Vision of the World: Things are not as you think they are

painting of blind men examining an elephant

Flaws in our perception

In eastern culture, there is a very old parable of six blind men and an elephant. The modern version of the parable goes something like this:

  • The First man fell against his broad and sturdy side and said, “The Elephant is very like a wall!”
  • The Second, feeling of the tusk, said, “An Elephant is very like a spear!”
  • The Third took the trunk in his hands, “The Elephant is very like a snake!”
  • The Fourth felt the leg and said, “The Elephant is very like a tree!”
  • The Fifth touched the ear, “An Elephant Is very like a fan!”
  • The Sixth held the tail and exclaimed, “The Elephant is very like a rope!”

One might look at this and think ‘Well that’s pretty extreme.’. The scary thing is that it is not as far-fetched as you might think. When people find an answer it is often far easier to accept that answer than to question its validity.

The need to validate ones senses

Let us for the sake of illustration take the man feeling the tail. He feels the tail and can tell that the tail is long and narrow and frayed at the end. It leads upward and is flexible, thick and rough on the outside. Almost certainly, he has felt a rope before and knows what that feels like. He has compared what he now feels to that. Let us imagine that after this another person comes along. This person tells him that he is absolutely wrong; an elephant is nothing like a rope. 

Now we have a real problem. The man must choose to accept that he utterly failed to determine the nature of the elephant from his own personal experience. This would cause him to bring into question his competence to discern the nature of the world around him from the senses on which he relies. Now, this is a huge problem. People are very uncomfortable with the idea that they can be fooled into misunderstanding the nature of the world.

Limitations

Our senses are very limited. In addition, our perception of the world is also limited. Also, our perception of the limits of our perception and how it works is terribly flawed.

In general, people assume our senses just exist. That they inform us of the nature of the world as a natural consequence of having them. As it happens, that is not the case. Senses do not naturally make sense. From a biological perspective, it’s all just a stream of nerve impulses connected to a specific area of the brain.

Let’s say you were blind your entire life. You had your sight restored. You would then see, but not as you see now. Blobs of brightness and color would have no meaning. Until you touched a particular blob of color; until you understood that focusing your eyes told you how far things were; until you gasped the meaning of binocular vision, sight would have no real significance. This is how we form a model of the world we live in. We compare the input of one sense with another until our model of the world seems consistent. Most of this process occurs in infancy and is complete before we start to really experience the world cognitively. Then the process stops. This is the important part. it stops.

What’s it all for?

Your brain has one job. Keep you alive so that your genes have the maximum chance of reproducing. For this purpose your model of the world need only be as good as it needs to be. As a consequence, if there are other things your brain could be doing that would better your overall survival, it will do those things instead. ­Your brain is setup to maximize return on cognitive investment.

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