(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘perception

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”*…

Objective reality has properties outside the range of our senses (and for that matter, our instruments); and studies suggest that our brains warp sensory data as soon as we collect it. So we’d do well to remember that we don’t have– and likely won’t ever have– perfect information…

Many philosophers believe objective reality exists, if “objective” means “existing as it is independently of any perception of it.” However, ideas on what that reality actually is and how much of it we can interact with vary dramatically.

Aristotle argued, in contrast to his teacher Plato, that the world we interact with is as real as it gets and that we can have knowledge of it, but he thought that the knowledge we could have about it was not quite perfect. Bishop Berkeley thought everything existed as ideas in minds — he argued against the notion of physical matter — but that there was an objective reality since everything also existed in the mind of God. Immanuel Kant, a particularly influential Enlightenment philosopher, argued that while “the thing in itself” — an object as it exists independently of being subjectively observed — is real and exists, you cannot know anything about it directly.

Today, a number of metaphysical realists maintain that external reality exists, but they also suggest that our understanding of it is an approximation that we can improve upon. There are also direct realists who argue that we can interact with the world as it is, directly. They hold that many of the things we see when we interact with objects can be objectively known, though some things, like color, are subjective traits.

While it might be granted that our knowledge of the world is not perfect and is at least sometimes subjective, that doesn’t have to mean that the physical world doesn’t exist. The trouble is how we can go about knowing anything that isn’t subjective about it if we admit that our sensory information is not perfect.

As it turns out, that is a pretty big question.

Science both points toward a reality that exists independently of how any subjective observer interacts with it and shows us how much our viewpoints can get in the way of understanding the world as it is. The question of how objective science is in the first place is also a problem — what if all we are getting is a very refined list of how things work within our subjective view of the world?

Physical experiments like the Wigner’s Friend test show that our understanding of objective reality breaks down whenever quantum mechanics gets involved, even when it is possible to run a test. On the other hand, a lot of science seems to imply that there is an objective reality about which the scientific method is pretty good at capturing information.

Evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins argues:

“Science’s belief in objective truth works. Engineering technology based upon the science of objective truth, achieves results. It manages to build planes that get off the ground. It manages to send people to the moon and explore Mars with robotic vehicles on comets. Science works, science produces antibiotics, vaccines that work. So anybody who chooses to say, ‘Oh, there’s no such thing as objective truth. It’s all subjective, it’s all socially constructed.’ Tell that to a doctor, tell that to a space scientist, manifestly science works, and the view that there is no such thing as objective truth doesn’t.”

While this leans a bit into being an argument from the consequences, he has a point: Large complex systems which suppose the existence of an objective reality work very well. Any attempt to throw out the idea of objective reality still has to explain why these things work.

A middle route might be to view science as the systematic collection of subjective information in a way that allows for intersubjective agreement between people. Under this understanding, even if we cannot see the world as it is, we could get universal or near-universal intersubjective agreement about something like how fast light travels in a vacuum. This might be as good as it gets, or it could be a way to narrow down what we can know objectively. Or maybe it is something else entirely.

While objective reality likely exists, our senses might not be able to access it well at all. We are limited beings with limited viewpoints and brains that begin to process sensory data the moment we acquire it. We must always be aware of our perspective, how that impacts what data we have access to, and that other perspectives may have a grain of truth to them…

Objective reality exists, but what can you know about it that isn’t subjective? Maybe not much: “You don’t see objective reality objectively: neuroscience catches up to philosophy.”

* Albert Einstein


As we ponder perspective, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Confucius; he was born on this date in 551 BCE. A a Chinese philosopher and politician of the Spring and Autumn period, he has been traditionally considered the paragon of Chinese sages and is widely considered one of the most important and influential individuals in human history, as his teachings and philosophy formed the basis of East Asian culture and society, and continue to remain influential across China and East Asia today.

His philosophical teachings, called Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. Confucianism was part of the Chinese social fabric and way of life; to Confucians, everyday life was the arena of religion. It was he who espoused the well-known principle “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself,” the Golden Rule.


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September 28, 2021 at 1:00 am

“For she had eyes and chose me”*…




Psychologist David Perrett’s… Perception Lab recruited 300 men and 400 women, all of whom had heterosexual partners and had been raised by two parents. They learned that romantic partners tend to look alike — the participants and their partners tended to have similar hair color and similar eye color.

This might be explained by a self-similar preference or narcissism, but on looking deeper into the data Perrett’s team found that the single best predictor of one’s partner’s eye color was the eye color of one’s parent of the opposite sex. If a woman’s mother had blue eyes and her father had brown eyes, she would most likely be partnered with a brown-eyed man. If a man’s mother had blue eyes and his father had brown eyes, his partner most likely had blue eyes. Similarly, the hair color of a man’s mother was the single best predictor of his partner’s hair color. “These results indicate that individuals choose partners who resemble their opposite-sex parent both in eye and hair color.”…

The mysteries of human attraction: “Eye to Eye.”

Read the underlying paper: Anthony C. Little et al., “Investigating an Imprinting-Like Phenomenon in Humans: Partners and Opposite-Sex Parents Have Similar Hair and Eye Colour,” Evolution and Human Behavior 24:1 [2003], 43-51.

* William Shakespeare, Othello


As we peer through the window to the soul, we might spare a thought for playwright, poet, artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; he died on this date in 1832.  Probably best remembered these days for Faust, he was “the master spirit of the German people,” and, after Napoleon, the leading figure of his age.

In 1810, Goethe published his Theory of Colors (Zur Farbenlehre), which he considered his most important work.  In it, he contentiously (and incorrectly) characterized color as arising from “the dynamic interplay of light and darkness through the mediation of a turbid medium.”  Still, Goethe was the first systematically to study the physiological effects of color; his observations of the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his color wheel, “for the colors diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye.”  Indeed, after being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, his theory became widely adopted by the art world, most notably by J. M. W. Turner.



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March 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”*…




How does now unstick itself and become the past, and when does the future morph into the present? How do these states transition, one into another, so seamlessly?

How long is right now ?…

[Fascinating explorations of different explanations…]

Each theory of right now has one thing in common: It challenges the notion that the present is reliable and objective, or that it stretches out infinitely in front of us, even if we sometimes perceive it that way. This is an important reminder because the way we think about time affects the kinds of decisions we make.

We don’t just think about the past, present, or future, we think about ourselves in those places. (That’s the impetus behind something called Time Perspective Theory, which argues that there are six different ways people regard time, and it greatly influences your perspective on life.)

Studies have found that many people think about themselves in the future not as themselves, but as other people. When asked to imagine a birthday in the far off future, people are more likely to envision it from a third-person viewpoint. When we think about ourselves in 10 years, compared to right now, it activates similar parts of our brain that think about others, not ourselves.

Our instinct to place a lot of emphasis on the present, said Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA who has studied how perceptions of time relate to the choices people make. But if we could better relate to our future selves, we could be better off later on. Hershfield and his collaborators did a study that found that those who felt more similar to their future selves made more future-oriented decisions and had higher levels of well-being across a decade…

How long is right now?  As long as it took you to read that question?  Or shorter?  Or it might not exist at all…

* Anthony G. Oettinger


As we remember Ram Dass, we might recall that it was on this date in 1914 that Henry Ford announced that his company would cut its workday from nine hours to eight, and double workers’ wages to $5 per day.

Cited as the beginning of the “living wage” revolution, it is often suggested that Ford made the move so that his employees could afford the product that they were making.  But many historians argue that the real motivations were likelier an attempt to reduce employee turnover and to put economic pressure on competitors.  In any event, that’s what happened:  while Ford’s move was hugely unpopular among other automakers, they saw the increase in Ford’s productivity– and a significant increase in profit margin (from $30 million to $60 million in two years)– and (mostly) followed suit.


Assembly line at the Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant, ca. 1913



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January 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Above all else show the data”*…


With the hope that your celebrations will be warm and peaceful, and with thanks for your kind attention over the last twelve months, (Roughly) Daily is going on it’s annual Holiday hiatus…  So here, to tide us over, The Economist Graphics Unit’s wonderful “2017 Daily chart advent calendar” (the first installment of which, above)– a collection of 25 of the years best infographics, each with a short accompanying essay.

See you in the New Year!

* Edward Tufte


As we revel in new ways of seeing, we might send terrifyingly (and at the same time, amusingly) insightful birthday greetings to Edwin Abbott; he was born on this date in 1838.  A schoolmaster and theologian, Abbott is best remembered as the author of the remarkable novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884). Writing pseudonymously as “A Square,” Abbott used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to offer pointedly-satirical observations on the social hierarchy of Victorian culture. But the work has survived– and inspired legions of mathematicians and science fiction writers– by virtue of its fresh and accessible examination of dimensionality.  Indeed, Flatland was largely ignored on its original publication; but it was re-discovered after Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity– which posits a fourth dimension– was introduced; in a 1920 letter to Nature, Abbott is called a prophet for his intuition of the importance of time to explain certain phenomena.



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December 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places”*…


The visual system’s tendency to fill in the invisible parts of the objects we see before us can be exploited to create a wide range of compelling magical illusions: spoons bending, knives cutting through flesh, and solid rings magically linking and unlinking. The principle underlying all these tricks, as well as many others, is that the visual system convinces you that something is there, whereas in fact there is just a gap or a missing piece.

But our visual system doesn’t just fill in the gaps. It can also create a compelling impression that the space hidden behind an object in the foreground is empty. In most situations, this impression is correct, but in some cases, it is illusory and misleading. To magicians, this perceptually empty space is the perfect hiding place for the things they don’t want you to know about. It is a no-brainer that hiding things behind something else makes them invisible, but the illusion of perceptually empty space entails more than just invisibility: it makes you ‘see’ that that there’s nothing there, although there sometimes is – particularly when you are watching a magician at work.

The philosopher Jason Leddington at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania says the experience of magic results from a failure of imagination. Our failure to figure out what the magician does results from the fact that we are unable to imagine it. This view neatly captures the essence of the illusion of empty space: it makes it difficult for us to even imagine that there is anything hidden behind the object in the foreground – be it the magician’s thumb, hand or anything else…

What magic can teach us about what we do– and don’t– perceive: “Now you see it, now you…

* Roald Dahl


As we confirm that there’s nothing up our sleeves, we might recall that it was this date in 1693 that is traditionally ascribed to Benedictine friar Dom Pérignon’s invention of Champagne.

In fact, the the good father didn’t actually invent sparkling wine:  The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, which was apparently invented by a different bunch of Benedictines in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire near Carcassonne in 1531.  Then, over a century later, the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation– six years before Dom Perignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers (where he did, in fact, make several improvements to the process of making bubbly) and almost 40 years before it was claimed that the famed Benedictine monk invented Champagne.  Merret presented the Royal Society with a paper in which he detailed what is now called “méthode champenoise” in 1662.

Still, today’s a good day to raise a glass in thanks.

Statue of Dom Pérignon at Moët et Chandon



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August 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

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