctrines and theories.  Underlying this general methodology is the dogma of mechanistic reductionism and functional or elemental reductionism, which holds that a system can be fully understood as the additive product of the actions of its individual parts.

Isolating sensory receptors thus preventing sensory exploration and proper sensory function can only lead to sensory-motor inadequacy and the common phenomenon of sensory ‘illusions’.  We conclude that this method of sensory isolation commits the same methodological errors cited above, leading to fallacious conclusions regarding the functioning of our sensory-motor systems.

The Visual Arts and their Relation to Visual Perception:

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. These insights  were first drawn by Edwin H. Land in his brilliant and original their of color vision which he called ‘The Retinex Theory‘.  I have written in my thesis on The Causal Basis of Perception, that 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 and copied from the discussion on the causal basis of perception.

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.’

Published on:  September 26, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

Latest revision:August 26, 2015 @ 7:51 am

3 Responses to The Munker Illusion: Science and Philosophy

  1. salud nyc says:

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jerry says:

    A profound presentation! Bravo! It’s the scientists unafraid to see reality and what is knowable, (rather than rationalized into an alienating existence by speculative philosophers and sociologists with political Utopian agendas), that will move the human race forward. Junk science, or what I call “political science,” like the “global warming” hysteria, is employed by tyrannical governments to maintain their power over individuals by praying on their common ignorance and fears. Those who bravely think for themselves are the greatest enemies of tyrannies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerry, thank you for taking the time to comment on what may seem to many an unimportant or irrelevant topic: the validity of our senses and their base as the foundation of all knowledge. From your comment it is clear that you see the crucial importance of an objective theory of perception and reason to the institution of objective science, science unbiased by political pressure, and therefore free to reason independently about its subject matter.

      You also see that all countries (America included) realizing the prestige of science, want to control science’s objectives and even its content. How? By funding those hypotheses that serve the political goals of governments regardless of their truth of falsehood.

      People understand this issue when it comes to religion, thus the Constitutional separation of Church and State, to prevent the State from using man’s passion for religion to force upon the people, through the enactment of laws, and government funding of preferred religions, religious groups and, most importantly for political purposes, preferred religious doctrines.

      But what about the other institutions of society, science among them? Government corrupts science by funding politically acceptable theories or hypotheses. Those scientists who agree with or are willing to advocate, or proselytize those government approved views, will flourish in the scientific community. How? Through government funding of their projects and the corresponding withholding of funding of opposing projects; government marketing of their theories; and government attacks on opposing theories and scientist who hold those opposing theories.

      Government regulation and funding of biased science has a bad–and even evil–history. We need not be reminded of the eugenics movement that signed up thousands of scientists around the world. Eugenics is a pseudo-science, a politically motivated theory of the natural inferiority (and therefore undesirability) of certain human traits, and the social groups (including religions and races) who have those traits. The traits were seen as dangerous to the flourishing of world-wide society and therefore worthy of eradication through government forces. The result: The German flavor of fascism: Naziism, and the systematic horrifying ‘experimentation’ on countless innocent people who carried the politically unacceptable biological traits. In the end, the systematic extermination of millions of people during the infamous Nazi holocaust.

      But eugenics is but one example of the political regulation and corruption of science. Biology is most vulnerable, since it has itself embraced (consciously or unconsciously) certain biological doctrines for political purposes. It does not matter whether the doctrines are supported by scientific research or not, for it is the systematic silencing of opposition and, more importantly, blocking from the marketplace of ideas and opposing views held by dissenting scientists.

      Case in point: Darwin’s theory of evolution. This theory has a number of fundamental weaknesses (as Darwin was first to point out) in the form of unproven assumptions (specifically ‘gradualism’ and deterministic ‘natural selection’ as the fundamental causes of all biological evolution). We have seen how ‘natural selection’ soon was rebranded as ‘survival of the fittest’ to become the foundation of the eugenics movement, which used such intimidating arguments as: ‘Do we not want the next generation of mankind to be more fit for survival?’ ‘Why, then do we need to wait for ‘natural selection’ to eliminate the unfit through Darwinian ‘gradualism’, which can take thousands or even millions of years, when we have the power to do it (i.e. eliminate the undesirables whom we deem to be ‘unfit’) quickly?’

      The latest corruption of science through government funding, marketing and censorship is the ‘global warming’ hypothesis, which is funded worldwide to the tune of billions of dollars annually. Why? For the obvious political purpose of justifying government control over the economy through the imposition of arbitrary laws of production and distribution of all conceivable products. This is Marxism implemented through yet another pseudo-science: ‘environmental science’. Once the hoax of global warming was exposed, the socialists created a new ‘evil’ that could never be eradicated for it could never cease to exist: ‘Climate Change.’ The new argument: ‘Climate change is so important to the survival of all forms of life that it cannot be left in the hands of individual corporations or institutions. It must be controlled and regulated by the State.’

      Is this not an application of the same emotionalist strategy always used by the state to control the people by promoting fear as the justification for the corrupting of free science? (See, in this regard, ‘State of Fear’ by Michael Crichton’ Again, government has a deadly record when it comes to environmental regulation. One example is the death of millions of people through the outlawing of DDT, which it turns out, is actually a safe and non-poluting substance so necessary for the extermination of malaria. Yet malaria continues to spread and kill more and more people as the DDT ban is maintained, not in the name of science (which has now recanted it original hypotheses regarding the dangers of DDT) but for political purposes: to never give up control of the people once it has be established!

      There are countless similar stories exposed in many excellent books regarding government caused disasters and catastrophies brought about by the governments use of force to propagate a particular theory and take the seemingly ‘obvious’ actions to protect the environment, too many to cite in the form of a comment.

      The best solution is to apply to the institution of science the same strains on government as those applied to religion, and for the same reasons. ‘The government shall pass no laws regarding the freedom of science, nor shall it promote or embrace and enforce the views of any scientific organization.’ Science is an institution based on freedom of thought. Thus this principle should be called the doctrine of ‘The separation of Science and the State.’

      I would argue even further, that the same philosophy of limited government power over the people and there institutions should be applied to education, for the same reason: all free institutions, when allowed to be regulated the the government, become, by that fact alone corrupted. Thus, I would advocate yet another amendment to our Federal Constitution: ‘Government shall pass no laws regulating the freedom of education nor shall it embrace or enforce any theory of education.’ Thus the doctrine of ‘freedom of education’ implies: The Separation of Education and the State.

      And finally, the same idea should be applied to the institution of free trade: ‘The Government shall pass no laws regulation or restricting the people’s freedom of trade, nor shall the government pass laws enforcing any particular theories of economics.’ The principle of ‘freedom of trade’ implies the doctrine of ‘The Separation of Trade and the State.’

      For the record. I am not a Libertarian, but am, instead, like most of our Founding Fathers, a political Conservative. To conserve what: Individual freedom within the context of government protection of individual rights. Rights to what? ONLY this: Freedom from coercion by others (including especially government) regarding freedom of thought, trade, religion, education and their application to the institutions of literature, law, art and science.

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