The Question Of Perception

post by The Arkon · 2019-01-29T20:59:23.450Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 18 comments

The below text is an excerpt of this article.


Once during an Indian coconut harvest, a farmer, tired from his day’s work of chopping down fruit, slumped down in the shade of a tree to enjoy a coconut, and upon splitting it open, found inside a message from God (or in this case, from Vishnu, his Hindu deity). The Brahmic writing was plainly visible for anyone to see, spelt out in the two halves of oily white meat. The implications of such an experience could only have been one of the following: the first is that the Supreme Being has no qualms about revealing his Divine Will in the contents of mere palm fruit, any more than in a whirlwind or through an oracle. The second is that the farmer’s perceptual systems produced an inaccurate representation of what he saw engraved in the fruit lining. It’s anybody’s guess as to which it really was. But regardless of whatever information was contained in the coconut, the moral of the story is that whilst miracles are known to happen, it can also be said that people regularly see things which are not there.

That we end up being misled by our senses is a widely-accepted truism, as most humans mistake the limits of their perception for the limits of the world itself. It’s not uncommon for people to push forward in their endeavors with a premature understanding of things, using inadequate standards to measure what they see in the world around them. Such errors in judgement range from being mild, such as mistakenly purchasing a rotten apple because you didn’t inspect its underside, to being detrimental, such as presuming that the oasis in the middle of the desert is real, when it’s only a hallucination. Hence, there are times when people are not so much moved by external objects as by their perception of those objects; what they claim to “know” is in fact only known conditionally, since human knowledge is always limited, thanks in part to our limited perceptual systems. Rare are those whose conception of reality is not exclusively dependent on their perception of it, who understand that there are things which you know and things which you don’t know, and in between are several doorways, of which one is called “Perception”; this door must be entered with prudence.


It is a common presumption that people see the world primarily with their eyes, but in fact, that is only true when they look at the objects that they recognize; things they have seen before and have categorized in their mind. In a case like that, they would have already built up the necessary perceptual tools that allow them to properly identify what they’re looking at. But when they look at something that they don’t recognize, something alien or new to them, the imagination takes over the function of the eyes, and becomes their primary tool of orientation. Whilst our physical senses may reveal to us the physical world, it is our imagination that allows us to project ourselves beyond finite time and space, into the realm of possibilities, abstracts and narratives.

In terms of perceptual experience, the dominant line of thought is that the world is primarily made up of objects. This may seem fairly straightforward, since you presumably see these objects all around you: buildings, street lights, vehicles, telephones, animals, humans, etc. As a consequence of seeing these objects, you generate thoughts about how to interact with them, and after completing your thought process, you proceed to act. As self-evident as this might appear, it begs further reflection. Let’s imagine a scenario where you’re sitting in a cafe, and you happen to catch a glimpse of an attractive individual at a nearby table. On one level, you perceive them as an object of interest, i.e, a intriguing material thing to be observed. Captivated by their appearance, you immediately start to draft assumptions about what kind of person they are, and how you might approach them to initiate a relationship. But in your enamored state, what you failed to consider was that there are other levels of this person’s existence which are invisible, yet equally defining for them. In terms of the biological, that person exists as a collection of billions of cells that perform numerous functions uninterruptedlyAt a higher level of organization, the cells form tissues that perform specific bodily functions, and those tissues collectively form organs, and so on until we finally get to what the person looks like in front of you in their total embodied form. None of these other levels of biological existence are less relevant than the person’s overall appearance to you as an object. If it turns out that he or she is a cancer patient, battling a tumor, then the import of their unseen cellular reality becomes quite relevant. And there are yet other level of analysis: this person will have inextricable social ties that define them, such as friends and family, who may come from different backgrounds, cultures and other group categories based on their ethnicity, level of education, income bracket, etc. And even those groups are connected to yet other groupings, until who this person is can be expanded to encompass virtually anything. But when you blissfully observe them from your nearby table, you don’t see any of that reflected in them as a mere object. You can only see them at a certain level of resolution, as mediated by your ideas and impressions, yet all of the other details that escape your attention are equally relevant for defining who they are.

The idea of the world being more than just a collection of objects can be seen not only in social relationships or biological matter, but also in how we interact with inanimate devices. A computer is viewed as an object, but when you interact with it, you’re not really interacting with the computer itself, which is essentially a motherboard and other internal electric components. A keyboard, mouse and a graphical user interface have been provided for you to use, and those tools will interact with the computer for you. But if the computer were to unexpectedly crash, then you would be forced to interact with the machine itself, which most people find frustrating, as they realize that they know very little about how computers actually work. Similarly, when you interact with the world, your desire is mainly to produce a favorable result for yourself, for which a technical understanding of how things work is often unnecessary. This is why, from public transport to consumer technology, we are often met by a friendly, uncomplicated user interface or control surface when interacting with the infrastructure around us, which hides the complex configurations that more accurately would define the object in front of us. What this means is that people’s perceptions are ultimately framed by the things they want or have been trained to see, and not an actual understanding of the world or its technical workings. So in terms of perceptual experience, the world is not primarily made up of the innumerable objects that you see around you; it’s made up of information. More practically speaking, it’s made up of tools and obstacles; things that you can use for your purposes, and things that get in your way. An illustration of this can be seen in how babies relate to the world: it takes years for them to build up an object-based view of their environment, as they have little to no comprehension of what their surroundings actually are, yet they still manage to orient themselves, albeit somewhat clumsily. So even though people may look at the world and think they only see objects, there are in fact multiple processes that influence them to make that judgement, such as their pre-conceptions, desires, and past experiences. It is only because people have such a limited perception of things that they fail to realize that an object always transcends the manner in which they frame it.


It would be interesting to hear whether people recognize the above ideas as something familiar, or view them as a set of open-ended concepts that have yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

This is a contracted article of what was originally published on Greekspeek.com

18 comments

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comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2019-01-30T09:54:54.775Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW
It would be interesting to hear whether people recognize the above ideas as something familiar

Very familiar, from multiple sources, all the way back to reading Korzybski as a teenager. "Consciousness of abstracting" is what he called it.

comment by shminux · 2019-01-30T02:26:58.296Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Super extra short mini summary: "It's models all the way down".

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-01-30T10:30:35.601Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Seeing the world as being primarily made of objects isn't an universal mode of thought. It's the dominant mode in our Western society.

There's a quote of Nicole Daedone's book Slow Sex:

That one day in the kitchen changed my life. In Home Ec, we learned to cook by finding a recipe and following its instructions exactly. We were rewarded for this good behavior by getting a meal and a good grade. In my grandma’s world, we were getting into relationship with the food. Feeling it. Getting to know it. Learning how it wanted to be cooked.
My grandma was teaching me the most important lesson of cooking, but also of living: anything you really get into relationship with will reveal its secrets to you. All you have to do is stand in the kitchen with an open mind and heart, recognizing the honor of cooking food for your family. The recipe will come.

This is the description of a mindset where the food isn't simply an object. That's part of what Tantra is about. Slow Sex is a secular tantra book that doesn't speak about tantra. Nonsexual tantra practice is also alot about relationships.

In addition to the relationship layer there's also object vs background/enviroment. TDT cares more about the background of a decision then CEV and thus comes to different conclusions. As seeing the background as essential as the object is foreign to Western thought, EY has a hard time being understood by academic decision theorists as seen by the review that was linked to on LW recently.

Gestatlt therapy cares more about background as well.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-01-30T16:43:27.544Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I haven’t read this book, but I have both taken a Home Ec class (it’s where I first learned to cook!) and spent the next ~20 years regularly cooking/baking, and improving my skill at these things. On the basis of that experience, I can say that the two approaches / perspectives / mindsets / whatever, that you describe, are not the only possibilities; indeed, I would say that this distinction is very much a false dichotomy. There are other ways [LW · GW].

In fact, for at least some kinds of cooking (baking / dessert cooking, specifically), this part:

All you have to do is stand in the kitchen with an open mind and heart, recognizing the honor of cooking food for your family. The recipe will come.

… is entirely the wrong approach. It will reliably give you inferior results, compared to the approach I describe in the above-linked post. The correct approach is not exactly “follow a recipe precisely” either, but it is a good bit closer to that than to the “get into a relationship with food” one.

Now, for some kinds of cooking, this “touchy-feely” approach works better—this cannot be denied. But if you try (as the author of the cited book apparently does) to apply this lesson to life, in general, you run into trouble: what if “life” is more like baking a cake than it is like cooking a vegetable soup? Or, what if some situations are like the former, and other situations are like the latter? Feel-good platitudes about getting into relationships with things will give not you the answers to these questions…

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-01-31T19:33:07.275Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's a lot of inferential distance from your way of thinking to the way of thinking towards which this points.

In particular you assume that the standards you use to judge something as an inferior result easily survive the ontological crisis [LW · GW]that involved in going from one ontology to another.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-02-01T17:17:37.453Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I’ve now read the linked post. I’m confused about what relevance it has.

Are you saying that, once we stop looking at the world as a bunch of discrete objects and start seeing quantum fields, or whatever, instead, then it’s no longer trivial or even possible to say things like “this cake is delicious, but that cake is not”?

Or, are you using that sort of “ontological crisis” as an illustrative example only, but actually suggesting some different, unrelated, sort of ontology shift? If so, then what might this alternative ontology be, and why should we prefer it?

comment by The Arkon · 2019-02-02T15:04:49.072Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The article doesn't posit that the any one frame of perception must be considered absolute, at the cost of others. Only that perception can be subdivided into various spheres, with some being more primary than others. However a person chooses to use that information is up to them. For some, it may be an irrelevant distinction.

With regards to liking or disliking cake, that would be a subjective evaluation.But subjectivity is as much a part of how a person experiences reality as the presence of objects around him, so being able to distinguish between what one likes and dislikes is not trivial, but I wouldn't say that kind of theme has to do with the nature of perception that the article addresses, which is more about being able to run multiple levels of analysis of the reality in front of you. If someone likes cake, that's fine, but that doesn't stop some of the ingredients from being potentially dangerous to their health, for example. Can a person extend their perception to acknowledge that some of the ingredients on the box reasonably shouldn't be present in food, instead of being myopic about their desires?

The thrust of the article is to point out that discernment is important. Whilst that may imply a needed ontology shift, none is being presented at the moment.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-01-31T20:03:55.218Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What standards do you[1] use to judge whether something is an inferior result?

If you bake a pie, and I bake a pie, and all our friends try both pies, and they think my pie is delicious but your pie is mediocre, or bad, is there some sense in which your pie is, nonetheless, not inferior?

What if, following my approach, I am able to bake ten desserts, all different, but all widely acknowledged to be delicious; whereas you, following your approach, can only bake ten different pies (some good, some not so great), and are at a loss as to how to make any of the other things I can make? Is there some sense in which your approach is not inferior?

What sort of alternative ontology would you apply to this scenario, and why?

(Disclaimer: I have not yet read the linked post by Wei Dai; I will comment further when I’ve done so. UPDATE 2019-02-01: I’ve read it now, see sibling comment [LW · GW].)


[1] Or, if not you, then whoever subscribes to the mindset in question (whom you are representing in this conversation).

comment by Alexei · 2019-01-30T00:48:13.535Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

“view them as a set of open-ended concepts that have yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion“ is a good description of how I feel about this post.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-01-29T21:01:56.048Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Mod note: Made the post an actual link-post and replaced the dots with our dividers. Let me know if you want me to change it back.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-01-29T21:05:26.465Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Also: Sorry, this post ended up in our spam-review queue and it took us a few hours to get around to approving it. This means this post just became publicly visible at the top of the frontpage.

comment by The Arkon · 2019-01-30T01:07:43.737Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the info. No worries

comment by The Arkon · 2019-01-30T01:11:38.810Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The link post is fine, but to say that the contracted article is a series of "quotes" is a mislabeling, I think. I would call in an excerpt, extract or something similar, so I added that on to the end instead. Is that okay?

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-01-30T01:33:10.615Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yep, sure! I only wanted to be helpful!

comment by The Arkon · 2019-01-30T01:15:41.052Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Does anyone know how to make the space between paragraphs bigger? No matter how many times I hit "spacebar" in the "edit" view , the distances remains the same when the article gets published.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-01-30T01:35:51.708Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Usually contracting whitespace helps clean up a lot of formatting glitches that people accidentally introduce, but agree that it's sometimes annoying. I think you should be able to get around it by creating empty paragraphs with whitespace characters in it, or alternatively you could make additional use of dividers.

comment by m_arj · 2019-01-29T23:44:10.342Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

«Rare are those whose conception of reality is not exclusively dependent on their perception of it, who understand that there are things which you know and things which you don’t know, and in between are several doorways, of which one is called “Perception”; this door must be entered with prudence.»

I’m saving this in my personal notes. Beautiful.