Friday, February 22, 2013

Perceptual Blindness

Over the last few years I've been pushing myself to be involved in communities I have not typically found all that attractive in the sense that they aren't associated with my usual interests. These include a forum associated with the city I used to live in before 2009 and participation in discussions that show a break from my politically passive past. Most recently I've been getting involved with a political third-party and after the 2012 election I re-registered. Normally, I kept such outside activities associated to space-related efforts and the occasional physics/math discussion. My interest in those older topics is still high, but I haven't been putting as much time into space activities lately for a number of reasons that aren't terribly important. I'm sure I will return to them before long as I feel the pull to do something meaningful again.

What I want to put down here, though, are some thoughts about perceptual blindness. This is the kind of blindness where a person can be looking right at a thing and not see it because they don't expect it to be there or even exist. Imagine yourself in ancient times when people thought the Sun went around the Earth. The evidence we currently accept for the notion that the Earth goes around the Sun instead was right before their eyes, but because they already believed otherwise, they could see the sunrise and sunset as evidence the Sun went around us instead. The models we have in our minds that explain reality ARE how we perceive reality. Literally. If upon observing a sunrise and sunset the thoughts evoked in my mind are of geocentric astronomy, then I perceive the Sun going around us. If they evoke heliocentric astronomy, I see the Earth rotating in my mind and my view of the sky shifting as I move with it. The models we make in our heads and teach to our kids have more to do with our truths than our sensory data does.

Perceptual blindness and other related issues have been studied in terms of optical and auditory illusions for some time. There is quite a pile of evidence now pointing to the fact that we must also have senses that point inward at the models we construct as we learn about the world in order to know when the external sensory data triggers one or more of the models. My experience in this area has less to do with illusions, though, and more to do with alternate narrative explanations. Ponder this scenario.

Late at night I wake up to the realization that I left my computer monitor on in my office. It has gone black, but not powered off so there is a mild glow coming from the room that I usually find annoying when trying to sleep. I get up to shut it off, but I don't want to turn on any lights and feel the pain of the glare and loss of my dark adapted vision. I pad into my office using the low glare from my monitor as lighting. When I'm almost there and about to reach over to push the power button, I step on something that is wet. The entire path to my desk is carpeted where I live and the first thing I conclude is that the dog has pissed on the carpet in front of my desk again as a way to retaliate. That thought arrives in a flash along with the anger and disgust when I realize the carpet might not JUST be wet. The question is, can I reasonably conclude that the dog did that? Can I conclude the dog did more? Should I consider alternative options before getting angry?

Anyone who has found themselves in a similar situation knows that rational thought never gets even the slightest chance to intervene. There simply isn't enough time. The wet feeling between my toes matches a previous experience where I do know for a fact that the dog peed on my part of the carpet. I've learned to close my office door to prevent that option and the dog goes elsewhere when his tiny little bladder isn't large enough to make it through the night. He is a chihuahua too, so I really shouldn't blame him for having such a tiny bladder, right? He is what he is and could very well be trying to find the most out of the way place to do the deed. My office certainly qualifies since the door is rarely open for him anymore and when I'm at my desk he is a bit too scared to come in. None of that matters though when I match in a flash the narrative that the dog is retaliating for my pressing my will on him when it comes to establishing dominance in this house or during walks and all that. I don't even know if that makes any sense in the dog psychology way, but I don't think about any of that in the brief flash before anger and disgust.

What I find interesting about this is that in political communities I always advocate for a calmer interpretation of events. I always push for an exploration of alternative narratives even if they contradict ones I like and prefer. I'm not perfect in this as I am a little less inclined to explore alternatives to interpretations I like. I suspect most people do that, so I don't feel guilty about it. I learned to think this way after getting my lip busted in high school. I thought I knew what was going through the other kid's head and failed miserably to anticipate his level of anger. The truth was obviously a closer match to an alternative narrative I had not considered. Over the years I realized it was an alternative I didn't WANT to consider and in self-defense I learned to squash that anti-want.

Let me bring this story back to the present, though. I was watching a presentation the other night by an author with a strong libertarian view of life. He said a number of things I found to be agreeable and a few that I thought were quite bizarre. He spoke of life under the thumb of our government and while I recognize the risk of such a future, I obviously don't see things as he does. What I got to wondering is whether it was him or me that was perceiving the world in terms of a geocentric astronomy. He tried to articulate some of the threat he saw, but didn't get far because the other libertarians just nodded with him making it rather clear he didn't have to explain it to them. I let it go for further study later as I didn't want to interrupt his talk. It was an odd experience for me.

In the forum I frequent, though, it is often the case that the shoe is on the other foot. I wind up seeing potential threats to liberty where others do not. I'm not quite the lone nut case preaching doom and the end of the world. There are a couple of others who are close enough that they nod occasionally, but again I wonder who is the fan of geocentric astronomy. It is still fun to debate with all of them. I get a chance to have my ideas beaten up and completely thrashed instead of suffering that pain upon my body directly. I like to think my ideas have improved as a result. I've had to face some of my own mental dissonance that only another person can point out and it has been useful to me.

What I find most interesting about these related lessons, though, is that I know I can be perceptually blind. I know I can flash to a narrative explanation for events whether it involves dogs in my office or politicians taxing me and establishing competing services to what I would like to do. I know other people can point out my error if they do not use precisely the same perceptual model I use. I also know I can return the favor when they are in error. The problem, though, is that I know I am occasionally correct and the other person wrong when they believe the opposite. Both of us can be perceptually blind, thus there is no formal way to decide who has the most truthful narrative. Even a vote taken among a large group of people noodling over the same problem and evidence isn't enough to formally decide. I don't think there IS a way to know absent a metaphysical observer with omniscience. Even then that wouldn't work since my perceptual model of the universe has no room for such an entity. I simply wouldn't believe them, thus I wouldn't see the truth they offered.

Ultimately, I think this is why I have to defend liberty. If we can't decide who is right and can't agree on what to do, we have to tolerate each of us doing as they wish and letting time prove us right or wrong. Time might not oblige us with a proof, but when it does it is usually pretty obvious.  If someone tells me it is perfectly fine to talk on their cell phone and drive at the same time, I know as a last resort I can just wait and watch. My perceptual model of the risks says they won't have time to think about the danger they will eventually face some day in a complex encounter on the road. Eventually the paramedics will be called to scrape them off the highway along with other innocents who unintentionally helped prove what a stupid idea that was. Ultimately we prove our truths with our lives, but not everyone can see that truth either.
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