Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More from R.A.W. (R.I.P.)

Incidentally, I got that "intellectual suicide" line from our dear, departed brother Robert Anton Wilson, and this essay of his:

In Doubt We Trust: Cults, Religions, and BS in General

It's a good place to begin with R.A.W. and one of his core ideas:

Human brains are as individualized and unique as human fingerprints. We all live in different sensory universes, and nobody has a guarantee that his/her universe corresponds more exactly to the alleged "real universe" than anybody else's.


Hiromi said...

I really don't get comments like that. We can measure many sensory inputs -- the wavelength of light, the frequency and wavelength and amplitude of sound, the molecules that picked up by olfactory neurons, etc. So you can compare people's perceptions of "reality" in terms of sensory input and their consistency or sensitivity in discerning differences among inputs.

Rufus said...

You can compare sensory perception. But the way that perceptions are handled by the brain tends to vary and memory is notoriously individual, which is actually one of the problems with eye-witness testimony and oral histories. You can ask three people about the car crash they witnessed an hour ago and get three different stories. And actually, perception is relatively selective, and that tends to vary widely in real world situations as well. So, I think that's what he's getting at.

Hiromi said...

I swear I'm not being deliberately obstinate, but I don't see how his fingerprint comment necessarily follows from the hallway experiment. All the students can go out into the hallway together and compare notes, thus seeing how their perception of the hallway compares with the "reality" of the hallway.

While you do have problems in comparing perception to "reality" in your car crash example, to me, that's only because you can't go back and have a look at the actual accident, not because of our unique brains.

Rufus said...

I'm not sure which part troubles you- the bit about our brains being individual or the bit about our realities being individual.

I guess the way I think of theories of perception is on a spectrum. One one end would be the Locke view that our brains are essentially like tape recorders and generate nothing on their own. And the other end would be the Kant view that all of our perceptions are so shaped by a priori synthetic ideas that we can't know the thing-in-itself at all. So, one is totally passive and the other is totally creative.

I think what he's getting at is something in the middle. Certainly we all percieve the same world. But, we can't possibly accept the flood of sensory information that we get in every single minute in a purely passive way. So, the brain organizes perception- it focuses on certain things, ignores other things, cross-references to previous perceptions, and relies heavily on conceptual models. This is why we'll have different experiences of the same hallway. It's not that any person is necessarily misinterpreting it. It's just that perception is necessarily selective.

I'm not sure that I agree with his idea that we all have different realities. But I agree that perception isn't entirely passive. Also, as I understand it, brains are uniquely wired by individual perceptions, memories, and so forth. So, I'd agree with the bit about all brains being individual.

Rufus said...

Actually, you might want to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason if you haven't. For me, it was painful to read, but it so totally reversed my mental polarities about perception that Wilson sounds completely reasonable to me. I don't know if that's encouraging! But it is worth a read.

Hiromi said...

I probably should read the major philosophers (including Confucius et al) for edification, but I tend to look at things from a medical/biological standpoint. Saying our brains are unique is to me self-evident even if for the simple reason that our DNA is unique.

I have a problem with our realities being individual part. I think that in *some instances*, such as the hallway example, you can in fact see whether your perception is more or less in accordance with "reality" than other people.

I guess I'm approaching the topic from a science experiment sort of way rather than a philosophical one.

Rufus said...

Well what he's getting at... and this is way over my head!... is an idea from physics called 'complementarity'. Again, it's way over my head, but one of the ways of taking what's called the Copenhagen Interpretation is that we can approximate physical reality by overlapping individual perceptions. Niehls Bohr wrote:
"There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature." I think Wilson is applying an idea from physics to psychology- he's called his theories Quantum Psycholoy. But, that part of his writing I have little understanding of. Someday I'll twist his arm and get Greg, our resident quantum electrician, to explain all of this.

hiromi said...

One more thing and I'll shut up. The only exposure I have to Wilson is what you linked to, so my final comment does not refer to him.

I'm just grumpy at how different fields -- religion, New Age medicine, and now psychology -- borrow freely from quantum physics. My bullshit-o-meter reflexively engages. Thass all.

Rufus said...

I know what you mean. I'm even more annoyed at how many fields borrow from evolutionary theory actually.

If I'm not mistaken though he went the other way- from physics to philosophy. But, there are certainly poseurs.

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