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Alva Noe’s Philosophical Concepts 5: Perception, “Can I Believe My Lying Eyes?”

Written by Jeff Drake
10 · 26 · 19

Every student of the philosophy of mind must at some point, preferably early on in their studies, come face-to-face with the “Grand Illusion.” Professor Noe does a superb job of explaining the illusion to us.

This post continues the discussion I began in “Alva Noe’s Philosophical Concepts 4” and also functions as a valuable preface to a longer post, perhaps multiple posts, that I have just started writing about perception since there is arguably no consciousness without perception, as consciousness is always consciousness “of something.” I do recommend that you read this series of posts in order, beginning with 1, to get the most out of them.

The following discussion is based on information that can be found fully described in Alva Noe’s book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness and Alva Noe’s article from 2002, “Is the Visual World a Grand Illusion?” I urge you to read both of these, but no worries if you choose not to, as I’ve read them for you and recount what I have learned below.

Can I Believe My Lying Eyes? A.k.a. The “Grand Illusion”

I will admit up front that I am someone who puts a lot of stock in science. This wasn’t always the case as my past, like that of many other people, is checkered by a childhood marinated in indoctrinated religiosity and an adolescence that was basted regularly with various beliefs in parapsychology, Buddhist mysticism, and things that go bump in the night. But, these days generally, if push comes to shove, I will go with science and scientific fact over the alternative. Yet, sometimes, and not even that rarely, science gets it wrong.

The reason for this is not surprising because it is simply the scientific method at work. And most times this is a beautiful thing: observe something, create a hypothesis and make predictions, conduct tests and experiments, analyze the results and publish your findings so that others can review and hopefully reproduce your results. When new evidence arises due to new observations and/or experimental results, scientists will revisit the drawing board and apply the methodology again, sometimes with better proofs and sometimes not, as the latest work may in fact, prove the original theory was false. This is science at work. We should not gnash our teeth when a past theory gets disproven and point our fingers accusingly at science for getting it wrong. I think we need to trust the scientific methodology. It’s the best we’ve got.

Still, there is a significant danger, I think, when science gets it wrong and that wrong-headed science then becomes a general belief held by the scientific community and eventually achieves the status of a paradigm.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a basic tenet of science is to: “Question everything!” Thus, I find it ironic that scientific theories, once they become entrenched paradigms, cause distress and complaints when new and/or contrary theories are proposed. Not only are such ideas flamed in the scientific media or ignored altogether, but the people who espouse the “heresy”, shall we say, are also scorned and sometimes punished.

Philosophy of Science professor, Thomas Kuhn, the man who coined the term, “paradigm shift,” explained why this happens, an interesting topic that I may take up at a later point. He also explained what was necessary to break such a paradigm and how breaking a paradigm can lead to new scientific revolutions. It can be a very painful process.

I am reading a book by cosmologist Sean Carroll where he talks about how poorly scientists have been treated because they are willing to accept the latest scientific data regarding quantum physics, a theory that supports the claim that we live in a multiverse. In a number of cases he mentions (without naming names), good people who have lost their academic careers as a result. It’s sad, really. Fortunately, for Sean Carroll, he is a big a name in science and academia and can handle the heat. Poor graduate students are often not so lucky.

In my previous posts about Alva Noe’s philosophical concepts, I discuss how both scientists and philosophers have been led astray by the long-held belief that consciousness comes about purely as a result of what is inside our heads. In fact, I referred to this belief and stated that “Scientists are locked into the conventional view that our ability to think, feel, and have the world show up for us is due solely to brain activities.” This is a real paradigm and it has skewed the way scientists and philosophers look at consciousness for centuries! Only recently is data being gathered to support an alternative theory of consciousness, one that demonstrates that consciousness is enactive, i.e., consciousness comes about as the result of an actor (acting organism) interacting with its environment. For Alva Noe and other philosophers and scientists who see the flaws in the old way of thinking about consciousness, our brain is certainly necessary for consciousness, but by itself, it is not sufficient for consciousness. We need something more. We need the world.

I found this new theory of consciousness to be both surprising and fascinating and I continue to pursue it vigorously. It just makes sense, if you know what I mean? That doesn’t mean it’s right, of course, but to me it goes further in explaining consciousness and our experience than the theory that says consciousness is only in our heads.

I still remember the day I was sitting in a UMD (University of Minnesota, Duluth) classroom in 1973, reading Merleau-Ponty’s book, “The Phenomenology of Perception.” That’s when I read something he said which I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially he said that scientists really don’t know how vision works. My initial reaction was, “Huh? Of course, they do. What is he talking about?”

Ponty was a philosopher in the 40’s through late 50’s and my initial reaction was to think, “Well, that must be a statement based on old science and not current.” I thought this because I had seen science videos and books that talk about our eyes and the visual system in our brain, with the upside-down images on our retinas, etc. So, I looked into this and was shocked, really, to discover that Merleau-Ponty was absolutely right! Sure, science knows a lot about how the eye works and the visual cortex, but even with all of that knowledge, they can’t really explain how all the pieces work together to cause the world out there to look to us the way it does. But you may not know this unless you research the subject.

In fact, there is another scientific paradigm that has also been around for many years. Like its counterpart mentioned above, it too has managed to steer scientists and philosophers down the wrong path. It is definitely related to the consciousness-is-just-in-your-brain point of view, but in this case it has to do with perception, i.e., how we perceive the world around us.

I am sure that we have all seen articles and videos, or Nova specials that talk about our eyes and our ability to see. There is no doubt that scientists have and still are, discovering so much about what goes on with our visual system. But the knowledge science has been gathering has contributed to a sense of scientific skepticism that what we see around us each and every day is “real”.

Alva Noe tells us that the visual experience we all feel is described by many in the field as “…you open your eyes and — presto! — you enjoy a richly detailed picture-like experience of the world, one that represents the world in sharp focus, uniform detail and high resolution from the centre out to the periphery.”[i] Alva calls this the “snapshot conception of experience.” It’s easy to see why he described it this way, because this so-called snapshot view of the world is the starting point for all of our visual experiences. You open your eyes, and voila! The world is there for us to see. But there is a problem (Noe calls it a “puzzle”) that follows from this point of view. The problem or puzzle is that once you study the nuts and bolts of how our eyes and visual system works, you are left wondering how it is that we see what we do, with scenes so richly detailed, because our “…actual direct contact with the world in the form of information on the retina is so limited.”[ii]

Yes, limited. You may be familiar with some of these limitations per recent scientific research into perception: As we stare at a salt shaker, for example, displayed upon our retinas is not one salt shaker, but two salt shakers, one for each retina and they are both somewhat distorted, very tiny, and upside-down! Yikes! Hardly a straight forward picture.

Further occluding our vision is the fact that the resolution power of our eyes is “…limited and non-uniform.”[iii] Alva explains that science shows that outside of the foveal area of our eye (see graphic below), the retina is nearly color-blind and the ability to focus is severely limited.

Add to this a feature that would drive us all crazy if we were aware of it – “saccades”. This easy-to-mispronounce term (think, “sock-odds”) refers to the motion our eyes make constantly, moving point-to-point, left-right, up-down, three or four times per second! One reason we don’t go crazy with this is that our brains suppress this activity which results in data being presented to the retina in “…the form of a succession of alternating snapshots and grey-outs.”[iv]

This then begs the question as to how it is that, given the distorted and discontinuous information our eyes see, we end up seeing the coherent, colorful, integrated world in front of us? Alva tells us that he thinks this is “…the problem faced by visual theory.”[v]

So what is it that takes this jumble of perceptions and converts them into what I actually see in front of me – a coherent picture of the lamp on the table, for example? Alva tells us that the orthodox strategy as to how this happens is that it is the brain’s job to integrate the various visual fixations into a stable model. In turn, this stable model then serves as the basis, or substrate of the actual experience. Further, in accordance with this orthodox view of perception, vision is the process whereby all the somewhat disjointed and fragmented “bits of information” on our retinas are “…transformed into the detailed stable representations underlying actual perceptual experience.”[vi] He also refers to a statement made by neuroscientist David Marr, who said, “Vision is the process of discovering from images what is present in the world, and where it is’ (Marr, 1982, p. 3).”

You should see here the beginning of a problem that is worth thinking about. You see, this strategy, or approach to explaining perception immediately places the perceiver as one step removed from reality. The “real” world, or object (say, a lamp) I am looking at, is “out there”. Light reflects from the lamp to my retinas and my brain transforms the bits and pieces into a coherent picture. I therefore, see the picture of the lamp in my head, but not the lamp itself, so to speak. The real world is therefore “represented” to me, to my brain, but I am barred it seems, from experiencing it directly. Thus, the “real world” is really a “grand illusion.” You can probably imagine Buddhists warming to this idea. 🙂

The next post in this series will continue discussing Alva Noe’s thoughts on perception.

[i] Noe, Alva: “Is the Visual World a Grand Illusion?” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2002.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

Let us know what you think…



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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.