Monthly Archives: January 2008

The Perception Question

As we know, philosophically, if a tree falls in the woods and it falls on the only person who was there to hear it, the tree wouldn’t have made a noise when it killed them – presumably because it would be trying to sneak up on the blighter.

Or something. Welcome to the wonderful world of perception. At an evolutionary level we humans tend to think of ourselves as pretty special. And yet from what we know about perception that isn’t true in all ways.

Take birds for example. Many birds “know” which way is North. They don’t have to think about it. They don’t have to take out their compass or whatever, they just know. The same way you know which way is down or the same way you know when it’s dark or light. You don’t have to think “oh, it’s dark”, you just know. That’s perception.

Now in this example we’re pretty sure that we agree with birds where North is. And so it doesn’t feel that weird knowing they can sense it.

But what about hummingbirds? They can see infra-red as a colour. Now, in theory we can see infra-red too. But of course infra-red isn’t red in just the same way that green isn’t red. It’s another colour and we can’t see it and they can. They don’t turn on their infra-red vision to see it, they just see it. And we never will. Because to make it visible to us we have to turn off the other colours and substitute something else (red).

So we can see that the world isn’t necessarily as we perceive it. The world isn’t the way a human sees it where the other animals are getting it wrong. The world has never truly been seen by anything. We just happen to see it and sense it in one way.

Back to the hummingbird. The hummingbird also perceives the world more slowly than we do. If you were jogging along, the bird would perceive you as moving slowly compared to everything else. That’s why birds seem to move out of the way of cars far too late. Even time is not constantly perceived. We know that we can measure its progress, but what does it mean if we know we aren’t perceiving it at the same speed as anything else on our planet?* To birds we are lumbering slow moving things, like elephants seem to us.

So why are we so sure of ourselves? Unless you’re really thinking about the issue people find it very difficult to think that the world might not be as they are perceiving. The answer is, of course, evolution. People who were constantly questioning what they perceived have been deselected. If you approach a lion wondering if it really is a lion you might not live long enough to have so many children.

We’ve been hearing a lot in the last few years about scientists attacking religion (Richard Dawkins, for example) and while I’m not religious, I really think science is being badly misrepresented. The best way to make people question their devout beliefs is to show them things like this. Now you might have read this and seen it as a confirmation of God’s splendor and mysterious ways. But I like to think that subjects like this remind us that you shouldn’t really believe received wisdom, especially not the received wisdom of your own brain or upbringing. Go and find out for yourself.

Just quickly, I’d like to tie this back to the subject of Free Will I discussed last year. Hopefully you can see why many scientists and philosophers believe that free will is an illusion of a similar kind to time and vision. It is useful to believe that we are consciously in charge of what we’re doing, but we might not be. And if that doesn’t make you question what’s going on in the world, then I don’t know what will.

*surely there’s a low chance those aliens we meet in sci-fi are actually all going to perceive time at the same rate as us – but I imagine it would make conversation a bit difficult.

Free Range

Why do we need to ban factory-farmed chickens?

Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have both been on TV recently explaining that battery farming techniques are terrible and people should stop buying food farmed in such conditions. Fair enough – I only ever buy Free Range.

Certainly Jamie has been calling for a ban. A ban doesn’t solve the problem. People currently have a choice. They can either care about animal welfare or they can have cheaper food. And large numbers of people choose to have cheaper food. Banning battery farming won’t make free range farming cheaper overnight. You and I might be able to
absorb the cost but what about everyone else? They aren’t choosing the nicer version now – there must be a reason.

The drive to ban activities is a dangerous one. It comes from intellectuals wanting to force their enlightened views on others. Spend the money on education if you must change behaviour. Just banning it doesn’t solve the problem – changing people’s minds so they feel it’s worth spending more is better. That way people still have a choice and supermarkets will stop stocking goods when people stop buying them.

A very modern dilemma

Katherine sent me a text message the other day. Nothing that surprising in that – I suppose. But we were in the same house, and she was asking me if I wanted a cup of coffee.

Now when I was brought up, I was always told that I was not supposed to shout up the stairs. Shouting, I was told, was a terrible thing to do as it made the baby Jesus cry. So we weren’t allowed to shout up the stairs at home. So if you wanted to ask a question you had to go up and ask. When I was a child I always wanted some kind of intercom system, some way of contacting those in other rooms without shouting. And that is very much what Katherine had achieved with her text message.

On the other hand my parents tried to teach me the value of money and how one should try very hard not to waste it. In many ways this text message was exactly that – a waste of money*.

So was it a reasonable thing to do? What solutions do you have? We do have an internal telephone that has an intercom, but there isn’t a telephone in every room so that needs to be taken into account.

*We were both within our minutes but is that an opportunity cost or a sunk cost? Economists amongst you – you be the judge.

I told you I was ill

It’s very difficult to have a truly objective awareness of how ill you are. As a thinking modern man, I know all too well that woman consider most men to only really get “man ‘flu”. The problem is that moaning is very much a male characteristic – although I know men who would never moan in a million years. It does seem to characterise our gender.

The only thing I can say is that I was so ill that I didn’t stop coughing for three weeks, I felt dreadful and, most tellingly, I stopped being able to write. This doesn’t happen very often – actually being ill doesn’t do it just by itself.

This reminds me, I really agree with current poet laureate, Andrew Motion – he drinks a lemsip every morning before he starts writing because it reminds him of feeling ill which is a melancholy*, self-reflective time. He thinks this helps him write because writing is about self-absorption – something that goes along with being ill. It works for me. The only downside is when you aren’t able to take a proper break, in those cases you have to use so much of your non-existent energy on normal life that there just isn’t the energy for writing – and so I just stopped. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Anyway, I’m back. I hope you’re happy now. Most importantly “Preparation” which is the continuing story which didn’t continue because, irony of ironies, it wasn’t prepared in advance, will continue from this Friday. Happy Christmas and happy New Year.

* This reminds me of my favourite answer to the question “so how are you doing?” I’ve ever heard which was, “I feel melancholy”. It was immediately clear that the individual wasn’t English**.

** He was Italian.