Objective vision of the world impossible

June 14, 2020

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Objective vision of the world impossible

When you watch the demonstrations in the US on TV, what do you see? Do you see them as they really are? Maybe, maybe not.

A team of researchers who study the mind and brain used methods from cognitive science to test the long-standing philosophical question: Can people see the world objectively?

Their answer, to be published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is a flat no.

With a novel series of experiments using sophisticated computer graphics and laser-cut “coins,” the team found that it’s almost impossible for people to separate an object’s true identity from their own perspective on it. In this case, people looked at round objects that were tilted away from them; even when people were certain that the objects were round, they couldn’t help but “see” them in a distorted way, as ovals or ellipses.

What the researchers say: “This question about the influence of one’s own perspective on perception is one philosophers have been discussing for centuries,” said the senior author.

When humans see things, the brain identifies them by combining raw visual information with ingrained assumptions and knowledge about the world. For example, if you take a circular coin and tilt it away from you, light from the coin hits your eyes in the shape of an oval or ellipse; but your brain then goes beyond that information and makes you “see” a circle in the real world. Philosophers, notably including John Locke and David Hume, have long wondered if it’s possible to separate the way the object really is (a circle) from how it lands on our eyes (an ellipse–in other words, whether pure objective vision is even possible.

To get at the question, the team designed a “philosophy experiment” for the lab.

Over the course of nine experiments, subjects were shown pairs of three-dimensional coins. One was always a true oval, the other was a circle. Subjects had to pick the true oval. Seems easy, yet when presented with tilted circular coins, subjects were flummoxed, and their response time slowed significantly. This persisted whether the coins were still or moving; with different shapes; and whether the coins were shown on a computer screen or displayed right in front of subjects.

Objects are stamped with our perspective, concluded the lead author. “Our subjective approach to the world stays with us. Even when we try to perceive the world the way it really is, we can’t completely discard our perspective.”

“This is a project that really surprised us—we expected ‘objectivity’ to totally overwhelm any influence of the subject’s perspective,” said the researchers. “This is a nice example of how ideas from philosophy can influence the science of the mind and brain.”

So, what? Just as we can’t make decisions on the basis of facts or reason, it would seem that we can’t use reason to see things really objectively. In a sense it shows that the brain does not work on the basis of logic in any sphere, whether it’s thought or perception.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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