I’ll Believe It When I See It

The lawyer leans over the witness stand, piercing holes of disbelief into the witness. He matter-of-factly paces towards her. She is one of the few witnesses at the crime scene. Her palms are sweaty and she’s fidgety from all the coffee from earlier. “Tell us what you saw on the night of Thursday, August 11th, 2011!” Questions flood her mind: How can I be asked to report on experiences I may or may not have had? I was present, but does being present guarantee an accurate experiential report? Maybe my opinion is tainted by others’ opinions? HELP!

It is here that she is asked to report her experiences to the jury, the judge and all those in the courtroom. It is here that an accurate report of one’s perceptual experience counts! One can imagine the tremendous weight bearing on any witness asked to testify under oath.

If questions concerning truth, perception and judgment flooded your mind after reading the above-mentioned, congratulations you are among the few who have delicately scratched the surface of an ongoing philosophical problem: the problem of perception.

There are many problems in philosophy that involve perceptual experience. The problem I’m referring to specifically involves the question of whether perceptual experience offers accurate information about the physical world.

If we’re lucky, few of us will find ourselves in a position that demands our reporting on perceptual experience. Why? Because there is an increasingly resounding sentiment in contemporary literature on perception that suggests our experiences are far from perfect.

Take for instance Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’s ‘dancing gorilla’ experiment*. In this experiment participants were asked to watch a video of people wearing black and white t-shirts pass a ball to one another. After the initial viewing of the video, most of the participants did not report anything strange or out of the ordinary. They were surprised to find that a person dressed in a gorilla costume was dancing during the passing of the ball. This experiment suggests that it is possible, in perceptual experience, to a give a situation your full attention, and still fail to perceive objects present in the visual field. This phenomenon is known as innatentional blindness. (Simons & Chabris, 1999)

This insight is disconcerting, to say the least. Why are we so convinced that our perceptual faculties contain lively, rich, and vivid detail about the external world? This notion stems from an old-fashioned view of perception held by Aristotle: that particles travel towards the visual system that collide with emissions from the eye. This is obviously problematic because as philosopher Howard Robinson notes, “…there is nothing to explain why such a collision of particles should constitute an experience.” (2004, Robinson) A better way to conceive of an Aristotilean account would be to draw on the idea of representation. Particles leave the object in question creating in the subject a representation. Think of a catcher’s mitt, where the mitt represents the visual system and the ball, information. The eye passively welcomes information from the external world just as a catcher’s mitt welcomes the baseball. One cannot possibly catch the ball unless it is thrown, and, in Aristotle’s case, one cannot perceive unless one obtains information from the world. It is a unilateral system.

You might be asking yourself whether the ‘dancing gorilla experiment’ threatens Aristotle-like programs. It does so in the following way: If perception plays a passive role, then how do we account for unsuccessful visual experiences? Say, for instance, I see a dog, where there ought to be a blue ball (i.e. illusion). If we subscribe to Aristotle’s view, then the blue ball is creating (in me!) a representation of a dog. See the problem? How can object x (the ball) represent itself as y (the dog) in experience? Lets take things a step further – if I perceive a dog, where there is in fact a dog, this is considered a successful perceptual experience by many a philosopher. But how accurate are our percepts? If my percept of a dog is not accurate (I perceive the dog as red vs. brown) then it would be fair to say that object x (brown dog) represents itself as y (red dog) in experience, where x and y are distinguishably different.

Some theories of successful perception assume a necessary connection between what is perceived and the thing perceived, but by what criterion do we determine the adequacy of our percepts? If what is represented, in this case a dog-like representation, only requires some correspondence between the thing perceived and the thing represented, then how accurate can our experiences really be? The connection may be a necessary one, but certainly not an accurate one. We have inevitably returned to the point from which we departed: the problem of perception.

According to the ‘dancing gorilla experiment’, even when our cognitive systems are at their best (whatever that means) we fail to perceive objects strewn in the visual field. This must be terrifying for our witness. Not only will she have to report on very specific experiences by drawing on her memory, which is already problematic (given the possibility of forgetting and distorting information), but the experiences themselves, as noted in the ‘dancing gorilla’ experiment, are prone to err. Perhaps one can claim fallibility, leave the witness stand with a sense of relief knowing full well that our perceptual systems are frail. As reassuring as this sounds, this doesn’t change the fact of the matter, and that lack of evidence, in some cases, carries with it the same force as strong evidence, and, consequently, its effects. Perhaps our witness will leave with a little more than just a sense of relief – a desire to find a way to fasten her experiences by understanding how she is situated in the world.


*Now that you’ve read the description above it may not work, but here is a great example of the dancing gorrila experiment!

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these books!