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Perception, memory, reality

At Kontufolk, during Litku Klemetti show I was in the front row. As the crowd moved forward I ended up right next to the stage, literally just a few metres away from the artists. So I had a clear, unobstructed view - and for most of the time I was paying full attention to the band playing. (The only exceptions were the moments when I danced eyes closed.) The following day I saw a close friend, and recalled some memorable moments from yesterday's show. For example, I had a vivid memory of seeing Litku Klemetti playing her balalaika, then switching to keyboards - but that the balalaika strap slipped off her shoulder, so the strap was hanging on her waist leaving the balalaika near her feet. Litku kept on playing the keyboards, and only when the song was finished, she picked up the balalaika, joking that "oh, seems like I just gave birth to this beautiful one!". I described this to my friend.

The day after that I found that someone had already uploaded youtube videos from Kontufolk. If you didn't watch the one I linked in my previous blog, it is here. The event I described takes place near the end, after 4:40 or so. If you watch it, you'll probably see that the song ends there. Litku does not play keyboards while the balalaika is hanging near her feet. But I had - and still have - a clear visual memory which corresponds to the story I originally told. So, apparently, the video footage contradicts my story. I have no reason the believe that the video is forged or altered in any way, so I had to accept that my memory was slightly wrong. No problems admitting that, but it raised some other unsettling questions; If I have this one vivid but false memory, then can I rely on any of my memories? How can I know if all of my memories are delusional? What if I remember correctly but it is just that my perception is unrealistic? What will my friend think about my story - that I deliberately lied, or that I'm a poor soul living in my own delusional dis-reality?

Oh well. I didn't take those doubtful questions so seriously, as life experience and academical studies have already convinced me that this is just the normal of how human mind works. Our mind doesn't merely record raw visual data, but we are all the time processing information, interpreting and making sense of the world we perceive. It might be that to some extent our memory is a vast archive of stored perceptions, which are just dumped there - but if so, then at least the process of recalling memories is highly optimized; we remember the main things which characterized the situation, and we tend to omit a lot of less important details. So no need to feel embarrassed, no need to judge myself as delusional when I notice my mind working just the way a human mind normally works. Then, on the other hand, it seems like an equally normal human trait is to believe that ones perception and vivid memories somehow correspond to the reality like a mirror image does - so that it feels uneasy to admit that what one thought to be reality was not so.

In the case described it is probably just that my mind combined two different episodes, and they merged into one single memory in my mind. We have a video footage where Litku's balalaika ends up hanging near her feet - and I'd guess in some other song Litku switched from balalaika to keyboards, and that time the balalaika strap stayed on her shoulder. So instead of having a vivid memory of non-existent events, it is more like that my memory is a combination of two real events merged into one. If this is a delusion, I'd call it a mostly harmless one. But, of course, things like that could mean a lot if I were an eye-witness to a murder, recalling my memories. So is there anything we can do to check if vivid memories are realistic or not?

We have already suggested videos and photos as 'objective evidence', as the machine just records the visual landscape as it is, not altering it based on its own prejudices. Of course we could go into the boring details of photography, but I'd guess all of you already know a lot of ways how photos and videos can be forged, and how they can be used to make things seem different from what they are in real life. From a philosophical point of view I'd also like to point out that even if a photo was as neutral as possible, unaltered real shot, there still is a process of interpretation taking place when a human mind makes sense of the photo. At times that can lead to rather baffling results, like a few of Norwegian anti-immigration folks mistakenly seeing empty bus seats as women in burqas. I think the key features here are that 1) we tend to see what our mind is pre-tuned to see, and 2) in a social group a shared interpretation reinforces itself; it is easier to believe X to be a true perception when a lot of your peers say that too. This is where it gets dangerous, I think - perfectly natural, the normal way human mind tends to work, but just outright dangerous in the contemporary world.

I'll skip the whole silly anti-immigration 'debate' (for two reasons: 1) to talk seriously about the issue would take a long and detailed text, as the whole thing is rather complicated and comes with a lot of layers which need to be examined carefully, and 2) typically it isn't that easy to talk seriously about the whole topic, as too many people just throw in their knee-jerk reactions and the rational discussion dies even before it got an opportunity to begin. But in case you wonder; I think every human being has the exact same value as a human being, I don't care what skin colour or religion my neighbours have - I think as human beings we anyway face the question of how to deal with each other even when we have our differences. And that I'd rather live in a society which tolerates individual differences, than in a society which forces everyone to be the same.) So let's take a look at a few other topics.

The case of Litku's balalaika is pretty simple; there is one story and one video, and I'd guess we can all agree that the video is more reliable than my memory. So the case can be settled based on single piece of evidence. But unfortunately, not all the real-life events are that simple. Take, for example, the Baltic States joining NATO after the Soviet Union collapsed. Seen from Finland the story is pretty clear; in Soviet times the Baltic states lived under Soviet oppression, they wanted freedom and independence - when the opportunity arose they declared independence (and for a moment there was a looming real threat of Kremlin re-taking Baltics by military force. That was met by a quickly organized resistance ready for lethal means - but luckily things went smooth and the Russian troops withdrew without a fight). So no wonder if they wanted to join NATO - the most powerful defence alliance, as they knew that small states alone couldn't defend themselves against the full force of Russian military. But is this reality, or just a biased anti-russian story? Reading the news and correspondent reports, it seems that the current Russian leadership sees the events as 'NATO expansion'. Now the story isn't about small nations choosing to team-up with bigger allies to better defend themselves - now the story is about an enemy alliance pushing towards Moscow, piece by piece tearing apart the old mighty Kremlin sphere of influence. Not to mention Ukraine - the Kremlin story seems to be that they are justified to defend their territory against hostile enemy interference. Now, if one wanted to, it is probably rather easy to find pieces of evidence to support the story that NATO and CIA have actively been stirring up unrest in ex-Soviet states, secretly affecting the political process, and behind the scenes helping to install Western-minded governments. So it is not just small nations democratically choosing their fate and future direction; it is more like enemy empire expanding its territory. (This seems to be the standard colonialistic world-view; people and their homelands are seen as mere territory to be conquered and governed by The Mighty. It is not a Kremlin invention, as European powers have been pretty good at playing that game, too.)

As things become more complex - and involve a sense of existential threat - it becomes easier to dismiss neutral evidence and biased fake news. So many times I've heard Kremlin-minded people saying that Western media is full of anti-russian hysteria, that Western news are systematically painting Putin as evil, offering only one-sided story and spreading non-confirmed gossip as verified truth. And therefore it is only fair to have news from Russian point of view, to counter the biased one-sided Western news. Uh oh - I'm not quite sure if I can follow the logic there. To me it appears as saying 'since your news is biased, we have a right to believe these other news which are biased the opposite way'. Well, personally I'd prefer to seek some sort of neutral understanding of what is going on - instead of merely choosing this or that group to identify with. Psychologically speaking, I do understand that it is very comfortable to identify with a group, to accept the group's stories as the real news and to dismiss all the contradicting evidence as fake news. That way you never need to face that somewhat embarrassing moment of having to admit that your perceptions and memories were false and that someone else's evidence is more credible. But, if you ask me - that is what emotionally insecure people do. If you have a strong character and good self-esteem, you can take the hit of having to admit that you were wrong, you can adjust to new evidence and to change your mind without too much emotional pain. Or, you can feel a touch of embarrassment and then just let it be knowing that ultimately our self-worth won't be damaged by such a minor thing.

Seems like we have had something similar going on with North Korea as well. Based on history and real evidence, they have a lot of reasons to be afraid that USA is their enemy and would like to see a regime change in North Korea. So the North Korean leadership reasons that to properly defend themselves they need nukes and ICBMs. (Remember, all the other countries think that it is justified to defend their own territory against enemy hostility. So why should North Korea be any different? They perceive themselves under existential threat, so they take all the necessary means to defend their existence. Again, of course, it is mostly a question of The Mighty Ones perceiving certain piece of land as their territory, and then being afraid that they might lose their territory and their political power because of enemy military infiltration.) And, naturally, the military and political leadership of USA feels themselves threatened as North Korea pushes towards acquiring means of mass destruction. Now where is the single video footage which would settle the issue? Where is the neutral evidence which could serve as common ground to find an interpretation all can agree on? I'm afraid there is no such evidence, as the world is already so complex, and the human mind tends to work so that if under existential threat you don't waste time carefully examining all the possible interpretations but rather you prefer to react quickly with decisive force. (And if you are a political leader, the more you can make your people feel like they are under enemy threat, the more the people tend to group together and to support their leader. So if you want to secure your own leadership, one good way is to feed the sense of existential threat. It works so well that eventually a group of people will perceive a picture of empty bus seats as an evidence that their own culture is threatened by an invasion of foreign culture with different kind of clothes. And people, they tend to believe their own perception of reality is the real one.)

Then there are things like global climate change, depletion of natural resources, and the growing social tensions because of growingly uneven distribution of profits gained. All of these factors have a potential of leading to the collapse of the civilization as we know it. No, I don't necessarily mean an apocalyptic scenes of sudden extinction of entire population. But more likely just a major social unrest, shaking and collapsing many of the established functions of the organized society. Or, to be honest, to me it seems rather plausible that ongoing climate change has the full potential of causing mass famine and anything like 75 - 100 % reduction of human population, in the course of coming 40 - 100 years. Yes yes, I know a lot of people don't agree with this view, and they label any such scenario as a text-book example of scaremongering, trying to manipulate people because of some obscure hidden agenda of private profit somewhere. So, again, do we have enough evidence to decide which kind of story is the most credible? Or are we just left with competing stories told from opposite points of view?

Instead of going into the hard scientific evidence of climate change, and instead of further examining the psychological side of wanting to believe the story of your own in-group, I'd like to offer a yet another fictional story. Imagine an UFO armada hovering over the skies of Earth. First they'd blast some alien explosives on developing countries, landing to raid resources there. Next they'd start to bomb coastal cities, again landing to grab what ever loot they could raid. Now, how would the general public react? Some would say that the whole event isn't real and that it is only just fabricated media story to control people with scaremongering. (Sure, you can always play this trick. On that note, I tend to think that USA doesn't exists, but is merely a false media story fabricated by those companies who gained private profit by shipping people to the so-called New Continent. Never believe such stupid lies! Those companies made people to sell all they got in Europe, boarding ships like Titanic, and the companies saw the people drown in the ocean. Selling one-way tickets to certain death - such a good business model! To keep up the appearances you needed to fabricate fake news about people gaining riches in America. Spam those stories everywhere and people will believe it. Hah! But it is me and few other clear-minded people who can see through this conspiracy. USA does not exist, it never did! Always, if you are massively told a story in state-run schools and mainstream media, never believe it and remember to ask: who gains the profit? Yes, it is the transportation companies gaining huge profits by fooling people to buy tickets to USA. You can fool a lot of idiots, but you can't fool me for I can think in a critical and rational manner, through and through!. Hey, now wait what? Oops, sorry, it was my intention to tell just one fictional story, but then I sidetracked to this another silly story. I leave it up to you to figure out if it is serious or satirical).

So where were we? Yes, we had an UFO armada raiding Earth. Okay, some people would think that it doesn't matter as long as they are destroying remote countries and other nations. Sure they won't come here, as we haven't done anything against them? Nothing bad ever happens here, right? And then some people, maybe, probably maybe, would feel that The Earth is under attack, and to defend ourselves against an external threat we have to put aside our differences, to join our forces and to fight back - China, Russia, Europe, USA all united in a joint effort to save the planet for us and for our children. I'd guess evolution prepared us for that - when threatened by external hostility, most of the people tend to group together to better defend themselves. Maybe an UFO invasion could trigger such a reaction on global scale - at least for a moment? Once the UFO armada would retreat because of heavy unified resistance, then we could again relax and go back to our usual 'my group is better than your group, now if you come any closer to our territory we will punch you in the face!'-mentality. It all depends on how do we perceive the reality.

So, then, why isn't the global climate change perceived like an UFO invasion? A global threat which poses an existential threat to mankind, and which requires unified co-operation to avoid the worst-case scenarios? Is it because so many of us prefer to stick with our earlier perceptions and memories? That we tend to find our comfort in aligning with the interpretations and stories of the fellow members of our own tribe? Is it because it is psychologically easier to dismiss conflicting evidence as fake news, so that one doesn't need to admit that one's perceptions and memories might have been just a little bit delusional? Given the evidence, do we prefer to stick with our pre-existing opinions, or are we open to re-evaluate our interpretations? Even when it would potentially mean shaking up some of such stuff we felt that we had a clear, vivid, self-evident perception and memory?

I recently read a paper about the possibility of avoiding the collapse of Western civilization. It concludes: "But that requires resisting the very natural urge, when confronted with such overwhelming pressures, to become less cooperative, less generous and less open to reason." In a way, I do agree. On the other hand, I'm still a bit unsure if it really is the very natural urge to become less cooperative and less open to reason when faced with enormous pressure or immediate existential threat. As, I'd like to point out that since prehistory it has been cooperation and rationality which have enabled us to survive and to prosper. A lone hunter in the jungle is a lot more likely to perish, but an organized group of humans has greater chances of continued survival. And the human species has been rather good at using the rationality to solve problems. It remains to be seen if we continue to do so, or if we, on a large scale, prefer to stubbornly stick to our old habits even when those habits are likely to get us all killed.

Litku Klemetti playing balalaika. A picture I took while dancing. No filter, no photoshop.
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