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Blue and Black

Well, today's news have an unusual bunch of things which make me ponder. But I decide not to write about any of them. Instead I write about that dress of yesterday, which to me is clearly blue and black. It seemed like that particular dress raised quite a fuss in the internet. But what is all this fuss about? It makes me think of another picture I posted earlier. So, let's take a closer look.

People seem to be genuinely surprised to find that exactly the same dress can seem blue & black to some, while others see it as white & gold. So, does this violate some sort of basic assumption that visual perceptions should be the same for everybody? When I was studying at the university, I read a neurobiology textbook which said that visual data is being processed already on the neural connections of retina. Basically, the neurons at retina are so wired that they highlight contours of shapes. That makes it easier for us to see the world as a collection of separate objects. Well, and at the same time I was studying history of philosophy, and especially the first half of 20th century analytical philosophy seemed to come with a basic assumption that there is something like "raw sense data" - ie. undistorted and unbiased visual pereceptions which are not yet affected by any cognitive mechanisms of theoretical interpetation. If that assumption would be true, then it would be possible to build a whole scientific worldview based entirely on unbiased perceptions and classical logic... But, if we take seriously the findings of neuropsychology, it seems rahter dubious if there ever can be anything like "a raw perception unaltered by human interpretation". I mean, the raw data is being processed already on the retina, and gets a lot more processed before it somehow enters our conscious experience. The world out there is huge and vast, and human mind is limited, so anything we ever experience is bound to be a pre-processed limited interpreation of the world which as total is beyond our ability to perceive.

In other words, I think that to be intellectually honest one has to abandon a notion of unbiased sensory perception, and accept the fact that any perception is always somehow pre-processed. And there is no reason to believe that our neurobiological pre-processing is exactly the same for every human being. Regarding that black and blue dress, a Finnish newspaper interviewed a Helsinki University researcher who is specialized in studying visual perception. She said they've been investigating the case for the whole day, and it seems like there are differences in how sensory system interprets the given data. Like, all the day when the lightning conditions change - at one moment we are in fluorescent light, then we go to full daylight, and in the late evening we might be in the dim candlelight - but our perception of colours of our clothes doesn't change accordingly, because our sensory system is automatically correcting our perception, based on the data of backround light. I think one can easily see this by taking digital pictures in different light, with same white-balance settings. The colors will turn out slightly different, if taken in sunlight or in fluorescent light. A machine "sees" the colors differently, but human perception sees the colors as unchanged, because our neural pre-processing runs a pretty good autocorrection algorithm.

This brings us to another point to be noticed. A perception of that particular dress is affected by background data. This might go against another basic assumption. In western culture we tend to think that separate individuals are indeed separate, and their attributes are not altered by backround or context. A bottle of wine contains wine, no matter if you locate the bottle in a cupboard or on a table. So, why should a dress appear black and blue, or white and gold, depending on the lightning conditions of the surroundings? But, I guess this just is the way the world works. A notion of "separate individuals" is a man-made concept which greatly helps us to orientate in this complex world, but we shouldn't be surprised if it turns out that it isn't necessarily a fundamental property of our sensory experience (or the world out there). As Merleau-Ponty puts is, a basic unit of our perception seems to be a "point-horizon" -structure. Like, "a figure seen on a background", "an animal spotted in the landscape" or "a word recognized over the street noise". We never perceive just "an object", we perceive "an object against a background", and there is a relation between these two - the qualities of the background might affect the way we perceive the object, and vice versa.

So, with this kind of thoughts I was surprised to see how strongly many people reacted to that picture of the dress. For me it feels like an ordinary fact that some people see things differently, because neural pre-processing can be different. But does this then mean that we can never find an objective truth? If we are in a courtroom, and one person says that "I perceived person A shooting person B with a gun" and other says: "I perceived person B shooting tree shots at A, but missing, and then A got to act, drawing a gun and single-shot killing person B." - should we just say that "well, different persons just see things differently, and the objective reality is beyond our ability to perceive, since each person anyway sees the world preprocessed and affected by their personal point of view?". I think that would be just lazy philosophy and intellectual dishonesty. To look at this, an another small story:

One of my friends was studying Philosphy at the University before me. Once I visited him and met some other students, too. We had a discussion if something like "the final, absolute truth" can be found. And one of the students said: "Yes, it has to be. Otherwise our conversation wouldn't make any sense. If there is no correct answer, then why ask?" But I see this quite the opposite way, but I wasn't able to explain that at that moment. Later on, when I started my studies, I was inspired by philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. And he argues that since we don't have anything like "a direct contact with the absolute reality", then the best we have is discussion and co-operation. Exactly because we can't access "The Hidden Book of Nature", we have to keep on making multiple observations, comparing our perceptions with those of others, trying to make sense of our perceptions, testing, inventing, verifying and abandoning theories based on the on-going discussion and experimentation. Instead of a quest for final dogmas, there is this curiosity and wonder in the face of the world. So, discussion and philosophy might help us make more sense of the world we live in. And, going back to our previous example of a courtroom drama - there is no need to find The Absolute Truth, as it is enough to find the most plausible interpreation based on good evidence. If there is enough evidence, the court sure can decide what happened. As, we are not absolute beings living in an absolute world, but we are practical beings involved in practical interactions of the daily world - and on that level discussion and visual perceptions should be enough to find a reasonable and reliable agreement. (Still, during that discussion we have to remember that some people might see the exact same dress as blue and black, while the others see it as white and gold. That is just fine, and therefore we need multiple perceptions by multiple persons, to build enough of evidence.)

Then, a bit broader view. If differences in neural pre-processing make people to see the exact same picture in different colours, then what happens if we begin to talk about more complex phenomenons like perceptions of world news and politics? I mean, in many cases it is relatively simple to find a reasonable agreement if people are given the same facts and enough time to reason and to discuss about their reasoning. But what if people don't agree on the facts? More than once I have seen how discussion dies in such a situation. Each side assumes that their perception is the right one, and the other is just delusional, brainwashed, a media-controlled kid, ideologically biased, living in denial - you name it. Once again, for me this seems like a failure to fully admit that every perception is always a preprocessed interpretation. To take this seriously we'd better quit dismissing others who see differently. We'd better use all the time it takes to reflect on those (hidden) assumptions which affect our pre-processing, making us see situations differently. But that is a hard thing to do - too many people find their sanity, self-esteem and identity based on the assumption that "my perceptions are not hallucinations but a clear mirror-like images of the reality as it is." And the other thing is that a lot of this pre-processing takes place already before the perception enters our waking consciousness. So, we need to make a difference between cognitive processing and pre-cognitive pre-processing. But I feel that with some practice it is possible to become more aware of ones own pre-cognitive processing - possibly even witnessing how those change and get altered. Like, cogntive beliefs are relatively easy to change just by a conscious decision, but pre-cogntive processing is changed often only by emotional experiences, meditation or some other processes which affect our subconscious mind.

But there seems to be this phenomenon of a feeling of "waking up to the reality". Typically, it seems to go like a person A has been just blindly assuming that beliefs passed down by the tradition are unproblematically true. And then, if the person A for some reason starts to doubt those beliefs, she might abandon the tradition and experience a strong sensation of "waking up", suddenly seeing the whole world in a new way. And often this "new way" comes with an elevated sense of freshness, clarity and truth - which then leads the person A to believe that the tradition was "a delusion", but her new way of perceiving reveals "the real truth." Well, well. I guess I have experienced something like that, couple of times, before the age of 18. Later on I made a difference between a "feeling of waking up" and "a direct contact with The Absolute". As I have said before, it sure might be possible to experience a direct contact with The Absolute, but heck there is no way to infer any belief or proposition based on such an experience. So, therefore, I'm very cautious towards any argument by "waking up". To me it seems that most often it just leads to an unfruitful discussion, where one side believes that others are just "delusional", and refuses to review ones own basic beliefs in a rational and critical manner.

Therefore, we don't need claims like "my beliefs are true because they are based on my woken up perception, but your beliefs are false because you are still under the brainwashing of tradition / mainstream society / cultural-marxism / communism / islam / christianity / judaism /western world-view / whatever-I-don't-like-myself." We would need more self-reflection, ability to go down the way we process information, gaining self-understanding like : "I believe A is C, because of this and that evidence, which I got from sources x y and z, some of which I verified by reference to a source w, and a lot of this reasoning is based on basic assumptions BA1, BA2 and BA3, which in turn are based on stuff which could be verbally expressed as MF1 ... MF3" - then, if multiple persons are both willing and able to discuss in this level, each or any of them might notice that there might be need to re-evaluate something in the line of reasoning, or some of the sources, or even any of the basic assumptions, or sometimes even to adjust something in MF1... MF3.

Do we need a more practical example? Let me try, analyzing arguments I've seen in a recent Finnish discussion about gay marriage.

A is C = Gay marriage is wrong and shouldn't be allowed.

x = also my friends say so
y = I've heard also other people in the net say so
z = there was this highly educated person saying so

reasoning: If we allow gay marriage, it diminishes the value of traditional marriage. Also, it could lead to gay marriage seen as superior and straight marriage seen as inferior. We have to defend traditional family values. And the function of marriage is to produce offspring, which gay marriage can't do, so it shouldn't be called "marriage".

BA1 = Me and my friends and the people on the internet, we represent the democracy of the real people, as we are the people who still can think clearly, we are not brainwashed by the leftist propaganda!

BA2 = In a society there always is some cultural forms which are viewed as superior, while others are seen as inferior. Traditionally, straight marriage has been superior. If we would promote gay marriage to be superior, it automatically means that straight marriage would degrade to the inferior position.

BA3 = In the society there should always be a hierarchy. Okay it might be that me and my friends, we are not on the highest ranks of the hierarchy. But see, look! There is also that highly educated high-rank person who thinks the same we do - therefore our opinion gains more credibility!

MF1 = When I think about gay sex, I feel disgusting. Therefore it has to be wrong. And what I feel as wrong, should be banned from the others, too.

MF2 = The society is made of separate groups of people, each group sharing different attributes. And each member of a group sharing the same attributes. On the one hand we have a group of "married people", who are straight and good. And outside and totally separate from that group is "the gay people", who are disgusting and inferior. Now, if we allow people from the gay group to enter the group of married people, it will automatically diminish and degrade the value of the group "married people", contaminating every individual in the said group. We should keep all the fundamental groups pure, clean and separate!

MF3 = The world is made up of separate entities with fixed attributes, which are "either / or". And I'm a straight, which means that I'm all straight and don't have any slightest hints of gay sexuality. If I fail to maintain this strict purity, my sexual identity might suddenly collapse and I won't be a real macho anymore. I would instantly turn into a gay. It is 100% or nothing. So, therefore I can't allow myself to say anything positive about gay people, all the times I must maintain maximum separation and rejection of anything which might be considered "gay".

I have seen people stating x,y,z, the reasoning, and BA1. The rest is just my own kitchen-psychology, as I've been both talking with people and following discussions on the net, trying to understand what leads them to believe the way they do. And writing here, these are just simplified caricatures, not really describing any real person out there. I just give this example, hoping to clarify my abstract talk about "pre-cognitive processing". I mean, BA1,2 and 3 are something which might still be relatively easy recognized and described by everyday cognitive thinking. But MF1,2 and 3 are more like pre-cognitive pre-processing, which usually take place automatically, without the person noticing it. So, the verbal descriptions are only vague attempts trying to picture what happens on "the gut level", when a person sees and experiences the world in a certain way. And it is notoriously difficult to reflect and to talk about that kind of stuff - many people just take them for granted. (And then are driven nearly insane when they are faced with the fact that person A sees the dress as black and blue but person B sees the same dress as white and gold, and neither of them is insane nor delusional.)

In other words, the experience of "waking up" is not getting rid of MF1..3 handed down by parents, media and tradition and then seeing the world as it is. No, it is about abandoning MF1..3 and adopting an another set of MF11..MF13. We always have a certain set of "pre-cognitive processes" which do a lot of valuable work for us, helping us to perceive a meaningful world. We can't skip that phase, as it is a necessity for the way our mind works. But we can become more and more conscious of those processes, and we can allow us more freedom to experiment and experience, allowing us possibilities to change and to grown, slowly developing such a set of precognitive processes which would smoothly help us to deal with ourselves, other people and nature.

PS. I would post a picture of The Emperor in His New Clothes - but I'm afraid that the picture might be offensive or inappropriate for some audiences. So no picture this time =)

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Comments

I changed the color temperature settings and contrast of my monitor, and looked at it on a few different monitors at work. It seems to me that with some settings, it looks white and gold, while with others it looks more blue and black. The blue and black seem to turn into white and gold at certain color temp settings when the contrast starts to wash the image out a little.

I still think it has something to do with monitor settings, but.... I dunno. XD

Edit: I had a long thing here about the rest of it, but then realized it had turned into kind of a rant. Which was probably inappropriate for me to post in your blog. So I removed it. I apologize for that!

Those Helsinki University researchers said that in the same room, looking at the same picture on the same monitor some of the staff saw the dress as white-gold, while others saw it blue-black. And their explanation had to do with the color temp you mention - the background of the image hints that the picture is taken in yellowish light. So, for some people the sensory system takes that background hint seriously, and tries to auto-correct the dress colours accordingly. And for other people the background lightning is interpreted slightly diffrently, which leads to perceiving the dress colours as black and blue.

But, yeah - I don't know =) I didn't really follow this discussion very deeply, I just read some commentaries and the interview of those scientists.

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Since you are a regsitered member here, you can edit and delete your comments at will - no problem =) Actually, I'm not sure if my control panel allows me to browse deleted comments, or previous versions of edited comments. Well, but I don't care that much, generally speaking I leave it for every individual to evaluate what they find worth posting.

Oh, it was just a rant about how it seems like both sides of that issue (at least in the US) seem to be full of hate towards each other. And how I feel like if they would just stop hating on each other and respect each other's right to think and do as they please so long as they're not messing up anyone else's freedoms or whatever, then none of it would matter one way or the other.

And there was something about how in the US, there's supposed to be a separation of church and state according to our constitution, so I am not sure why the government is supporting //any// kind of marriage (be it gay or straight), since marriage is a religious institution, and how I feel like that sort of thing ought to be left to the separate churches/civic organizations/whatever, and how I don't feel like my government has any business trying to legislate morality on //either// side of that argument, because that starts to become way too Orwellian.

But that was all a little off the topic and I was being grumbly, so you know... :P

Again, sorry. Hehe.

I think you are exactly on-topic. A proper reply would soon develop into another blog entry, and right now I'm bit too tired to write clearly. Maybe some other day =)

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