by Peter Francis Colbourne
The Perceptual Double Barrier
Firstly, we rely on distinctive physical pathways for our only perceptions of that universe: we call them senses. Thus, energy waves and friction act on our physical receptors and signals are transmitted via networks of nerves to various areas of our brains where an impression of the extant physical world creates an experience for the mind -- a sense of touch, sight, sound or smell. Of that process of transportation between the external physical realm and the mind we have no experience whatsoever. The phenomena occur without any volition on our part and we do not possess a sense that `feels' the passage of the impulses through our nerve fibers. Everything we experience through our senses occurs within our brains, and our minds -- however they may be conceived -- are conscious of the end product, the firing of the neurons that create the sensations for us to experience. We are thus always and forever locked within the confines of our skulls, experiencing the illusion of touch, smell, sight and hearing in a mini-universe that is devoid of tactility, odour, light and sound.
Our minds have no direct contact with the external physical universe but rather we are aware of the response of a tiny portion of that universe -- our brains -- to electrical and chemical signals triggered in response to the body's remote sensing system. This is a defining factor of our experience of the external world that the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was entirely aware of. These are his four explanatory points on the «conception» of objects:
That the subject wherein colour and image are inherent, is not the object or the thing seen.
That that is nothing without us really which we call an image or colour.
That the said image or colour is but an apparition unto us of that motion, agitation, or alteration, which the object worketh in the brain or spirits, or some internal substance of the head.
That as in conception by vision, so also in the conceptions that arise from other senses, the subject of their inherence is not the object, but the sentient. (c1641)
The first barrier to our experience of any objective reality we are part of is therefore a physical one -- it is the very body we inhabit and which mediates sensation for usFoot note 1. Furthermore, the senses that create what appears to us as an incredibly rich experiential world of smells, sights, sounds and touch are in themselves highly limited faculties. Many animals have a sense of smell that is a million times more sensitive than ours. Bats and dolphins have sonar. Eagles have much more acute vision than we do, and goldfish can see into both the infra red and the ultraviolet. Wonderful as it is, our world of sensation is a highly restricted one.
Secondly, any processing system must interpret the data received so that meaning can be inferred. A face has to be recognised as a face; the call of a bird as birdsong. Our brains interpret the raw data -- the nerve impulses -- and create sense and order. Without this processing systemFoot note 2 there would be no perception of a coherent external reality, a point also made by Dan Sperber (1997). This is starkly highlighted by people in whom this process has been damaged in some way and who hear colours and see sounds, for example, or who suffer from hallucinations.
This process is therefore the second barrier to our perception of the universe, for the process is an interpretive one and requires both something to interpret experiences against, for comparative purposes, and through, for the assignment of meaningFoot note 3. This latter issue may be illustrated with two linked examples. Picture yourself watching a sunrise. The horizon lightens and eventually the sun rises above it. Morning has arrived. In this case, photons have impacted on your retinas and nerve impulses have been decoded or interpreted to represent the experience of a sunrise. Further, being a twenty-first century person, you perceive the movement of the sun to represent the spinning of a roughly spherical earth in space around a hydrogen-burning star. Thus, the horizon you see is for you the curved edge of our round planet.
Now transport yourself back into the body and mind of an individual in medieval Europe who is observing a sunrise there. Again, the architecture of this person's brain will create the experience of a sunrise. However, what she sees is a heavenly sphere circling the earth. Moreover, the horizon for her is the edge of the earth over which the unwary explorer is likely to fall. For both yourself and our medieval acquaintance, it is not the objective reality that imparts meaning to the experience but the belief system. For human beings, believing is seeing.
This phenomenon of the subjectivity of human perception has been graphically illustrated in a number of research projects on the unreliability of eyewitness reports. Consistently, individuals will report seeing activities that did not happen or people who were not there (Bizzell et al 2000; Wright, Gail and Justice 2000; Poole and Lindsay 2001; Haber and Haber 2001; Wright, Loftus and Hall 2001). It has been estimated that currently 5000 people are incarcerated in the Unites States of America on the sworn and incorrect testimony of eyewitnesses.
The physical limitations of our perceptual systems combined with the interpretive functions of the brain make these errors inevitable. We shall tend to `see' what we are predisposed to see and will probably be convinced that our interpretation represents the only `objective' reality.
The impact of the double perceptual barrier on our processes of inquiry is significant. An object (or phenomenon) acts as a stimulus on our sense receptors and signals are sent to the brain. To use a visual phenomenon as an example, the brain then reconstitutes an impression of the object. We thus do not «see» the object but rather its reconstituted image. That image may be poorly or wrongly realised because of the limitations of our perceptual systems and the processes of interpretation we impose on the image. For example, we may decide that the red car parked next door is, as usual, our neighbour's Ford when it is in fact a visitor's Toyota. We have «seen» what we expected to see.
Our relationship with the external universe is therefore both second hand and problematic. Our minds, however they may be defined, do not and can never directly perceive the `objective' universe. We certainly construct interpretations and representations of that universe -- or at least parts of it -- but those phenomena are not the universe itself, as David Hume noted over two hundred and fifty years ago.
In relation to our formal inquiries into the universe of which we are a part, scientific research may be conceived of as a vehicle for moving our perceptions and beliefs closer to an accurate description of objective phenomena -- or as Simon Blackburn (1999) has put it: «Science ... contains within itself the devices for correcting the illusions of science» (p. 232). Also, scientific theories are tested against observation, or research, and may be discarded or modified accordingly. The process of science may therefore be seen as a codified attempt to align the reconstituted, internal conception of the universe, and its recorded descriptions in writing and mathematics, with the objective extant universeFoot note 4. (In terms of the hypothetical example above, a further examination of the car in question may reveal what make it is and to whom it belongs.)
However, Karl Popper (1966) has identified the problematic nature of this process:
To explore this issue further, it is certainly the case that scientific inquiry is concerned primarily with the search for truth, or the search for accurate descriptions of phenomena, and science, in general, does overtly address the problems of subjectivity and perceptual plurality through both its methodologies and an evolved process of peer reviewFoot note 5. Popper (1953) referred to this process as falsificationism -- that is, the applicability of scientific theories is assessed against how inaccurate they are rather than how accurate. To take the above example again, it is an identification of the inaccuracies of the `theory' concerning the neighbour's car that would lead to adjustments and not any confirmation of its accuracy. The modern system of scientific inquiry is by far the most effective yet developed for establishing descriptions of the physical properties of phenomena, devising technologies to manipulate those phenomena and creating physical outcomes. The system may be just as much belief driven as any other human endeavour and always open to the inconsistencies that are inherent in the human perceptual system, but a process of critical analysis, or belief modification, is inherently part of it. Thus, neither the effectiveness of science in forming and sustaining our technological society nor its role in developing relevant representational theoretical structures is questioned here.
What is questioned is the objectivity of these processes, both in their inception and their execution, and the extent to which they may be applied to phenomena. Robert Maxwell Young (2000) has expressed this view as follows:
In other words, the quest for scientific truth is always to some extent vulnerable to the values and perceptions of the scientists involved as well as to the problematic nature of truth itself.
This subjective/objective paradox has a long and dynamic history. The second perceptual barrier I have identified above is a re-statement of the «dualism» first proposed by PlatoFoot note 6 and established as a principle of human psychology in the Western scientific tradition by Descartes (1649). This view of human personality suggests that mind and body are not only separate, but can also exist separately from each other. Descartes believed that the mind and the body were composed of different substances that interacted through the pineal gland. Other theorists, and in particular Malebranche (1674) and Leibniz (c1696), developed variations on this concept, but for all three men God was an essential element of their hypotheses, either as the creator of mind, or as the medium through which the mind and body interacted. Eventually, the concept of dualism was replaced by that of «monism» -- or the belief that mind and body were aspects of the one phenomenon, initially introduced by Spinoza (c1677). Although Spinoza saw God as the unitary force in this model, the view of human beings as machines (La Mettrie, 1749) soon became central to this hypothesis, and came to focus on the mind as being a product of chemical or neurological processes in the brain (Wozniak, 1992). This latter form of the model denied the metaphysical aspect of dualism and became the orthodoxy as theistic explanations for phenomena became less accepted by scientists.
Variations on these rationalist theories remained current until well into the nineteen-eighties when both Roger Sperry (1987) and Michael Gazzaniga (1993) reopened the debate. The basic premise of both neurobiologists was that we experience mind as separate from body and that, therefore, they may be considered conceptually separate. Further, both support Descartes' interactionist model that assumes a mutually influential relationship between mind and body.
However, both Gazzaniga and Sperry, and later Searle (1999), also supported a monist view of consciousness that saw this phenomenon as an emergent property of the functioning of the brain -- a view compatible with complex systems theory. That is, mind and body (or the brain in this case) might be experientially separate, but nonetheless are part of the same phenomenon -- the biological entity that is the human brainFoot note 7.
The model I have proposed takes this one step further. In the Interactive Mind, Sperry, Gazzaniga and Searle's concept of the experientially separate mind is assumed -- that is, mind and body may be experienced as separate but may not be able to function without each other. However, the dimension of the affective/subjective observer that I have proposed significantly alters the outcomes that might be considered to arise from the functioning of this model. For example, Descartes' model presumes not only God as agent, but also that mind can objectively observe body -- or, in its universalist form, all matter. Thus, all that is separate from mind becomes an object to be observed and used. Descartes' combination of the two concepts of the separation of mind and matter and the objective observer entails objectifying all that is non-mind. For Descartes, mind is God created and God given and, because God is incapable of error, mind can objectively observe God's creation -- the extant universe. Descartes (1649) explicitly expressed this view of man the controller of the natural world in the Meditations.
This may be represented as follows:
`Mind' the objective observer
Interaction between mind and matter direct and objective
Matter consists of objects to be observed
Therefore matter consists of objects to be described and used
However, if the objective dimension is removed, the consequence is very different:
`Mind' an affective/subjective phenomenon
Matter probably extant but not directly observable
Therefore perception of matter is a function of mind to be analysed and questioned
In this case, no direct relationship between mind and matter is assumed. Rather, the physical media and the perceptual and intellectual processes through which mind pursues and interprets a relationship with matter are assumed to be problematic and possibly objectively impenetrable. Thus, the focus is removed from an objectified universe to an affective/subjective interface between mind and matter. In this model, the conception of the extant universe as an object to be manipulated is removed at least one dimension, and unless the objective/subjective paradox is resolved, may indeed continue to be excluded from it.
The consequences for the Descartes worldview are profound. Far from a God given ability and right to control the rest of nature, a consideration of the rationales for any interventions becomes an issue. In other words, the features of the relationship between the inquiring mind and the universe can be seen to put into question all motivations and justifications for actions that impact on that universe. Albert Einstein (1930) made this point as follows:
Essentially, the concept of the subjective observer places ethical and moral considerations at the heart of the debate on human activities, and that must be particularly true of science and technology as such overwhelmingly potent forms of those activities, as Roger Sperry (1987b) has noted:
The emergence of a recent form of monism, which I have called postmodernist monism to reflect the relativistic nature of the model, thus highlights a crucial dimension of the relationship between the inquiring mind and the extant universe. The assumption that the scientist is in some way transformed into an objective agent -- some sort of machine -- for analysing phenomena, is not supported by this model. Rather, the conception of the scientist as an affective agent exploring his or her relationship with the universe seems unavoidable. Indeed, as Karl Popper (1966), Paul Feyerabend (1975) and J.D. Trout (2002) have detailed, assuming an unquestioned objectivity has had significant consequences in the history of scientific inquiry, resulting in a litany of false conclusions that were considered to be evidently true.
For illustrative purposes, I have included two examples here that demonstrate the overt influence that an assumption of objectivity, or of the objective observer, has on all aspects of the processes of inquiry from the formation of the hypothesis, to the choice of methodologies and to the analysis of results.
Biston betularia, or the peppered moth, was the subject of a series of classic experiments by English botanist Bernard Kettlewell (1955, 1956) that seemed at the time to confirm the processes of natural selection detailed by Charles Darwin in The Origin of the Species (1859). The peppered moth exists in various shades of grey from a near white to a near black, with individuals normally exhibiting lighter shades interspersed with a speckling of darker scales. It had been noted by Tutt (1896) that darker, or melanic, varieties were replacing lighter ones near heavily industrialised areas. He hypothesised that the lighter varieties were more easily located and predated upon by birds when the moths rested on the dark trunks of trees exposed when industrial pollution killed the lighter coloured lichen that had covered them. It was assumed that natural selection then resulted in a progressive darkening of the population.
Kettlewell's experiments were designed to test Tutt's hypothesis. He first established that the moths were predated upon by birds. He then, through a process of releasing and recapturing moths in polluted and non-polluted woodlands, established that melanic individuals were twice as likely to survive in polluted environments, with the opposite being the case for lighter individuals. He therefore concluded that the theory of evolutionary change, and particularly natural selection, was supported.
Kettlewell's work was widely lauded by botanists and geneticists (Wells, 1999) and his experiments on the peppered moth became, and still are, essential study for biology students as a classic example of natural selection in operation.
However, Kettlewell made two crucial and unfounded assumptions when framing his hypothesis and the research to explore that hypothesis. First, he assumed that evolutionary change was driven by simple cause and effect relationships -- in other words, that a simplistic model for natural selection could be observed in nature -- and secondly, and most importantly, he also assumed that an empirical research methodology could accurately and effectively be utilised to explore and describe that process. Kettlewell then went on to complete the paradigmatic circle -- he found what he expected to find.
Subsequent research has thrown significant doubt on both Kettlewell's methodologies and his conclusions.
Exactly why peppered moth populations exhibit significant changes in pigmentation between generations is not yet clear. Hypotheses include air born pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, genetic drift and thermal melanism (Wells, 1999). Whatever the underlying causes are, however, it is clear that Kettlewell's conclusions are unsupported. Although his experiments clearly demonstrated evolutionary change between generations, both the choice of methodologies to explore the causes for those changes and the conclusions drawn from the empirical results are founded on unproven assumptions.
The essential point to be made here is that if the classical objectivist paradigm is considered the way to do science, then Kettlewell's work is to be admired:
Kettlewell conducted his research in an era when the classical paradigm for research methodology was relatively unchallenged. He was simply following the almost universally accepted and expected processes for exploring phenomena. The challenges to this hegemony from the complexity sciencesFoot note 8 and postmodernism were yet to come. Nevertheless, it was the beliefs, the assumptions, that Kettlewell carried into his research that informed the hypothesis, structured the research and presupposed the analysis of the results. Kettlewell therefore found what he was looking for -- what he believed he would find. However, beliefs cannot automatically be translated into facts, or truths, about the objective universe external to our minds. Kettlewell got it wrong in this instance not because he was a poor scientist, but because he was enculturated into the norms and mores of his community. He -- together with myself and all those who adopted the objectivist paradigm for research -- was misled by a subconscious assumption about the nature of phenomena and how those phenomena might be explored.
Wells (1999) has neatly summed up the issue raised by the debate over Kettlewell's work:
In the context of my argument, one of the greatest `flaws' revealed by a focus on science are the often unconscious beliefs and assumptions each of us carry into our work. Bernard Kettlewell had little choice but to do so in his research -- at the time there was only one major paradigm in existence that could inform and guide his work. However, the same excuse should not be accepted today. The same series of experiments repeated now with the same hypotheses and methodologies would be highly questionable. Furthermore, the conclusions should certainly be very different as well. Kettlewell's research projects were classics of their time and indeed I studied and appreciated them as well. The point here is not a criticism of Kettlewell, but rather that changes in the assumptions applied to any outcome of the processes of scientific inquiry can change completely the value that may be placed on that outcome and the methodologies utilised which led to that outcome. In Wells' terms, this work may now be considered an example of a flaw in the way science is conducted rather than an example of best practice. The automatic assumption of an objective observer who experiences a direct and unalloyed perception of the external world can no longer be supported.
In 1999 a fossil discovery was announced by the National Geographic Magazine in its November edition (Sloan, 1999) that was hailed at the time as one of the most significant in the history of palaeontology. Unearthed in the Liaoning Province of China and bought at an Arizona minerals show in the USA, the fractured pieces of shale seemed to contain the fossil of a missing link between dinosaurs and birds. The fossil exhibited the arms of a primitive bird, and possibly feathers, and the tail of a theropod -- a small dinosaur. The fossil was dated at about 125 million years old.
The missing link between the two genuses had been sought by palaeontologists since the discovery of the first archaeopteryx fossil in 1860 near Solnhofen in Germany. Archaeopteryx was a primitive bird-like species with feathers that the scientist who named it, Hermann von Meyer, suggested had evolved from a dinosaur. Until archaeoraptor, no evidence of intermediary links between the genuses had been discovered.
Within a year, archaeoraptor was shown to be a fake. By an incredible stroke of chance, Chinese palaeontologist Xu Xing obtained what turned out to be the counter slab of part of the archaeoraptor fossil from a farmer and sometime amateur fossil hunter in Liaoning Province. The deposits in the area had been formed in layers that often split apart when removed. Thus a fossil can be split into two complimentary halves, known as the slab and the counter slab. Xu Xing compared his fossil with pictures of archaeoraptor and realised that the latter must be a composite, for not only were completely different pelvises exhibited on each slab, but also the rear legs bones in the photographs were mirror images of each other -- that is, they were yet another slab and counter slab of a single fossil leg arranged in archaeoraptor as if they were separate limbs. His email to the National Geographic's Christopher Sloan was a bombshell. The error was National Geographic's most embarrassing in its 110 year history.
Lewis Simons was commissioned by National Geographic to investigate the error. His (October 2000) report details what he called:
He eventually established that archaeoraptor was created by a Chinese farmer from fragments glued together of at least two separate and completely unconnected fossils. Further analyses by Timothy Rowe et al (2003), utilising high-resolution x-ray analysis, has demonstrated how the fake was created, including the use of grouting to hold it together. Archaeoraptor was nothing more than a clever combination of two stone jigsaws.
As it has turned out, neither of the two identifiable fossils that made up the archaeoraptor composite were of species previously known to science. They have now been classified and named as, respectively, a fish-eating bird Yanornis martini and a small bipedal meat-eating dinosaur Microraptor zhaoianus (Mayell, 2002). However, neither specimen may be considered an intermediary link between dinosaurs and birds.
In relation to the context of this paper, the most important finding to come out of Simon's investigation was that nearly everybody involved, amateurs and expert scientists alike, saw what they expected, or perhaps wanted, to find -- a missing link between species presupposed by the neo-Wallace (1858) and neo-Darwinian (1859) theories of natural selection. After all, if the theories are accurate reflections of a real and measurable effect in the natural world then such links must exist and finding the relevant fossils may be simply a matter of time. Nevertheless, the important point to be made here is that it was a set of assumptions that drove the conclusions. The objectivist paradigm, embodied in this case in the application of the current theories on speciation, predisposed the result. Indeed, Simon makes the point that without the amazingly unlikely finding of the counter slab by Xu Xing then archaeoraptor may well still be considered one of the most important discoveries in palaeontology. In other words, the story of the finding of archaeoraptor may have been considered an example of the modern scientific method revealing an important truth or fact about the history of our world. As it is, archaeoraptor has existed only for a short time, and then, like Pegasus, has flown only in the imagination.
As human beings we have an experience of mind that appears to separate us from the universe of which we are a part -- an existential dualism that engenders and supports the illusion of the objective observer. The assumptions and beliefs implicit in the adoption of the conventions attached to the objectivist paradigm tend to remove the individual as an affective parameter in these processes. Rather, the relationship the individual has with the world -- for example as a scientist -- may be considered an impersonal one. The ethical dimension of our interventions in the universe then becomes secondary to objectifying the phenomena we investigate and act upon, or as Denzin and Lincoln (1998) have noted ethics is extrinsic to this form of inquiry process. The emergence of a recent form of monism arising out of neurobiological research challenges this conception and instead highlights the subjective interface between the inquiring mind and all phenomena. As a result, ethics is placed at the centre of all considerations of scientific inquiry. As Roger Sperry (1987b) noted in one of his last papers:
I would argue that only by recognising and taking into account, both as individuals and collectives, the impact of objectified dualism on our processes of inquiry can the subjectivism of the interpretive mind be embraced and these changes potentially achieved. The concept of an existence separate from physical reality in some way -- whether this be in terms of Plato's `intellect' (360 BCE), Descarte's `mind' (1649) or Aquinas's (1266-71) `soul', for example -- allows a detachment from the world we inhabit that underpins most forms of inquiry that we take part in, including scientific inquiry. That detachment can no longer be supported. Rather, as Benz and Shapiro (1998) state:
It seems clear that it is time to accept being fully human and embrace the complete range of our intellectual gifts -- for interpretation and subjectivity as well as for rational analysis -- so that we may increase our attempts to address the ills of the world rather than continue to add to them through an insupportable pursuance of the objectivist paradigm. This is not, however, a denigration of the modern scientific method -- it is simply a call to extend it. Indeed, it is important to note here that it may be that no form of inquiry would be possible without our ability to be an observer -- without the illusion of objective dualism. Through this ability, the inquiring mind can reflect on all phenomena it encounters, including itself. It is one of our defining and most profound gifts. It is nevertheless also problematic and double-edged and, unleavened by an integral consideration of the subjective and interpretive nature of our processes of inquiry, can engender outcomes that are not only false, but potentially divorced from ethicality. We cannot afford scientific endeavours that assume an objective detachment from the world we live in.
Peter Francis Colbourne
5 South Arm Road
peter.colbourne [at] tqa.tas.gov.au
[Foot Note 1]
This position coincides with Varela, Thompson and Rosch's (1991) argument that knowledge coevolves with the knower and not as an outside, objective representation. Varela et al go on to propose that this knowledge is a function of the whole cellular organism that is the human individual rather than any one subset of it as I have discussed here. Bruno Latour (2005) has developed a modification of this model, proposing that lived meaning informed by experience negates the apparent barrier between the object observed and the subject observer. My alternative argument here is that we also have the lived experience of being separate from the object.
[Foot Note 2]
For an overview of the neurodynamical and phenomenological models for this processing system, see Gallagher and Varela (2001).
[Foot Note 3]
David Bohm and F. David Peat (2000) have discussed the related concepts of selection and collection under the heading of «category formation» (p.112).
[Foot Note 4]
Clive Beck (1993) has expressed a similar view: «Knowledge is the product of an interaction between our ideas about the world and our experience of the world.»(p. 3)
[Foot Note 5]
Or as Willard Quine (1951) put it, «...our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body.» (p. 36)
[Foot Note 6]
In the Phaedo (360 BCE).
[Foot Note 7]
John Dewey was ahead of his time here and discussed a similar model in Democracy and Education (1916).
[Foot Note 8]
Although Warren Weaver (1948) had already heralded its birth: «Science must, over the next 50 years, learn to deal with these problems of organized complexity.»