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Perception: Learned Or Innate? A Debate - by John Prytz

My long term debating acquaintance from another place,who I’ll just address as MG, started off having an electronic chinwag over themerits of the Simulation Hypothesis. However, that also branched off into aparallel debate over the nature of perception. MG suggests that perception is alearned skill and has nothing apparently to do with the brain. I argue thatpercept is totally innate and your brain plays the most central of roles.Here’s the gist of that long debate in chronological order on that paralleltopic of perception (I’ll save the Simulation Hypothesis debate for a latertime). Let the readers decide. 


MG - "It doesn't matter how appealing the Simulationview might be; it is logically incoherent."


JP - I'll just sum up it up with the following. If we cancreate computer-generated simulations then we in turn could be acomputer-generated simulation. There's nothing incoherent about thatpossibility at all.


MG - "Thus it makes no logical sense to speak of thesimulation itself thinking that it is an actual world."


JP - If a simulation can simulate reality to a fineenough detail that the simulated reality is indistinguishable from really realreality, what's the difference? Further, if we're all simulated beings in avirtual reality, then the virtual form of our reality is the only reality weknow and we have no really real reality to compare it to.


MG - "Just like the landscapes in a painting, thereis no reality at all to what is simulated by computers."


JP - Tell that to the characters in ourcomputer-generated simulations. That aside, virtual reality is real enough thannumerous professions require training on simulators before they are allowed tostrut their stuff in really real reality. If you undergo any form of surgery,you'd better hope your surgeon practiced on simulated beings first! Virtualreality is a form of reality. In fact you generate your own virtual realityevery time you dream, and some dreams can seem really real. Your computer-braingenerates a form of virtual reality just like a real computer program cangenerate virtual reality.


MG - "I, at least, really exist."


JP - Of course you just might be a figment of myimagination. I might be just dreaming that my posting here and replying to youis happening in an actual reality. Maybe it's not.


MG - "Therefore, I am neither a painting nor asimulation."


JP - As far as I can tell, you're just a collection ofletters, words and paragraphs that appear on my computer screen. For all I knowall of this text (your text) might be just being generated by an artificialintelligence; by a computer program.




MG - "I think part of what has gone wrong, such thatthis Simulation stuff is taken seriously, is that people think we (or, worseyet, our brains) are taking in data from the outside world and constructing amental representation of it all the time."


JP - Which is IMHO a true statement. If you're in thewater with a hungry shark nearby, your brain had better pay darn closeattention to the data it is taking in, otherwise you're oatmeal.




MG - "The oatmeal thing is the clearest example ofyou having no interest in actually defending your position logically orengaging like a rational person with my points."


JP - What a sourpuss you are. I'm just having a bit offun albeit at your expense!


MG - "Again... seriously? "Tell that to thevideo game characters"???? Do you really believe that even makes sense??There are no video game characters. There are just lights on a screen. What areyou even talking about?"


JP - Okay, I can see there's no having any degree oflevity with you. But your quite wrong about the "just lights on ascreen" bit.


When I read your various posts, all that I experience areletters, words, sentences and paragraphs that form your whole message. That'sjust a virtual reality version of you. You are presenting yourself as a form ofbits and bytes virtual reality. You are presenting yourself as just a virtualreality character to me. You are "just lights on a screen" as far asI'm concerned. So are you therefore denying your own reality?


What's actually important here? Your really real realitybombards your senses with INFORMATION. Your brain / mind processes thatinformation and if your brain does its job properly you survive another day,even thrive. Those "just lights on a screen" also bombards you withINFORMATION and some of that information might just be really, reallyimportant, as in for example pilot training simulators. So virtual realitycontains just as much INFORMATION as really real reality so how can virtualreality be unreal and really real reality, real?


I know of no other person who would claim that virtualreality isn't therefore a form of reality. In fact it has to be since thehardware PC and the software video game you buy in the store both exist in whatyou would call really real reality. So virtual reality is a subset of reallyreal reality. There's nothing contained therein that means that we have to bein the really real reality and not in a virtual reality.


Now instead of you being a virtual figment of myimagination and "just lights on a screen" and me being a virtualreality figment of your imagination and "just lights on a screen",perhaps we are both the figment of someone else's imagination, just expressedas bits and bytes and as 'lights on a screen" and not as CHON (Carbon,Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen) based neurons. What's the real difference inprinciple between being the figment of someone else's imagination and someone'scomputer code? What's different in principle between you being just aconfiguration of electrons and quarks or a configuration of bits and bytes? Youare still you.


MG - "There is no reason to think "themind" (or brains, for that matter) perceive or pay attention toanything."


JP - Okay, so from here on out please cross the roadwithout first looking out for oncoming traffic. 




MG - "There is no reason to think "themind" (or brains, for that matter) perceive or pay attention to anything. Animalsdo that.”


JP - By the way,humans ARE classified as animals - vertebrates; mammals; hence primates to beexact. Perhaps you should enroll in Biology 101 and in a course in physicalanthropology.




MG - "As I suspected, the belief that our brainstake in information from the outside world and process it into a representationin our minds is where this whole conceptual train gets derailed, and leadseventually to things like the Simulation idea."


JP - So you’re saying that your brain didn't take in theinformation I posted - part of your outside world - and processed it? If thatwas the case how could you reply to information your brain didn't take in anddidn't process? 


MG - "Neither minds nor brains perceive anything,but animals obviously do. So, I can perceive things just fine. I can seeoncoming traffic."


JP - What ARE you smoking? I want some of that! Okay, soyou see oncoming traffic, and you step out of harm’s way, but that hadabsolutely nothing to do with your brain / mind? Really?




MG - "I didn't say that stepping out of the way oftraffic had "nothing to do with my brain/mind".


JP - Here are your two quotes that claim otherwise.

MG quote 1 - "There is no reason to think "themind" (or brains, for that matter) perceive or pay attention to anything.Animals do that."

MG quote 2 - "Neither minds nor brains perceiveanything, but animals obviously do. So, I can perceive things just fine. I cansee oncoming traffic."


You saw traffic coming. Your brain / mind perceived thatvisual information and that perception resulted in you consciously realizingthat you were in harm’s way and so stepped back out of harm’s way. Yet your twooriginal quotes seem to deny that you could do that since your brain / mindplayed no role.


MG - "I identified myself as an animal (I said"brains don't perceive; animals do... therefore, I can perceive justfine"), so I don't know why you're acting like I said theopposite...."


JP - No you did not specifically say that you were ananimal. You indicated that you have a brain that doesn't perceive anything andthat only animals can perceive anything. My reply was just to point out thatyou - as an animal - also perceive things like other animals do and thatperception requires a functional brain / mind. Methinks that you just phrasedthings awkwardly. 


MG - "You posted: "So you’re saying that yourbrain didn't take in the information I posted - part of your outside world -and processed it? If that was the case how could you reply to information yourbrain didn't take in and didn't process?"

My answer: I am replying to written statements that I(this speech-capable animal) had read and thought about and constructed aresponse to."


JP - Recall your quote: "There is no reason to think"the mind" (or brains, for that matter) perceive or pay attention toanything." If your brain / mind doesn't perceive or pay attention toanything, be it oncoming traffic or the information that I've posted, then you couldn'tstep out of harm’s way and you couldn't reply to what I wrote. Your phrase"thought about" requires perception and that takes a brain / mind.




MG - "That's right: I can perceive traffic comingand get out of the way, despite the fact that my brain does not perceiveanything."


JP - "You cansee oncoming traffic but it is your brain / mind that tells you (i.e. - itself)that "Hey, there's oncoming traffic - danger, danger - step back".That's the way it works. Your sensory organs just transmit external informationto your internal brain / mind. It's the job of the latter to perceive andprocess what that information actually means or represents. But hey, go talk toan authority figure like a neurologist.




MG - "Brains don't perceive anything. Even if theydid, it wouldn't be by "processing information", whatever that meansin this context. To see traffic coming requires that you have eyes and a set ofskills for using those eyes."


JP - And just how do you develop a set of skills whenusing your eyeballs? Do they teach you eyeball skills in high school? Whotaught you eyeball skills? Your eyeballs (without any training at all) justconvert photons (that carry information) into electrons or electrical signals.And where do those electrical signals go? Into the BRAIN via the optic nervewhere the BRAIN trys to make sense of the information it is receiving based forthe most part on previous experiences or knowledge learned. I'll tell you onething, it's not your BIG TOE that's warning you to back off and out of the wayof oncoming traffic!


MG - "Animals see traffic because they are lookingand they move away because they are cautious. "Looking" and"cautious" are not predicates you can (in any meaningful sense) applyto brains or any other organs."


JP - And there's still a lot of roadkill in part becauseanimals haven't been taught that it isn't healthy to pass in front of oncomingtraffic. And when animals are cautious, that's because their BRAINS areinstructing them to stay out of harm’s way. Survival skills often use thehardwired principle that it's better to be safe than sorry. If you're in thesavanna and you think (a BRAIN activity) a lion is lurking behind the tallgrass it's prudent to move away. If you're wrong about the lion being present,no damage done. If you're right about the lion but don't move on, well enjoybeing lunch.




MG - "Animals learn to use their eyes just as theylearn to use their hands. By practice. Indeed, when they sewed the eyes ofvarious newborn mammals shut, then reopened them, the animals were blind.Nothing wrong with their brains. They just hadn't learned to see."


JP - You learn something new every day. I didn't knowthat all animals have "hands". Anyway, your cited experiment doesn'tprove that you have to "learn" to use your eyes. All it demonstratesis that when denied the use of your eyes, associated anatomical developmentsdon't take place or develop fully. I repeat, you don't LEARN to use your eyes(or ears, or nose, etc.). When a kitten opens its eyes for the first time, itsees. No learning required. The development happens automatically unless thereis deliberate interference with that development. OK, I think you've nowentered woo-woo territory. There is a reason your eyeballs are connected toyour BRAIN and not to your Big Toe (or any other part of your anatomy). If itis just your eyes that see, there wouldn't be any reason for your eyeballs tobe connected to your brain!


MG - "I see a car coming with my eyes, and I (thisanimal organism) know that that is dangerous, so I move."


JP - You were taught - presumably by your parents - thatstanding in front of traffic heading right at you is dangerous. You don'tactually know that based on first-hand experience - at least I assume thathaving been taught that it is dangerous to stand in front of oncoming trafficyou didn't decide to test that out firsthand by offering yourself up as anexperimental test subject! Your brain remembered the lesson it was taught -presumably the numerous times and every time your parents warned you aboutlooking both ways before crossing the road - and relied on the memory of thoselessons to suggest to you in rather strong terms that you move out of the way.




MG - "I didn't say all animals have hands."


JP - Here is your exact quote:  "Animals learn to use their eyes just asthey learn to use their hands." That certainly implies all animals sinceyou didn't qualify it in any way by saying "some animals". Now Irealize that you were probably just engaging your hands before you engaged yourbrain in this case.


MG - "The test subjects were anatomically fine. Theystill couldn't see. It exhibits all the earmarks of a learned skill."


JP - And you know this how? Did you do the experiment?Did you read the published paper(s) or are you just making assumptions?


MG - "Newborn animals have terrible sight. They getbetter at it with practice."


JP - They get better with it as their associatedanatomical infrastructure continues to develop.


MG - "Indeed, I was taught to avoid traffic."


JP - A toddler will crawl right out into traffic havingno comprehension that s/he is in any danger or what the concept of danger evenmeans even though s/he sees the oncoming traffic. So there is no initialassociation between seeing oncoming traffic and getting out of the way ofoncoming traffic.


So when you were a brand new bouncing baby boy, at somestage you opened your eyes and you saw for the first time - probably Mum andDad. But you still didn't see very well since all of the relevant anatomical infrastructurewas still in the development stages. But you did see - no training required.You saw because the relevant part of the brain that translates electricalsignals from the eye into a perception of what you call vision is the – VisualCortex. The Visual Cortex is part of the brain - the part that translates thephotons come electrical signals come perception come vision.


If I stick you with a sharp pin really hard you are goingto go "ouch" or even come out with several more choice four-letter words.But you didn't learn to experience pain. It comes naturally with the territory,just like sight does.


MG - "And, yet another misquote. I did NOT say it isjust our eyes that see. I said it is WE who see. Why do you keep missing that?It seems rather obvious. Eyes cannot see. Neither can brains."


JP - So you see with your Big Toe after all! Really now.Here is your exact quote:  "I see acar coming with my eyes" so therefore it is your eyes that see! If Iremove your eyes and your Visual Cortex even leaving the associatedinfrastructure (i.e. - the optic nerve) in place, you are NOT going to see. IfI remove one or the other you are not going to see. So it would seem that bothhave to be in place and functional in order to see. There is no "WE"that sees. It's these specific organs that sees on our behalf.  Your Big Toe is part of you so why doesn'tthat play a role in your vision?




MG - "Pain is a sensation we are born able to feel.So what? We feel it. Our brains don't feel anything (seriously, poke them, theyfeel nothing)." stub your Big Toe, you're not poking your brain now, areyou?


JP - You are correct insofar as the brain in and ofitself feels no pain. But when you stub your Big Toe the message is carried tothe brain where it translates the electrical signals into a realization /perception that you've stubbed your Big Toe and that you're in pain. Justbecause the brain in and of itself doesn't experience pain to itself has nobearing on whether or not it can perceive pain to parts of the body that canexperience pain.


The bottom line is this. You do NOT need to train toexperience pain. You do NOT need to train to experience sound. You do NOT needto train to smell ammonia. You do NOT need to train to taste chili. And you doNOT need to train to see things providing all of your relevant anatomicalinfrastructure related to vision is in place.


MG - "So let me just say this: I did indeed learnfrom others that cars are dangerous. I learned. My organs didn't learn(including my brain, which is just an organ and doesn't learn or think orbelieve); I did."


JP - There is no "I" or "you" withoutyour organs or body cells. Now here's an interesting scenario. I could pick youapart body cell by body cell and give each of those body cells a nice test tubehome. By the time that I am finished, you would no longer exist as you - noawareness, no self-awareness, no self-identity, and no consciousness - eventhough all of your constituted cellular parts still exist and are alive. So thereis no real you now is there?




MG - "[P]erception (like sight) is a skill that webecome better at with practice."


JP - "Become better at" does not acquaint with having the basicskill from the get-go. A professional musician can identify the note that s/hehears playing - A-sharp or B-flat - but I hear the exact same note without anytraining. If you need eyeglasses to help you attain 20/20 vision then no amountof training is going to help you go glasses free and still have 20/20 vision,no matter how much you squint.  



MG - "The picking-apart thought experiment leaves meat a complete loss as to how to recover you to even basic sense. You exist.


JP - Yes, I exist. But I wouldn't exist unless most or atleast much of my anatomical also existed. No heart - no me. No lungs - no me.No brain - no me. No nervous system - no me. No blood - no me. You owe aconsiderable debt to the rest of you without which there would be no you.


MG - "A plane cannot fly without its engine. Still,it is the plane that flies; not the engine."


JP - And the engine has to go along for the ride!


MG - "Likewise, you could not learn or see without afunctioning brain (you would be dead, in fact). Still, it is you who learns andsees; not your brain."


JP - And just who the heck is "you"? As alreadynoted, "you" don't exist unless you have the relevant and associatedanatomical infrastructure.




MG - "I completely agree that my existence dependson lots of body parts also existing. ... I am not a brain. I have a brain.


JP - You don’t have a body, you ARE a body. The "You that you call"you" has to reside somewhere inside your body. Just about every bodypart except the brain can be artificially replaced with no loss of the"you". I therefore conclude that the "you" resides in yourbrain; you brain is the home turf for the "you". 


The debate at this point just runs out of puff, or morecorrectly, I just hit my maximum state of entropy on the issue!

Science librarian; retired.

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