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Doesn't each person's mind distort reality such that no one is really capable of perceiving it as it truly is?

Since every individual's mind perceives and processes information differently, how can there be an objective perception of reality?

How do we know if the reality that we perceive is, in fact, what it is independent of our consciousness?

When we see something, there is a plethora of integrating functions conducted by our minds. This information processing can essentially distort whatever we are seeing. For example, people growing up in an environment with lots of straight lines, such as modern cities, are more likely to be deceived by linear optical illusions than are people from villages.

Growing up in different environments does affect perceptual ability: A study by MIT validates this point on optical illusions

Here is a quote from that study:

"each individual’s experience combine in a complex fashion to determine his reaction to a given stimulus situation. To the extent that certain classes of experiences are more likely to occur in some cultures than in others, differences in behavior across cultures, including differences in perceptual tendencies, can be great enough even to surpass the everpresent individual differences within cultural groupings.

We have reported here a study that revealed significant differences across cultures in susceptibility to several geometric, or optical, illusions."

asked Oct 01 '12 at 17:13

user890's gravatar image


edited Oct 01 '12 at 22:08

You say nobody can perceive reality as it truly is. Um, is that statement based on perceiving reality as it truly is?

(Oct 01 '12 at 19:11) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit. --Ayn Rand

(Oct 01 '12 at 20:05) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

Perception is automatic. Two people will perceive linear optical illusions the same way.

Conceptualization is not automatic. While a liberal and a libertarian will both perceive a scruffy looking homeless man the same way, they will make different judgment on whether that man earned his status on life and therefore will feel differently about him.

(Oct 01 '12 at 21:49) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Two people will not necessarily see linear optical illusions the same way. Their perceptual abilities are determined by their experience in different environments. Please refer to the link posted in the question above.

(Oct 01 '12 at 22:06) user890 user890's gravatar image

I recommend reading the first several chapters of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff.

But short of that, I'll argue that a blind man and a deaf man, each encountering an elephant (safely restrained) can both come to the proper conclusion that they are observing an elephant, even though they both perceive it by different means.

Perception gives us raw information about reality. From this information, we form concepts, and conclusions. Even if we perceive by different means, and form concepts in different languages, we reach the same conclusions if we are objective.

(Oct 02 '12 at 10:56) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

How does "different people exposed to different things act differently" invalidate objective reality?

(Oct 03 '12 at 09:56) nicholascloud nicholascloud's gravatar image
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I think the key to understanding this issue is addressed in the conclusion of the paper you cited:

"The findings we have reported, and the findings of others we have reviewed, point to the conclusion that to a substantial extent we learn to perceive; that in spite of the phenomenally, absolute character of our perceptions, they are determined by perceptual inference habits; and that various inference habits are differentially likely in different societies. For all mankind the basic process of perception is the same; only the contents differ and these differ only because they reflect different perceptual inference habits."

The key points being that 1) our perceptions are phenomenally absolute, and 2) we have various inference habits that are determined by what type of environment we grow up in.

Some clarification is still needed though to prevent confusion:

That our perceptions are phenomenally absolute does not mean that everyone perceives the same object in the same way. A color blind person (dichromatic) will obviously not see what a color normal person (trichromat) would and both would not see as many colors as some types of birds (tetrachromat). This should not be taken to mean that these different physiological types of seeing amount to seeing different things. As long as the source of the perception is in the external world and not a hallucination we have access to data about the world and can form concepts from that data. The paper, though, is not claiming that people are perceiving the optical illusion differently as would be the case with color blindness. Instead it is saying that people habitually draw different conclusions from the same absolute perception based on the type of environment in which they live.

answered Oct 23 '12 at 10:57

Ben%20Mills's gravatar image

Ben Mills ♦

This question (omitting the excerpt from an MIT study) reads as if it was taken straight out of a college philosophy textbook on the ideas of Immanuel Kant. For a detailed introduction to the Objectivist view of Kant's ideas, a good place to begin is with The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Kant, Immanuel." Objectivism blasts his ideas thoroughly in every branch of philosophy.

One of Kant's ideas is that perception cannot provide knowledge of "reality as it truly is" because perception always involves cognitive processing, which may differ in some ways from one person to another. But sense-perception only provides raw data about existence, not a ready-made direct image of it. Sense-perception also involves an on-going series of perceptions, not just a single isolated one-time "snapshot," and data from multiple sensory modalities is frequently combined into the perceiver's overall perceptions. All of this perceptual data allows animals to apprehend existence well enough to meet their own survival needs in the habitats for which they are adapted, and provides ample material for man's conceptual faculty to integrate further into conceptual knowledge of reality.

Many of the comments so far have indicated, in effect, that it is not necessary to appeal to neuro-physiological science to prove that perception involves cognitive processing. Of course it involves procesing, obviously so. One comment mentions blind people. There are also color-blind people who are not totally blind; deaf people; hearing people who are "tone deaf" (and others who have "perfect pitch"); and so on. And then there are the perceptual capacities of other animals to consider, too, such as the far keener senses of smell and hearing in so many animals, compared to man; keener eyesight in some animals (such as birds of prey); sonar in some sea animals and bats; apparent ability of some migratory birds to sense the Earth's magnetic field; and so on. But the essential issue is not whether or not perception involves cognitive processing, but whether or not that processing "distorts" one's awareness of reality in a way that makes knowledge of reality impossible, reducing to subjective preference and impulse. That was Kant's "contribution" to philosophy (along with collective consciousness as the ultimate "creator" of "reality as it appears"), and that is a premise that Objectivism sharply challenges. Objectivism denies that cognition has to be a passive reflection or snapshot in order to provide objective evidence of reality. In addition to the Lexicon topic on Kant, refer also to the Lexicon topic of "Perception."

answered Oct 04 '12 at 00:52

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Can you clarify this? I don't understand. Clearly, there are scientific experiments that show how people of different cultures can see color differently (I can provide examples... there is a great documentary on this). If one person claims that something is blue and the other says it is green and neither have defective eyes, who is objectively right. If A is A, then Blue is Blue and not Green. Is the concept of color subjective as so many studies show ? If so, what else is ? Please don't point to lexicons or official explanations, kindly explain.

(Oct 04 '12 at 10:14) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Classifying colors is a conceptual task; the same perceptual data can be organized in more than one (objectively sound) way depending on the needs of the people involved. Some cultures have had essentially just two color concepts -- reasonably called, say, black (all the dark colors from our conceptual perspective) and white (all the light ones from our conceptual perspective). Other cultures have had three: named say, black, white, and red. And so on. This is no more cause for concern than the fact that some cultures have more concepts for, say, articles of clothing than others do.

(Oct 04 '12 at 11:48) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

A fantastic book that explores and explains this entire domain is available free online in its entirety: Dr. David Kelley's The Evidence of the Senses: A Realist Theory of Perception.

(Oct 04 '12 at 11:50) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg -- appreciate the pointer. A question about your assertion. If some cultures see 2 colors, some 3, some 7, some 18, which one is "real" ? How many colors are there in reality ? Aren't we also subject to being in a culture with its concepts/language ? While we say we saw a white polar bear, an Eskimo with many more shades of white in his language/culture may swear the the bear was actually very light grey. Who is objectively correct?

(Oct 05 '12 at 02:13) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Why doesn't objectivity require that we have full perception of reality, from perception of UV light to ultrasound? There are people with mental disorders and colorblindess. Aren't they incapable of being objective?

(Oct 19 '12 at 15:22) user890 user890's gravatar image

Hi, Danneskjold_repo. The trouble seems to be that you think colors exist independently of us, intrinsically in the world ("How many colors are there in reality?"). But colors aren't out there (intrinsic, primary), nor are they in here (subjective, secondary). The culture with three colors is objectively correct, and the one with dozens is objectively correct. Explaining all of this with lots of references to scientific papers and philosophers' texts is what Kelley does in that book.

(Oct 22 '12 at 11:30) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Ok. But this would imply that both cultures then could have a conflicting view and yet be objectively correct. That would seem to violate A is A. Culture A says the polar bear is white versus black. Culture B which has twenty distinctive words for "white" says the polar bear is light grey. Which one is correct ? If both are correct (as you seem to imply) then the bear is both white and light grey.

(Oct 22 '12 at 12:58) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Yes, both are correct. No, of course there is no contradiction. Consider the primitive calling everything you put on your foot 'pedewear' vs. you calling things you put on your feet 'socks', 'shoes', or 'sandals'. Far from a contradiction, it's EXPECTED that he'll properly call that thing pedewear while you properly call it a shoe! It is not written on reality that Thou Shalt Employ exactly one or two or two hundred concepts for categorizing things that get put on feet -- just as it is not written that Thou Shalt Employ exactly one or two or two hundred concepts for categorizing colors.

(Oct 22 '12 at 15:36) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Going further than my earlier comment, the trouble seems to be that you think concepts exist independently of us, intrinsically in the world. So it may not be so productive to read Kelley's book on perception yet -- I suggest reading Rand's monograph on concepts, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, and/or the first three chapters in Peikoff's book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

(Oct 22 '12 at 15:43) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

To Greg, how then could reality be the final arbiter if these two people conceptually disagree as to what reality is in terms of color? In other words, how do you prove to them that the colors they are categorizing differently are concretely the same?

(Oct 22 '12 at 17:50) user890 user890's gravatar image

Um, this is done all the time. Read any story about someone discovering a new culture or people and learning/teaching each other their words/language so they can communicate. They are discovering what concepts they have in common and not, starting with easily-referred-to concrete things like "dog" and "ball" and proceeding to more and more abstract and less-direct referents for terms like "mammal", "justice", and so on. Good grief, how do you think you are even in a position to know that some cultures have different color terms, and vastly different numbers of color terms?

(Oct 22 '12 at 19:43) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

I think I get what Greg is saying. If we can have different concepts (and we do) then who or what is the arbiter of reality? This is basically the question that folks over the ages have asked about language and reality (Wittgenstein etc.). You may just want to classify the colors according to wavelengths but then you and I need to agree on what wavelength means. How does one express or understand a "greater outside objective reality" when it's shape and constituents seem to be so utterly plastic based on language?

(Oct 23 '12 at 09:32) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Hi Danneskjold_repo. I think you would benefit greatly from a basic understanding of the Objectivist take on what concepts are and how they relate to reality. It's pretty straightforward, but with all the confusion caused by other philosophies, there is a lot of noise and nonsense to fight through. To your latest comment: Reality is not plastic at all. It is always and everywhere exactly what it is, and what it is is not caused or shaped by our concepts or language or needs or desires. Calling that dog over there a 'cat' won't make it meow. Reality needs no arbiter, it is the arbiter.

(Oct 23 '12 at 11:48) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Hi user890. On how one could know that the colors they are categorizing differently are concretely the same: the easiest way is for the two to use the same referent. I point at it and say it's "green", you point at it and say it is "verde", and we both know we're referring to the same color with those terms. Wash, rinse, repeat until the boundaries on those terms and their siblings are clear/usable enough for our mission.

(Oct 23 '12 at 13:41) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

To Greg: Thank you for the clarification.

On a side note, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to you for starting this website, and to all who have addressed my questions. You have greatly contributed to my understanding of Objectivism--this website has immensely supplemented what I have been reading about Objectivism, as particular questions may not always be answered in the Objectivist literature. I have a better understanding of the logic involved in each answer presented on this website, and I see how it is consistent with the intellectual framework of Objectivism.

(Oct 24 '12 at 02:20) user890 user890's gravatar image

U890, I share your gratitude. OA has really helped me in my studies of Objectivism and growth as a person. If you have any friends or acquaintances interested in Objectivism or Ayn Rand, please send them this way. Good questions are always fascinating to read and answer.

(Oct 24 '12 at 09:05) JK Gregg ♦ JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

Hi, user890 -- my pleasure! And please keep up the excellent questions and comments!

(Oct 24 '12 at 09:50) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg- I am also a lucky recipient of your knowledge and wisdom and thank you!

(Oct 27 '12 at 12:16) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Again, my pleasure -- I learn a lot here as well, so please keep up the great questions and comments!

(Oct 28 '12 at 14:35) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image
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Asked: Oct 01 '12 at 17:13

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Last updated: Oct 28 '12 at 14:35