16 April 2010

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Perception

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing Perception.

A rather old topic in philosophy but maybe also one with opportunities.

In the meantime Edwin kindly sent me this story which is very topical
today given the British elections. But if you think you know the story,
think again. I must also thank Edwin for inspiring the conclusion of my

Sure this will find good homes given the British Elections

While walking down the street one day a "Member of Parliament" is
tragically hit by a truck and dies.

His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

'Welcome to heaven,' says St. Peter.. 'Before you settle in, it seems
there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts,
you see, so we're not sure what to do with you.'

'No problem, just let me in,' says the man.

'Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher up. What we'll do is
have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose
where to spend eternity.'

'Really, I've made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,' says the MP.
'I'm sorry, but we have our rules.'

And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down,
down, down to hell. The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of
a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in
front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked
with him.

Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him,
shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while
getting rich at the expense of the people. They play a friendly game of
golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly & nice guy who
has a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are having such a good
time that before he realizes it, it is time to go.
Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator
rises....The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens on heaven
where St. Peter is waiting for him. 'Now it's time to visit heaven.'

So, 24 hours pass with the MP joining a group of contented souls moving
from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time
and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

'Well, then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now
choose your eternity.'

The MP reflects for a minute, then he answers: 'Well, I would never have
said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would
be better off in hell.'
So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to
hell. Now the doors of the elevator open and he's in the middle of a
barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends,
dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as
more trash falls from above.
The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulder.
'I don't understand,' stammers the MP. 'Yesterday I was here and there
was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank
champagne, and danced and had a great time.. Now there's just a
wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?'
The devil looks at him, smiles and says, 'Yesterday we were
campaigning... ………… Today you voted.'

All the best


All the best



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The subject of perception is not only important in philosophy but also
an issue that has been discussed for many centuries. Indeed, anyone who
is remotely interested in the human beings have been and are
investigating the issue of perception; I'm thinking of psychologists,
neurologists, biologists, philosophers, and so on.

It would, therefore, be very difficult for me to say anything new on the
subject and to say anything remotely relevant would probably take years,
and even then..! So, the first place to investigate perception would, of
course, start in such places as Google, Wikipedia, and the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy to mention just a few sources.

In the meantime I would like to share some ideas with you on perception
specifically on two issues: 1) why is perception such an important
issue? And 2) what are the consequences of language on perception?

What everyone seems to agree on about perception is that by perception
we are generally thinking of relationship with the real world (reality)
as opposed to our relationship with our body. And a second accepted
claim about perception is the issue of how the information we receive
through the senses, coupled with what we have already experienced, is
interpreted to arrive at an idea of what the world outside is like.
Needless to say there are better ways of describing the situation but
this will do for now.

The first problem of perception, and I am only giving a rough and ready
description of the problem here, is how can we be sure that what we are
perceiving with our senses is indeed what the world is really like? This
is usually called the epistemological problem of perception. How do we
know that what we claim to be reality is indeed reality? In the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy there is also another essay with the title
"The problem of Perception" and this refers to the problem of how can we
distinguish between say hallucination or illusion from perceptions of
the real world.

Let us stick to reality, the problem we are facing is in effect the same
type of problem we face when considering whether the glass is half full
or half empty (Wikipedia: Perception). But isn't it ironic that an
intellectual investigation of perception leads to different
interpretations (question of epistemology or illusion) , different
methodologies of investigation (philosophy, cognitive science,
neurology, psychology etc) and different emphasis on what is relevant
(sense data, language, experience, beliefs etc).

And of course the problem is that even if we can agree on how we can get
from sense perception to a reliable vision of the world, we still have
the problem that some people think that the glass is half full and some
will say that the glass is half empty. Many would attribute the
discrepancy to our past experiences and our accumulation of knowledge
about the world around us.

But investigations on perception seem to focus, more or less, up to the
point where we come up, in our mind (I prefer brain) of what we take to
be reality. In other words, perception stops at the point at which we
claim the glass is half full (or half empty).

But the question we are not asking about perception is precisely what's
the point of having perception? Of course the logical answer would be to
have an idea of what the real world is like. But the only reason why we
would want to have perception of the real world is not to accumulate
knowledge of the real world, but rather to interact with the real world.

In a way perception is not like stamp collecting, where we amass
different examples of the state of the world, but more like a Turing
Test Machine where what matters is the answer that we are given after
having asked the question.

Consider, this mental experiment. Assuming we have two Turning Machines
and both are made of identical cogs and wheels and we ask each whether
the glass is half full or half empty. Now one machine comes back to us
with half full and the other, as you have guessed, says half empty. One
thing is for sure, we don't know what is the state of the glass, or
rather we have no reason to accept one answer and not the other.

Now consider this other experiment, two machines and the same question,
but one machine is made up of cogs and wheels and the other light
crystals (or worms for that matter). We ask the question and both
machines come back to us with the same answer, for example that the
glass is half full (it does not matter which). Wouldn't we be more than
justified to accept that the answer to the glass question is precisely
that it is half full? Don't forget that in a real Turing Test Machine we
won't be allowed to look underneath the bonnet. As far as we are
concerned both are Turing Test Machines.

The point I wish to make about these two mental experiments is that
consistency is more relevant than methodology. What is more important
for us is that we always arrive at the same answer irrespective of the
machine and not that the same machine always gives the same answer. But
before you think I have lost my marbles, let me clarify, we certainly
want a machine to give the same consistent answer, but it gives the same
consistent answer because other independent machines working under
different conditions always give the same consistent answer.

Which of course, immediately leads us to the problem of induction, we
can confirm (or refute a hypothesis) by looking at a large number of
independent examples of what we want to show, we can then accept or
refute the hypothesis depending on how many independent examples we come
across of the same kind.

This type of consistency, has a drawback since there might always be an
example that might be different from the rest. But we can deal much
better, and feel more comfortable, with counting a hundred different
swans that have all been white, but swan number 101 is black, than
counting swan number one 101 times, and discover that each time we
counted the swan it was white so we conclude that all swans are white.

What does all this have to do with perception? The point is precisely
not that our senses, our experiences and our knowledge always give us
the same perception of reality, but rather given that our senses, our
experiences and our knowledge are all different, we still come up with
the same perception of reality.

To put this idea into practice, if 1000000 free and independent people,
who do not know each other, claim that women and men are to be treated
equally in a society they must have perceived reality much better than
say one person claiming a million times that men ought to be treated
better than women (or vice versa).

But this is not falling into an utilitarian trap by simply looking at
the numbers. Indeed utilitarianism does look at the numbers, but that is
all it does. Whereas what I am claiming is that each count is arrived at
by independent means. Utilitarianism assumes that each of the majority
are equal, but I am suggest that each one of those taking part in the
calculation are unique and independent of each other and still arrive at
the same conclusion. In other words, what matters is not what you are
but who you are: and we are all human beings and not a mass produced

Thus perception can lead to reality not because we all process sense
data in the same way, but rather given that we most probably all process
sense data in different ways and despite using the same machine (the
brain), what matters is whether we all come to the same conclusion
independently of each other.

So why don't we always all end up with the same interpretation of
reality? Of course we might not always be looking at the same reality:
some people might be looking at the sun and some at the moon. By
definition they will never have the same opinion of what is reality. But
as long as everyone is making, in a way, an independent but honest
subjective judgement, we might more likely reach the same conclusion
than if we had some hidden agenda. Of course, if everyone looked at the
same direction it would be very helpful. But there is nothing new in
this idea anyway.

Even if independent consistency can dispel some of the problems of
perception we still haven't really answered the question: why do we have
perception in the first place? But we already know the answer to this
question, i.e. to guide our actions.

The point of wanting to know whether the glass is half full or half
empty is to know whether there is enough water in it to quench our
thirst or do we have to go to the fridge to get some more water. In
other words, perception is relevant because it is causally linked to our
actions. The problem of perception is indeed a problem of action.

How we act, in a way, matters more than how we perceive. When we are
perceiving we are inert and we are certainly not in a dynamic state with
our environment. However, when we act not only are we in a dynamic state
with our environment, but most probably affect other people and how they
perceive their real world. But action is not to be interpreted as
behaviourism nor instinctive reaction. Of course, in every day language
we do speak of behaving, for example behaving badly with guests, or
instinctively for example he instinctively shot the ball into the net.
Although there is an element of implied meaning of automata or physical
movement we do not, even in every day language, exclude intention when
we use behaviour or instinct.

The point about action is that we always attribute intention to our
actions, whereas when we speak of behaviour or instinct we are really
describing what happens precisely because we intentionally want to
exclude intention. You will recall Wittgenstein's question on the point,
what is the difference between raising my arm, and my arm rising?

But if reality for us is more or less what we all independently but
consistently perceive to be the case, wouldn't it follow that action is
what we all consistently and independently do given a certain type of

So far there are two major objections to my arguments above. The first
is that just because we are independent and consistent about what we
perceive to be reality it does not automatically follow that what we
perceive as reality is indeed the correct view. We might all constantly
and independently look at the sun and come to the conclusion that what
we see is a football size ball of fire a few meters above our head. And
we can all consistently believe that we should torture our enemies. But
maybe the problem here is not with the philosophy itself but a problem
inherent in the agents philosophising. In other words problems about
true and good originate from the way we are built and not necessarily
the way we function. In any case, as I suggested we can deal much better
with honest mistakes than with manipulated falsehoods.

The other issue is of course, there is no reason to suppose that one
person's opinion cannot be the correct representation of reality even
when everyone else consistently thinks that something else is reality.
Maybe this is less of an objection since there is not reason why someone
cannot be right and all others wrong. And assuming the condition of
independent and honest subjective reporting sooner or later many other
people will come to the same conclusion. In fact this issue seems to
suggest that our state of knowledge has more to do with perception that
the senses themselves. Although of course we would want both to be
performing at an optimal level.

Which of course brings me to the issue of language in perception. One of
the traditional questions about language and perception has been whether
language affects the way we perceive the world around us.

However, as I have tried to argue, although how we interpret information
from our senses and how we arrive at a view of the world are interesting
and important, the real philosophical issues are more relevant when we
consider what to do with our perceptions. In other words, the
interesting philosophical issues have more to do with the output end of
the process than the input stage of perception.

And language is a key factor in perception because language is a key
tool we have to interact with our environment or rather other human
beings. We really have two options if we want to influence what someone
else does. Physically get hold of them and physically force them to do
what we want or communicate with them using language.

So for me the key issue is not whether language affects our perception,
but rather how our language affects the perception of others. We mustn't
forget that my language is someone else's sense perception and someone
else's language is part of our sense perception.

Moreover, and this is the key issue, the language we use with others (or
don't use) directly affects the way we act. Consider these two
situations which many of us have found ourselves in quite often; which
of them reflects reality vis-a-vie how we act:

We enter a shop, see a bottle of perfume, without a price label, and
utter to ourselves the words "look a cheap bottle of perfume, let me buy
it." Or we enter the same shop see the same bottle of perfume with a
label on it giving the price and "20% discount" in big print, and utter
the works "look a cheap bottle of perfume let me buy it." Speaking for
myself if I see a bottle of perfume without a price label on it I will
never utter the words, "look a cheap bottle of perfume let me buy it".
Depending on how annoyed I am, I am more likely to say something like
"I'm so sorry but I certainly won't be buying that bottle of perfume you
are displaying on the shelves without a price on it and hoping against
all odds that I will buy it!" Of course, in real life I will use more
efficient language to express my thoughts, but leave you to imagine the
words, in the meantime I will only admit in public to using the sentence
I gave you. If I am not too annoyed and desperately need to buy that
bottle of perfume I might ask what the price was.

Indeed language does play a pivotal role in perception, but I am not
convinced that the real issue is how does my language affect my
perception. The key role of language in perception is precisely how the
language of others affects our perception and how our language affects
the perception of others.

If it is our language that affects how we perceive our reality we
probably would not have cheats, charlatans and corrupt politicians in
our mist. After a care search, I cannot find anything is my language or
perceptions that says "vote for the politician who offers you a rose

Take care


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Perception

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