Rich Perception, or how we see value and opportunities

UPDATE! I’ve been working very hard on a paper that I’m becoming very proud of, and so I haven’t been able to post. This post is about something that my paper deals heavily with, and as a side note, I am going to be joining a start-up politics website (like slate.com or politico or what have you) when it launches in September. I’ll let you know when I change over.

We perceive the world, and when we do, what’s out there? Well, it seems like pretty normal stuff like tables and chairs. As philosophers say, they are GIVEN to us, and this is supposed to encompass all of perception’s special qualities: its vividness and its seamlessness. We just see things, its that natural. This is not to say that everything we perceive is real, there are illusions of course, but in this post I just want to talk about what we do perceive.

What’s interesting though is that a lot more things are in perception than we would be inclined, unreflectively, to think. For example, space is not a thing, but its present in perception as depth perception. Time is also given to us in perception. We know it seems to flow faster when we’re having fun (it “flies”) and slower when we’re bored (last period on Friday anyone?). Also, as hundred of optical illusions and eye puzzles reveal, our mind is PLACING a lot of other things in our visual space than we normally think. It fills in gaps, ignores other things (people in gorilla costumes running through several frames of a movie for instance) and just plain creates things like hallucinations or splotches of color. When someone takes acid, a whole bunch of things are GIVEN in perception (though of course they are mostly illusions).

But what about values. Do we see them? I claim that we do, and I don’t mean this metaphorically, I mean it very literally: the world presents us with values. You might say “but I don’t SEE any values” but remember, for something to be given in perception doesnt mean it has to be given as a THING. Light and darkness are given to us (as well as space via depth perception as I said above) even though they aren’t things.

Humor is a classic example of a value we perceive all the time. What happens when you think a joke is funny? When you “get” the joke? Well, you aren’t understanding anything conceptual (meaning, created with words), because as we all know you can’t EXPLAIN someone a joke and have them laugh at it. No, when we “get” a joke, we are doing something very direct and non-conceptual, we are SEEING the humor present in the joke, just as we see red, and NO amount of explanation can make us see red. You can describe the fire truck all day, but it will never be the same thing as me seeing its redness. The same with jokes, you can describe why they’re funny all day, but that won’t make them funny.

Now extend this thinking to the special power of jokes that you “had to be there” for. Why do you have to be there? I don’ t have to be at a scientific conference to understand their findings. Why is humor special. Again, because humor is non-conceptual and perceptual.

Extend this further to “inside” jokes. They are only funny to certain people. Why is that? The answer is deep and important: it is because humor requires a shared way of life and a group of friends build a way of life together.

Other examples that are not as striking as humor are easy to find. Take driving a car. You don’t think about turning the wheel or breaking if you are a veteran driver. Rather, you move seamlessly and fluidly through traffic. You can talk to someone while you’re doing it (though you become worse at it) because you aren’t thinking, you are just perceiving openings in lanes, routes to take, and cars to avoid. People say “well you’re talking about muscle memory and reflexes,” kind of, but this is too crude. When the doctor hits my leg and it flies up, THAT’s a reflex. There is no perception of value to my exercise, it is brute causality. But when I drive my car, my actions are INTENTIONAL, I am trying to move lanes or speed up, but I’m hardly conscious of that fact.


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