Tag Archives: epistemology

On the Visual Experience of ‘Cubist’ Vision (Follow-up to my 2018 book, Philosophy of Time & Perceptual Experience)

My 2018 book, The Philosophy of Time and Perceptual Experience, had a chapter on ways in which the perceptual experience of space can be distorted – ways in which we can have mistaken (erroneous) perceptual experiences of things around us in space.

(For convenience, I’ll also call mistaken perceptual experiences ‘perceptual errors’. There is arguably a difference, but its not important here.)

(For convenience, I’ll also call mistaken perceptual experiences ‘perceptual errors’. There is arguably a difference in meaning here, but not one important for this post.)

Those mistaken ways and their variety mattered to me. In the book, I argued that the different kinds of perceptual errors had different kinds of bad results for our theories of the actual world. We need experience to separate what is actual from what is merely possible. A theory may be coherent. However, for theories of the actual world, coherence isn’t as important as actual experiences that support them. And mistaken experiences are no good in this supportive role. Mistaken perceptual experiences do not match the actual world and so do not support any theories of the actual world that match them.

So, I was interested in working out ways experience could go wrong and the relevance of that to experience’s role in helping us know about the actual world. In general, I argued: Hallucinations were worse than illusions, illusions worse than what I call anosognosia.

Hallucinations and illusions are well-understood, so I won’t define them here. Their differences can be debatable, but they both share this: they involve the appearance of something that is not the case. Anosognosia is importantly different.

Here is basic definition of anosognosia, with a few notes on it.This definition is off the top of my head; I go into way way more detail in my book; take the book over what I say here where there is conflict. (Also, I’ve discussed the different categories of perceptual error elsewhere on this site, but I do a better job in my book):

Anosognosic experience: An anosognosic experience includes ignorance of the limits of one’s experience and so a mistaken sense that one’s experience is of all that there is.

Some notes

This kind of error is needed to contrast with (a) accurate experiences of all that there is, (b) illusions and hallucinations (one’s experience is of more than there is) and (c) amodal errors, where there seems to be more than one experiences (however one understands that.

You can get this kind of error merely by having a limited experience – very common – and having no sense that its limitations do not match limits of the world.  

Having laid out the importance of experience, error, and the differences between kinds of error, I then argued that whether or not there are experiences which are illusions, hallucinations, or anosognosia can depend on your theory of the world in the first place. You can have a situation where only some theories give you a particularly bad perceptual error; others don’t.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t committed to a theory with bad errors, even if there are other theories without them. I take it that not all my dreams are, like Little Nemo, visits to other worlds, worlds in which what I dream is exactly like it appears, even if a theory that said they were might mean there is less perceptual error.

Little Nemo (Windsor McCay, 1905)

My dreams frequently don’t contain the kinds of things I wish to explain as being real, e.g., when I was very young, I dreamt I was a cat attending primary school, a cat who kept dropping my pencil because I couldn’t hold it with my paws. Does that experience need to be real or part of the actual world?

However, as may be obvious in my work, I did think that sometimes a claim that a certain kind of experience was erroneous was only the case given some theories of time. This, again, is a central theme – no, the central theme – of my 2018 book.

This leads to weird visual perception. To get to a proper account of error in perceptual experience is theory-dependent, I realised I had to turn to some non-time examples. So, I looked at one of the more important ones: our perceptual experience of space.

The Perceptual Experience of Space

Like our experience of time (despite theoretical confusions that might tempt one to say otherwise), our perceptual experience of space – be it sight, sound, touch – is a fundamental experience – or, another way of saying it, it is a fundamental part of overall experience.

We don’t just feel this and that – we feel this there and feel that here. Our shoulder has a pain in it, above the itchy bra-strap, left of our loud caffeine-loaded heartbeat and the taste of gum, and to the right of the wall we knocked it off.

But it also seems as if our perceptual experience of space is radically prone to error. There seem to be lots of frequent and obvious variation in how it is mistaken. Surely this undermines the usefulness of perceptual experience of space? The variation is a neutral and obvious empirical fact.

So, no matter our theories of space or indeed of anything else, we can discount it whenever we like. It is no great problem to ignore the perceptual experience of space if it conflicts with our theories.

OK, but maybe not so fast with the dismissal of such spatial experience. It might be good to slow down and investigate what exactly is happening when we have ‘distorted’ perceptual experiences of space. Perhaps a particular experience’s definition of ‘distorted’ is not so obvious or neutral.

Rare is Not Wrong

The first response to throw away is the rarity of a particular experience. I took it as a truism that rare is not wrong. Merely by being uncommon, a particular experience is not inaccurate. The evaluation of experience’s accuracy is not a matter of consensus, convention, or probability. If the world is the way a rare experience presents it as being, and not the way a common experience does, then that’s enough to make the common experience wrong and the rare experience right.

So, in my 2018, I wondered: under what conditions would a perceptual experience which we would often call distorted (or mistaken or wrong) not be distorted (or mistaken or wrong)? And what can we learn from the possibility of those conditions?

So, to start, I distinguished the typical human experience from the alternatives by the terms ‘typical’ and ‘non-typical’. This was to avoid any possible prejudice and confusion, which ‘normal’ or ‘common’ might cause. Then I defined a particular kind of non-typical visual perception, which I called cubist vision.

Cubist Vision

Here is a diagram depicting the difference between non-cubist and cubist vision. It depicts accurate visual experience through (A) a typical process of human vision and through (B) a non-typical process of cubist vision:

Typical vision (A) and ‘Cubist’ vision (B)

The non-typical vision is cubist* because, relative to the typical human vision, it is vision from multiple points of view. It is similar to what Cubists depict in their work, e.g., Rivera’s picture below (see also Picasso, Cezanne, and many many others). This vision is also accurate, not mistaken, when what it presents resembles such cubist work.

*I also once called it snail-vision or prehensile-vision, because I conceived of the eyes as being manipulable like a snail’s eyes or a human’s hands. But that goes further than I need to – so don’t worry about it.

Diego Rivera, 1915, Portrait of Ramón Gómez de la Serna, 109.6 × 90.2 cm. Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (From Wikimedia)

In the figure, where A picks out the typical visual process and B picks out the cubist visual process,

  • The dotted lines pick out what happens between visual stimulation (at the eyes) and the brain.
  • Thought bubbles contain the visual phenomenology (or appearances) – what is visually experienced.
  • Orange lines are part of the A process and blue lines are part of the B process.
  • All experiences are veridical or accurate.

What is seen through cubist vision is different to what is seen through typical vision. This is the case even though there is the same brain and the same environment. The difference is because of how the visual organs are placed in relation to the environment.

A person with typical vision sees the star and cross-circle in front of one side of the blue wall. The person with Cubist vision sees the hourglass and donut in front of a different side of the blue wall.

Error and the Difference Between Typical and Cubist Vision

Cubist vision is not so different to typical vision. It has a visual phenomenology and it is accurate. The hourglass and donut are in front of those organs, just as they seem to be. And, other than the variable orientation of the visual sense-organs, what processing is part of vision is, in all important ways, the same, e.g., the same brain processes occur in both. The only significant difference is the length of the connection between eye and brain, and this doesn’t matter.

So, a difference between typical and cubist vision is no indicator that cubist vision is wrong. And I use cubist vision (along with other arguments) to help settle the conditions under which visual experience is wrong and pull them apart from the conditions under which visual experience is rare, strange, or merely possible.

It also allowed me to unpack ways vision can go wrong. For example, if I had cubist vision but believed I only had typical vision, I may believe what I see to be orientated to the left and right of my face (or body). Say, for the sake of this discussion, this is a complex perception that includes what I see, my sense of my own body’s location in space, and the spatial relationship between both. However, it is not and so my vision is mistaken. If this is such a perceptual error, then it is a particular kind of perceptual error – anosognosia, a failure to detect that there is more to what I perceive than what there appears to be.

(And, of course, the reverse is also possible. I may believe what I see to be orientated to eyes that have significantly different orientations to my face or body.

This move allowed me to extend the cases of non-typical (not necessarily wrong) examples of perception to cases where a difference in orientation is not due to something between the brain and sense-organ (such as the eye) but due to something else. Importantly, with respect to mirages, I extended it to orientation differences due to something between the sense-organ and the object. I asked again: Would such differences mean a perception is mistaken? And how, again, would it be mistaken?

And once I got there, I went further: I brought in the possible temporal properties of the perceptual process, allowing a difference in orientation due to shifts in the spatial relationship between the brain, the sense-organ and the object over time.

That’s where I describe and use the main elements of my work. It is also where, for some, my proposals get a little weird.

Which is fine. Again, I’m interested in accurate perceptual experience, given the best theories we have about the nature of reality. All my arguments rest on eternalism, the best theory we have about time. If an eternalist theory of perception is a weird theory, so long as it does the best work for perception, it doesn’t trouble me.

Weird is a kind of rare. Again, like rarity,

Weird is not wrong.

Snowfall and Spider Time

The last few days, I was snowed in, like many Irish people. This is the worst it’s been in thirty-something years. I live on the South East coast of Ireland. A year can go by here with only one day of snowfall, and usually none of it settles. A few days ago, to get to the shed five metres away, I had to clear the path of about a half-metre high of snow.

While it was like this, everything blurred and lost colour. Strange birds hung on to the bare swaying branches in a gray, streaming sky. They dropped to the snow to fight over apple cores. They were redwings, like mistlethrushes with rusted feathers on their chests and a black strip over each eye: a Groucho Marx eyebrow. None of us had seen them before (except my dad, who’s in his ’80s).(One of my instagram videos of redwings from this weekend.)

One morning, I opened the door and a bit of snow fell into the hall.  A flock of birds leapt out of the evergreen bushes in a shocked flurry of wings. I stood there for a minute, taking in this erasing scenery. A ginger cat came around the corner of the house and looked at me, then left.

It snowed all day on Friday. It was snowing as it became light and continued into the sun setting again. I was working at home. Every hour or so, I’d break off work and walk out into the garden to see how things were. At the start, I groggily wore a dressing gown going out. The pond was frozen. My feet sank into piles of snow.

There was no sun these few days. Usually, in this town, the sun comes out at least once, gleaming on the sea or passing along the headland. But not these last few days. Or even today. Today, the snow has become piles of slush and running water. Blackbirds and wood pigeons have reappeared. Finches wash themselves in puddles and starlings have joined the redwings to fight.

The day before all this snow came down, I walked on to the beach. It was deserted, except for birds. A flock of black-headed seagulls settled in the surf as it rolled in, then lifted off again as it pulled back out. They did this over and over, as if they wanted one thing, wanted it, but kept forgetting it was transitory, and were constantly surprised.

What It is Like to Not Know

In these moments, I’m brought up short by the suggestion this gives me of the psychology of animals. There is an alienness of other creature’s sense of time. I don’t consider this an understanding to think of them this way. It is a bafflement. It is the opposite of insight.

There are lots of reasons why we may not understand the perspective of something else.

On  a fundamental level, there may be a barrier  to understanding ‘what it is like’ to be another thing , as most philosophers of consciousness refer to it (original article on this by philosopher Thomas Nagel). To change Nagel’s example of a bat for a seagull, I don’t know what it is like to be a seagull – even if I had wings; feathers; was surrounded by seagulls; liked dipping my feet in the surf. There is some irreducible subjectivity to being a seagull that cannot be shared with a non-seagull (such as me), even if the non-seagull, too, has subjectivity. We can even go further, following Nagel: there is some irreducible subjectivity to being me, or to being you, that cannot be shared with anyone else, even if they, too, have subjectivity.

I often struggle with Nagel’s ideas here and the ‘Hard Problem’ of consciousness that follows it (as characterised by David Chalmers). I won’t go into my problems here. I think there are still problems with imagining ourselves into the lives of other creatures, even if we don’t take on Nagel and Chalmers’ ideas (which, again, I struggle with anyway).

There is another reason that we may be unable to understand what it is like to be something else. It is closer to Nagel’s work, and something I find compelling and bizarre. It’s that part of what it is like to be something else other than me (or you) is that it is not me (or it is not you).

When I look at the seagulls lifting and sinking into the surf, I myself am not doing this. I have never done this. I’ve never had wings. I wear clothes. I do not have feathers. I like chocolate, coffee, and beer; I don’t like raw fish. It doesn’t matter to me what any particular seagull thinks of me. I remember the boredom of learning Irish from felt figures stuck on a board. I am standing on the shore watching these birds fall and sink.

I’m watching creatures that could in all ways be like me except this: they are not standing on the shore watching themselves sink. They don’t know what it’s like to wear clothes, to not have feathers, to like chocolate, coffee, beer, and to not like raw fish. Seagulls lack knowledge that I myself possess. I do not know what it is like to lack this knowledge. I do not know what it is like to know nothing of my own life.

(For what it is worth, I think this is buried in some of Nagel’s talk about people hanging upside down, yet not knowing what it’s like to be a bat.)

This is also true of you and me. I don’t know what it is like to be you, or you me. Even if you read these accounts of my life, or you tell me parts of yours, you won’t know what it is like to be me — because part of knowing that requires you to forget what it is like to be you.

If I could perfectly share with you my point of view, because my point of view is limited and does not include yours, you would need to lose your own point-of-view. If I were to become a seagull, I would need to forget to become me.

The Difference in Time

Another less forbidding difference between my perspective and those of other animals is in my sense of time. Animals’ sense of time may be very different to our own, and this difference alone may make them baffling to us.

My friend Kevin lives near Glendalough, way out in the Irish countryside, married to my school friend Joan. For years I’d come stay with them in their house; we’d drink wine, watch Gilbert & Sullivan, Morse, Hammer Horrors, talk about nature. Joan and Kevin’s is where I learned indifference to spiders; there were just too many of them in the room where I slept.

One night, a bit drunk, Kevin and I wandered into their bathroom. It was crowded with house spiders. By ‘house spiders’ I mean what lots of Irish folks call ‘daddy long-legs’ (I don’t because that’s what I call crane-flies). Kevin and I got talking. He pointed at the spiders on the walls and drew my attention to the main cluster. They were around a female spider with a large dark egg sack in her mandibles. She was much bigger than the rest. Two males were cautiously stalking her and each other. But on other walls, there were lots of other spiders. These were also males drawn by the smell of the female spider but not competing for her attention.

Kevin told me they could keep all night at this mating, stalking, and clustering. He added this: when he lived in his old house, before he met Joan, he came into his bathroom at night and saw harvesters fighting. Harvesters are a kind of insect with four long translucent legs, like house spiders. They were on the rim of his bathtub. They had their front legs raised and locked against each other, and were pushing at each other. First, one moved back, then the other moved back; they kept doing this. They didn’t slow down, take a break, stop. Just: over and back, over and back.

Kevin went to bed. Next morning, he came back into the bathroom and there they still were: over and back, over and back, legs locked still in competition.

I moved back to Cork a couple years ago and lots of wolf spiders came into my room. I learned something by watching them. Wolf spiders can stay very still for long periods of time, then suddenly move, and be gone.

There was a wolf spider beside my lamp. I got up in the morning. There it was. I went to work. I came back nine hours later. There it still was. Then I moved something on the desk and it – vanished. I didn’t see it again. But, that night, with the light off, every so often I heard it scuttling around the floorboards.

Similarly, the year before last, at about 9pm each evening, a wolf spider would appear near the dining room curtain in my folks’ place. It wouldn’t move for hours. But it would always be gone in the morning.

Now, it is possible that all these creatures — invertebrates in this case — get up to regular activity when we’re not around. The harvesters take a break, go for a wander, look for food. Or the wolf spiders wait until no humans or similar animals are around, then hunt inside the rooms they occupy.

However, it’s worth asking why we should think that. What is it we think they must do in the time we spend away from them? Perhaps they do nothing. Perhaps their experience of these periods are like the brief moments between our eye blinks. It is not sleep but simply: nothing. There is nothing it is like for them to undergo this particular change — or, we might say, to pass through this particular period of time.

One of the difficulties with imagining this is we think of ourselves as constantly aware of time while we are awake. If I imagine the period between getting on the bus tomorrow and getting to work — about 90 minutes — I imagine myself experiencing all of that time. 

I also imagine myself as having a state similar to what I’m in now: aware of the time I’m living through and also of past time (breakfast earlier today, last week on the beach) and in some way future time (going to work tomorrow morning, and every day after).

However, am I aware of all of the moments in my past and future, all the experiences I go through during my waking times? Am I aware of my breathing three seconds ago, or my thoughts at 7am this morning? It might seem that I can bring up a sense that I am or, if pressed, that I should be. But I don’t know if I am, really.

This brings me back to the seagulls on the surf: one of the difficulties of understanding these seagulls is that I imagine a certain state of consciousness they possess in lifting and falling. When I imagine that, I can’t help thinking of them as bizarre and alien. They lift up out of the surf as it rolls back, then settle over and over. It seems exhausting and confusing. Why would they settle when they do, and lift when they do? What state are they pursuing by their activity? What is going through their minds?

There may be something going through their minds, even as they lift and fall. I don’t believe that animals cannot be conscious, cannot have a point-of-view,  cannot have subjectivity, or a what-it-is-like. However, that doesn’t mean they must experience every instance of their rising and falling.

Perhaps it is this: the seagulls feel their rise and fall like we feel breathing, heartbeats, or even eye blinks. Although there may be an experience to it, doing it over and over is not boring or bizarre. It is simply something that they do.

When the birds finally settle, the moments they spent to get there may be like a single moment.

Alternatively, there is something arduous to it, and it feels like a long time for them. My point is: I don’t know.

Why I don’t know brings my final point: my trouble with consciousness is that I’m not sure how to sort between unconsciousness and consciousness in other things. For example, I’m not sure how to sort between the activities in another being that are like eye blinks and the activities that are like visual experiences of looking. With eye blinks and looking, I can do it because I am aware of those activities in myself.   I project the differences in me onto others. I know I’m not aware of my own eye blinks; I project on to you that you’re not aware of your own eye blinks.

But: with seagulls dipping? Spiders and harvesters competing? What do I do with them? How do I even divide consciousness from unconsciousness?

Indeed, even with other people, what I think may be an unconscious activity may not be. I see someone blink rapidly, and take it as a sign of insecurity or flinching. Yet, they are acting the blink, fully aware of doing it. One person or thing’s unconscious act may be another’s fully conscious practice or ritual.

A lot of other activities can be physically matched but not consciously matched. I need something else to grasp whether or not another creature’s behaviour is conscious or not.

One thing I think could help with this: we might get a better account of other creatures’ perspectives if we take into consideration the possibility that there are significant differences in different creatures’ experiences of time.