As I've noted previously on this blog, one of the spiritual phrases that now irritates me, yet used to make sense to me, is "as it is."
There's a mistaken notion that it's possible to see reality as it is, objectively. That notion gets elevated into various sorts of mumbo-jumbo where this or that meditation technique, or whatever, supposedly gives someone the ability to perceive what is actually there with no trace of illusion.
Today I finished reading another chapter in David McRaney's book, How Minds Change. "Socks and Crocs" was super-fascinating. I'll try to do the chapter justice in this summary of it.
He starts off by telling the familiar story of The Dress -- which some people see as white and gold (that's me) and others as black and blue.
There were various theories about why this occurred. A neuroscientist, Pascal Wallisch, is quoted in the chapter, having done extensive research on The Dress and similar images. He wrote a Slate piece, "Two Years Later, We Finally Know Why People Saw 'The Dress' Differently."
Even outside of vision scientists, most people just assume everyone sees the world in the same way. Which is why it’s awkward when disagreements arise—it suggests one party either is ignorant, is malicious, has an agenda, or is crazy. We believe what we see with our own eyes more than almost anything else, which may explain the feuds that occurred when “the dress” first struck and science lacked a clear explanation for what was happening.
Two years later we have a much better idea of what may have been a reason for the varied perceptions: People’s perceived color is also informed by their perception of lighting. And the image of the dress, taken on a cellphone, contained a lot of uncertainty in terms of lighting conditions. Was it taken inside or outside? This matters because it implies artificial or natural light. Was the dress illuminated from the front or the back? This matters because if it was back-lit, it would be in a shadow, otherwise not.
The brain cannot be accused of epistemic modesty. It is well-known that in situations like this—where it faces profound uncertainty—it confidently fills in the gaps in knowledge by making assumptions. Usually, its assumptions are based on what it has most frequently encountered in the past. For instance, if the sensory information is more uncertain, observers will estimate object speeds to be slower than they actually are, presumably because slow objects are much more common in the environment than fast ones. (Indeed, most objects in any given field of view don’t move at all.) Color and lighting are no exception.
As the illumination conditions are impossible to clearly assess in the dress image, people make assumptions about what they are. Different people do this in differing ways, which is what causes the different interpretations of color. At least, that’s what my research shows, thanks to 13,000 people, including many Slate readers, who took surveys on what they saw when they saw the dress and also compiled other information about how they generally perceived the photo and the world.
The dress actually is blue and black. But most people see it as white and gold, at least initially. Why? Well, the more time someone had spent exposed to natural light, the more likely they saw the dress as white and gold. The more time someone had been exposed to artificial light, the more likely they saw the dress as blue and black.
Either way -- and this is the important point for us going forward -- the ambiguity never registered. Whatever colors people saw subjectively, the image never seemed ambiguous because consciously people experienced only the output of their processes, and the output differed depending on a person's prior experiences with light. The result was a lie told to them by their brains that felt obviously true.
...When we encounter novel information that seems ambiguous, we unknowingly disambiguate it based on what we've experienced in the past. But starting at the level of perception, different life experiences can lead to very different disambiguations, and thus very different subjective realities.
When that happens in the presence of substantial uncertainty, we may vehemently disagree over reality itself -- but since no one on either side is aware of the brain processes leading up to that disagreement, it makes the people who see things differently seem, in a word, wrong.
...In psychology, there's a term for this cognitive blind spot, for when your disambiguations feel undeniably true. It's called naive realism, and it's the belief that you perceive the world as it truly is, free from assumption, interpretation, bias, or the limitations of your senses.
The late psychologist Lee Ross, who helped popularize the term, told me that it leads many of us to believe we arrived at our beliefs, attitudes, and values after careful, rational analysis through unmediated thoughts and perceptions.
Unaware that different priors can lead to different disambiguations, you believe you've been mainlining pure reality for years, and it was your intense study of the bare facts that naturally led to all of your conclusions. According to Ross, this is why people on each side of any debate believe their side is the only one rooted in reality.
...The truth is that we are always reaching our conclusions through disambiguation, but all of that work is done in our different brains without us knowing it. We just experience, in consciousness, the result.
You think you are experiencing the world as it truly is, and when a lot of people are sure their version of reality is the really real version at the same time that a lot of other people are sure that no, in fact, their version is, you get arguments that break the internet (like The Dress), but also the Inquisition, the Hundred Years' War, QAnon, and anti-mask protests during global pandemics.
Here's a figure in the chapter that apparently came from Pascal Wallisch.
When you combine Substantial Uncertainty with Ramified (which means branching) or Forked Priors or Assumptions, you will get Disagreement.
In other words, when the truth is uncertain, our brains resolve the uncertainty without our knowledge by creating the most likely reality they can imagine based on our prior experiences. People whose brains remove that uncertainty in similar ways will find themselves in agreement, like those who saw the dress as black and blue.
Others whose brains resolve that uncertainty in a different way will also find themselves in agreement, like those who saw the dress as white and gold.
The essence of SURFPAD is that these two groups each feel certain, and among the like-minded it seems those who disagree, no matter their numbers, must be mistaken. In both groups, people then begin searching for reasons why so many people in other groups can't see the truth without entertaining the possibility that they aren't seeing the truth themselves.