Showing posts with label Perception. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Perception. Show all posts

17 February 2017

Experience and Reality

"Our relation to the world is not that of a thinker to an object of thought"
—Maurice Merleau Ponty. The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences.

Introduction

In this essay and some to follow, I want to look an an error that many philosophers and most meditators seem to make: the confusion of epistemology and ontology; i.e., the mixing up of experience and reality. This essay will outline and give examples of a specific version of this confusion in the form of the mind projection fallacy.

I agree with those intellectuals who think that we do not ever experience reality directly. This is where I part ways with John Searle who, for reasons I cannot fathom, advocates naïve realism, the view that reality is exactly as we experience it. On the other hand, I also disagree with Bryan Magee that reality is utterly different from what we experience and we can never get accurate and precise knowledge about it. He takes this view to be a consequence of transcendental idealism, but I think it's a form of naïve idealism.

The knowledge we get via inference is not complete, but we can, and do, infer accurate and precise information about objects. This makes a mind-independent reality seem entirely plausible and far more probable than any of the alternatives. So, we are in a situation somewhere between naïve realism and naïve idealism. 

This distinction between a mind-independent reality and the mind is not ontological, but epistemological. The set of reality includes all minds. However, the universe would exist, even if there were no beings to witness is. The universe is not dependent on having conscious observers. So by "reality" I just mean the universe generally; i.e., the universe made up from real matter-energy fields arranged into real structures that have emergent properties, one of which is conscious states. And by "mind" I specifically mean the series of conscious states that inform human beings about the universe. 

What I don't mean is reality in the abstract. I'm deeply suspicious of abstractions at present. For the same reason, I avoid talking about conscious states in the abstract as "consciousness". Things can be real without there necessarily being an abstract reality. Reality is the set of all those things to which the adjective "real" applies. Things are real if they exist and have causal potential. Members of this set may have no other attributes in common. Unfortunately, an abstract conception of reality encourages us to speculate about the "nature of reality", as though reality were something more than  a collection of real things, more than an abstraction. Being real is not magical or mystical.

I'm not making an ontological distinction between mental and physical phenomena. I think an epistemological distinction can be made because, clearly, our experience of our own minds has a different perspective to our experience of objects external to our body, but in the universe there are just phenomena. This is a distinct position from materialism, which privileges the material over the mental. What I'm saying is that what we perceive as "material" and "mental" are not different at the level of being.  

When we play the game of metaphysics and make statements about reality, they arise from inferences about experience. There are three main approaches to this process:
  • we begin with givens and use deduction to infer valid conclusions.
  • we begin with known examples and use induction to infer valid generalisations.
  • we begin with observations and use abductions to infer valid explanations.
We can and do make valid inferences about the universe from experience. The problem has always been that we make many invalid inferences as well. And we cannot always reliably tell valid from invalid.

For example, we know that if you submerge a person in water they will drown. That tells us something about reality. However, for a quite a long time, Europeans believed that certain women were in league with the devil. They believed that witches could not be drowned. So they drowned a lot of women to prove they were not witches; and burned the ones who didn't drown. The central problem here being that witches, as understood by the witch-hunters, did not exist. The actions of some women were interpreted through an hysterical combination of fear of evil and fear of women, and from this witches were inferred to be real. It was a repulsive and horrifying period of our history in which reasoning went awry. But it was reasoning. And it was hardly an isolated incident. Reasoning very often goes wrong. Still. And that ought to make us very much more cautious about reasoning than most of us are.

One of the attractions of the European Enlightenment is that it promised that reason would free us from the oppression of superstition. This has happened to some extent, but superstition is still widespread. Confusions about how reason actually works are only now being unravelled. And this meant that the early claims of the Enlightenment were vastly overblown. If our views about the universe are formed by reasoning, then we have to assume that we're wrong most of the time, unless we have thoroughly reviewed both our view and our methods, and compared notes with others in an atmosphere of critical thinking, which combines competition and cooperation. The latter is science at its best, though admittedly scientists are not always at their best. 

Into this mix comes Buddhism with its largely medieval worldview, modified by strands of modernism. Buddhists often claim to understand the "true nature of reality"; aka The Absolute, The Transcendental, The Dhamma-niyāma, śūnyatā, tathatā,  pāramārthasatya, prajñāpāramitā, nirvāṇa, vimokṣa, and so on. Reality always seems to boil down to a one word answer. And this insight into "reality" is realised by sitting still with one's eyes closed and withdrawing attention from the sensorium in order to experience nothing. Or by imagining that one is a supernatural being in the form of an Indian princess, or a tame demon, or an idealised Buddhist monk, etc. Or any number of other approaches that have in common that seem to take the approach of trying to develop a kind of meta-awareness of our experience.To experience ourselves experiencing.

It's very common to interpret experience incorrectly. As we know the lists of identified cognitive biases and logical fallacies, which each have over one hundred items. From these many problems I want to highlight one. When we make inferences about reality we are biased towards seeing our conclusions, generalisations, and explanations as valid, and to believing that our interpretation is the only valid interpretation. This is the mind projection fallacy.


The Sunset Illusion

An excellent illustrative example of the mind projection fallacy is the sunset. If I stand on a hill and watch the sunset, it seems to me that the the hill and I are fixed in place and the sun is moving relative to me and the hill. Hence, we say "the sun is setting". In fact, we're known for centuries that the sun is not moving relative to the earth, but instead the hill and I are pivoting away on an axis that goes through the centre of the earth. So why do we persist in talking about sunsets?

The problem is that I have internal sensors that tell me when I'm experiencing acceleration: proprioception (sensing muscle/tendon tension) kinaesthesia (sensing joint motion and acceleration) and the inner-ear's vestibular system (orientation to gravity and acceleration). I can also use my visual sense to detect whether I am in motion relative to nearby objects. A secondary way of detecting acceleration is the sloshing around of our viscera creating pressure against the inside of our body.

My brain integrates all this information to give me accurate and precise knowledge about whether my body is in motion. And standing on a hill, watching a sunset, my body is informing me, quite unequivocally, that I am at rest.

I'm actually spinning around the earth's axis of rotation at ca. 1600 km/h or about 460 m/s. That's about Mach 1.5! And because velocity is a vector (it has both magnitude and direction) moving in a circle at a uniform speed is acceleration, because one is constantly changing direction. So why does it not register on our senses? After all, being on a roundabout rapidly makes me dizzy and ill; a high speed turn in a vehicle throws me against the door. It turns out that the acceleration due to going moderately fast in very large circle, is tiny. So small that it doesn't register on any of our onboard motion sensors. The spinning motion does register in the atmosphere and oceans where it creates the Coriolis effect.

Everyone watching a sunset experiences themselves at rest and the sun moving. It is true, but counterintuitive, to suggest that the sun is not moving. Let's call this the sunset illusion.

I'm not sure where it comes from, but in the Triratna Order we often cite four authorities for believing some testimony: it makes sense (reason), it feels right (emotion), it accords with experience (memory), and it accords with the testimony of the wise. Before about 1650, seeing ourselves as stationary and the sun and moving, made sense, it felt right, it accorded with experience, and it accorded with the testimony of the wise. The first hint that the sunset illusion is an illusion came when Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in January 1610.

Even knowing, as I do, that the sunset illusion is an illusion, doesn't change how it seems to me because my motion senses are unanimously telling me I'm at rest. This is important because it tells us that this is not a trivial or superficial mistake. It's not because I am too stupid to understand the situation. I know the truth and have known for decades. But I also trust my senses because I have no choice but to trust them.

The sunset illusion is sometimes presented as a 50:50 proposition, like one of those famous optical illusions where whether we see a rabbit or a duck depends on where we focus. The assertion is that we might just as easily see the sun as still and us moving. This is erroneous. Proprioception, kinesthesia, the vestibular organ, and sight make it a virtual certainty that we experience ourselves at rest and conclude that the sun moving. It takes a combination of careful observation of the visible planets and an excellent understanding of geometry to upset the earth-centric universe. If some ancient cultures got this right, it was a fluke.

The sunset illusion exposes an important truth about how all of us understand the world based on experience. Experience and reality can be at odds.

And note that we are not being irrational when we continue to refer to the sun "setting". Given our sensorium, it is rational to think of ourselves at rest and the sun moving. It's only in a much bigger, non-experiential framework that the concept becomes irrational. For most of us, the facts of cosmology are abstract; i.e., they exist as concepts divorced from experience. Evolution has predisposed us to trust experience above abstract facts.


Mind Projection Fallacy

The name of this fallacy was coined by physicist and philosopher E.T. Jaynes (1989). He defined it like this:
One asserts that the creations of [their] own imagination are real properties of Nature, and thus, in effect, projects [their] own thoughts out onto Nature. (1989: 2)
I think it's probably more accurately described as a cognitive bias, but "fallacy" is the standard term. Also, instead of imagination, I would argue that we should say "interpretation". The problem is not so much that we imagine things and pretend they are real, though this does happen, but that we have experiences and interpret them as relating directly to reality (naïve realism).

The sunset illusion tells us that reality is not always as we experience it. 

We all make mistakes, particularly these kinds of cognitive mistakes. We actually evolved in such a way as to make these kinds of mistakes inevitable. However, reading up on cognitive bias, I was struck by how some of the authors slanted their presentation of the material to belittle people. I don't think this is helpful. Our minds are honed by evolution for survival a particular kind of environment, but almost none of us live in that environment any more. So if we are error-prone, it is because our skill-set is not optimised for the lifestyles we've chosen to live. 

This fallacy can occur in a positive and a negative sense, so that it can be stated in two different ways:
  1. My interpretation of experience → real property of nature
  2. My own ignorance → nature is indeterminate
David Chapman has pointed out that there has been considerable criticism of Jaynes' approach in the article I'm citing and has summarised why. He suggests, ironically, that Jaynes suffered from the second kind of mind projection fallacy when it came to logic and probability. But the details of that argument about logic and probability are not relevant to the issue I'm addressing in this essay. It's the fallacy or bias that concerns us here. 


Interpreting Experience
    A problem like the sunset illusion emerges when we make inferences about reality based on interpreting our experience. For example, when we make deductions from experience to reality, they invariably reflect the content of our presuppositions about reality. For example, a given for most of us is "I always know when I am moving". In the sunset illusion, I know I am at rest because motions sensors and vision confirm that it is so. The experience is conclusive: it must be the sun must be moving. My understanding of how the universe works and my understanding of my own situation as regards movement are givens in this case. We don't consciously reference them, but they predetermine the outcome of deductive reasoning. This means the deduction is of very limited use to the individual thinking about reality.

    If I watch a dozen sunsets and they all have this same character, then I can generalise from this (inductive reasoning) that the sun regularly rises, travels in an (apparent) arc across the sky and sets. All the while, I am not moving relative to earth. What's more, I've experienced dozens of earthquakes in my lifetime, so I also know what it is like when the earth does move! From my experiential perspective, the earth does not move, but the sun does move. Given our experience of the situation, this is the most likely explanation (abductive reasoning).

    So here we see that a perfectly logical set of conclusions, generalisations, and explanations follow from interpreting experience, which are, nonetheless, completely wrong. I am not at rest, but moving at Mach 1.5. The earth is not at rest. The sun is at the centre of our orbit around it, but it also is moving very rapidly around the centre of the galaxy. Our galaxy is accelerating away from all other galaxies. The error occurs because our senses evolved to help us navigate through woodlands, in and out of trees, and swimming in water. And we're pretty good at this. When it comes to inferring knowledge about the cosmos, human senses are the wrong tool to start with!

    A common experience for Buddhists is to have a vision of a Buddha during meditation. And it is common enough for that vision to be taken as proof that Buddhas exist. But think about it. A person is sitting alone in a suburban room, their eyes are closed, their attention withdrawn from the world of the senses, they've attenuated their sense experience to focus on just one sensation and have focussed their attention on it. They undergo a self-imposed sensory deprivation. They've also spent a few years intensively reading books on Buddhism, looking at Buddhist art, thinking about Buddhas, and discussing Buddhas with other Buddhists. We know that sensory deprivation causes hallucinations. And someone saturated in the imagery of Buddha is more likely to hallucinate a Buddha. This is no surprise. But does it really tell us that Buddhas exist independently of our minds, or does it just tell us that in situations of sensory deprivation Buddhists hallucinate Buddhas? 

    The Buddhist who has the hallucination feels that this is a sign; it feels important, meaningful, and perhaps even numinous (in the sense that they felt they were in the presence of some otherworldly puissance). They are immersed in Buddhist rhetoric and imagery, as are all of their friends. As I have observed before, hallucinations are stigmatised, whereas visions are valorised. So if you see something that no one else sees, then your social milieu and your social intelligence will dictate how you interpret and present the experience. If you mention to your comrades in religion that you saw a Buddha in your meditation, you are likely to get a pat on the back and congratulations. It will be judged an auspicious sign. And all those people who haven't had "visions" will be quietly envious. If you mention it to your physician, they may well become concerned that you have suffered a psychotic episode. On the other hand, in practice, psychotic episodes are rather terrifying and chaotic, and not all hallucinations are the result of psychosis. 

    Not only do we have the problem of our own reasoning leading us to erroneous inferences, we have social mechanisms to reinforce particular interpretations of experience, especially in the case of our religiously inspired inferences. Our individual experience is geared towards a social reality. One of the faults of humans thinking about reality is to think that reality somehow reflects our social world. A common example is the nature of heaven. Many cultures see heaven as an idealised form of their own social customs, usually with the slant towards male experiences and narratives. Medieval Chinese intellectuals saw heaven as an idealised Confucian bureaucracy, for example. If we take Christian art as any indication, then Heaven is an all male club. The just-world fallacy probably comes about because we expect the world to conform to our social norms in which each member is responsive to the others in a hierarchy where normative behaviour is rewarded and transgressive behaviour is punished.

    So, given the way our senses work, given the pitfalls of cognitive bias and logical fallacies, given the pressure to conform to social norms, the mind projection fallacy can operate freely. As we know, challenging the established order can be difficult to the point of being fatal. And understanding the power of something like the sunset illusion is important. Facts don't necessarily break the spell. Yes, we know the earth orbits the sun. But standing on a hill watching the sunset, that is just not how we experience it (our proprioception and vision tell us a different story that we find more intuitive and credible, even though it is wrong). And this applies to a very wide range of situations where we are reasoning from experience to reality.


    If I Don't Understand It...

    The second form of this fallacy was rampant in 19th century scholarship. In the first form, one erroneously concludes that one understands something and projects private experience as public reality. Mistaking the sunset as resulting from the movement of the sun, because our bodies tell us that we are at rest. This leads to false claims about reality.

    In the second case there is also a false claim about reality, but in this case it emerges from a failure to understand and the assumption that this is because the experience or feature of reality cannot be understood. This is a problem which is particularly acute for intellectuals. Intellectuals are often over‑confident about their ability to understand everything. These days it is less plausible, but 150 years ago it was plausible for one intellectual to be well informed about more or less every field of human knowledge. So, if such an intellectual comes across something they don't understand, then they deduce that it cannot be understood by anyone. 

    A common assertion, for example, is that we will never understand consciousness from a third person perspective (leaving aside the problematic abstraction for a moment). Very often such theories are rooted in an ontological mind/body dualism, which may or may not be acknowledged. Many Buddhists who are interested in the philosophy of mind, for example, cannot imagine that we will ever understand conscious states through scientific methods. They argue that no amount of research will ever help us understand. So they don't follow research into the mind and don't see any progress in this area. On the other hand, they hold that through mediation we do come to understand conscious states and the nature of them. Many go far beyond this and claim that we will gain knowledge of reality, in the sense of a transcendent ideal reality that underlies the apparent reality that our senses inform us about. In other words, meditation takes us beyond phenomena to noumena

    Another common argument is that scientists don't understand 95% of the world because they don't understand dark matter and dark energy. People take this to mean that scientists don't understand 95% of what goes on here on earth. But this is simply not true. Scale is important, and being ignorant at one scale (the scale that effects galaxies and larger structures) does not mean that we don't understand plate tectonics, the water cycle, or cell metabolism, at least in principle. The popular view of science often seem to point towards a caricature that owes more to the 19th century than the 21st. Criticism of science often goes along with an anti-science orientation and very little education in the sciences. 

    The basic confusion in both cases is mistaking what seem obvious to us, for what must be the case for everyone else, either positively or negatively. 


    The Confusion
    "It's not that one gains insight into reality, but that one stops mistaking one's experience for reality"
    The basic problem here is a confusion between what we know about the world (epistemology) with what the world is (ontology). In short, we mistake experience for reality. And this problem is very widespread amongst intellectuals in many fields.

    The problem can be very subtle. Another illuminating example is the idea that sugar is sweet. We might feel that a statement like "sugar is sweet" is straightforward. Usually, no one is going to argue with this, because the association between sugar and sweetness is so self-evident. But the statement it is false. Sugar is not sweet. Sugar is a stimulus for the receptors on our tongues that register as "sweet". We experience the sensation sweet whenever we encounter molecules that bind with these receptors. But sweet is an experience. It does not exist out in the world, but only in our own conscious states. Sugar is not sweet. Sugar is one of many substances that cause us to experience sweet when they come into contact with the appropriate receptors on our tongue. Equally, there is no abstract quality of sweet-ness, despite the effortless ease with which we can create abstract nouns in English. Sucrose, for example has nothing much in common with aspartame at a chemical level. And yet both stimulate the experience of sweet. Indeed, aspartame is experienced as approximately 200 times as sweet as sucrose, but this does not mean that it contains 200 times more sweetness. There is no sweet-ness. The experience of sweet evolved to alert us to the high calorific value of certain types of foods and the enjoyable qualities of sweet evolved to motivate us to seek out such foods. 

    For Buddhists, the application of this fallacy comes from experiencing altered states of mind in and out of meditation. Meditators may experience altered states of mind that they judge to be more real than other kinds of states, causing them to divide phenomena into more real and less real. And they manage to convince people that this experience of theirs reflects a reality that ordinary mortals cannot see -- a transcendent reality that is obscured from ordinary people. 

    The problem is that an experience is a mental state; and a mental state is just a mental state. No matter how vivid or transformative the experience was, we must be careful when reasoning from private experiences (epistemology) to public reality (ontology) because we usually get this wrong. I've covered this in many essays, including Origin of the Idea of the Soul (11 Nov 2011) and
     Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? (15 Aug 2015), etc.

    Most of us are really quite bad at reasoning on our own. This is because humans suffer from an inordinate number of cognitive biases and easily fall into logical fallacies. There are dozens of each and, without special training and a helpful context, we naturally and almost inevitably fall into irrational patterns of thought. The trouble is that we too often face situations where there is too much information and we cannot decide what is salient; or there is too little information and we want to fill the gaps. 

    Our minds are optimised for survival in low-tech hunter-gatherer situations, not for sophisticated reasoning. The mind helps us make the right hunting and gathering decisions, but in most cases it's just not that good at abstract logic or reasoning. Of course, some individuals and groups are good at it. Those who are good at it have convinced us that it is the most important thing in the world. But, again, this is probably just a cognitive bias on their part. 


    Conclusion

    The whole concept of reason and the processes of reasoning are going through a reassessment right now. This is because it has become clear that very few people do well at abstract reasoning. Most of the time, we do not reason, but rely on shortcuts known as cognitive biases. A lot of the time our reasoning is flawed by logical fallacies. Additionally, we are discovering that most mammals and birds are capable of reasoning to some extent. 

    In this essay, I have highlighted a particular problem in which one mistakes experience for reality. Using examples (sunset, visions, sweetness) I showed how such mistakes come about. Unlike others who highlight these errors, I have tried to avoid the implication that humans are thereby stupid. For example, I see the sunset illusion because my senses are telling me that I am definitely at rest, because they tune out sensations that are too small to affect my body. Social conditioning is a powerful shaping force in our lives, and visions are valuable social currency in a religious milieu.

    In terms of our daily lives the sunset illusion or the sweetness illusion hardly matter. It's not like the mistakes cost us anything. Such problems don't figure in natural selection because our lives don't depend on them. We know what we need to know to survive. Although our senses and minds are tuned to survival in pre-civilisation environments, we are often able to co-opt abilities evolved for one purpose to another one. 

    But truth does matter. For example, when one group claims authority and hegemony based on their interpretation of experience, then one way to undermine them is to point out falsehoods and mistakes. When the Roman Church in Europe was shown to be demonstrably wrong about the universe, the greater portion of their power seeped away into the hands of the Lords Temporal, and then into the hands of captains of industry. For ordinary people, this led to more autonomy and better standards of living (on average). Democracy is flawed, but it is better than feudalism backed by authoritarian religion.

    But as Noam Chomsky has said:
    “The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms.”
    In subjecting Buddhism to rational inquiry, I do often elicit incomprehension or outrage. And sometimes it's not masked at all. There are certainly Buddhists on the internet who see me as an enemy of the Dharma, as trying to do harm to Buddhism. As I understand my own motivations, my main concern is to recast buddhism for the future. I think the urge of the early British Buddhists to modernise Buddhism and, particularly, to bring it into line with rationality was a sensible one. However, as our understanding of rationality changes so Buddhism will have to adapt to continue being thought of as rational. But also we have to move beyond taking Buddhism on its own terms and to consider the wider world of knowledge. The laws of nature apply in all cases.

    Whilst Buddhism is largely influenced by people who mistake experience for reality, Buddhism will be hindered in its spread and development. This particular error is one that we have to make conscious and question closely. Just because it makes sense, feels right, and accords with experience doesn't mean that it is true. The sunset illusion makes sense, but is wrong. It feels right to say that sugar is sweet, but it isn't. It accords with experience that meditative mental states are more real than normal waking states. But they are not. The testimony of the wise is demonstrably a product of culture, and varies across time and space.

    ~~oOo~~

    06 March 2015

    Seeing Blue.

    Where does blue begin and end?
    There's a meme that seems to come around again and again on the internet. It is that if a language has no word for a concept then that concept must be absent in that language. This naive reading has been applied to the colour blue for example. Some people noticed that ancient European writers, particularly the ancient Greeks, had a limited colour palette in their writing. Indeed many modern languages are rather lacking in colour terms. Until the 1540s there was no word for the colour orange in English, which is why we call people with ginger hair "red heads". This does not mean that we could not distinguish the colour of blood from the colour of ginger hair. It only means that they were in the same colour category. And when we did name the colour orange, we named it after the fruit, not the other way around. However, it seems journalists love this idea that the Ancient Greeks could not see blue and the idea lumbers around like a zombie eating brains: it gets knocked down, but is quite difficult to kill and reduces IQs. 

    Colour words do not correspond to objects or entities. Colours are broadly defined categories of perception. Categories are mental and linguistic structures that help us to organise how we perceive the world. We can use the category name to talk about all the members of a category at once without having to use tedious lists of inclusions and exclusions. This is usually possible because we interact with all members of a category in the same way. 

    In George Lakoff's powerful model of thinking about categories we define categories towards the middle of a taxonomical hierarchy and by relationship to a prototype. So dog seems like a "natural" category, whereas for every day use: mammal is too broad and includes too many non-dog examples that need to be excluded; while spaniel is too narrow because it leaves out too many dog examples like terrier. Dog as a category works because there are consistent ways that we interact with dogs that are common to all dogs and different from other common pets or wild animals.  And also because this interaction is not something personal, but common to other people in our language group. Sometimes pet is a more convenient category: when renting out a house for example. Though we think of categories defined by forms or functions, one of the most important defining properties is how we interact either in fact or potentially with the entities.

    When we think of 'dog' as a category we will have an internalised prototype that defines the category. And we judge other entities to be a member of our category to the extent that they resemble our prototype (this is an extension of Wittgenstein's family resemblances'). By definition some members may be more central and others more peripheral. Say our prototype is something like a German shepherd (left). we can acknowledge, as dogs themselves usually do, that both a chihuahua and a great dane are members of the category dog, despite their size. Similarly though a long muzzle is typical, we can acknowledge that dogs with mutated skulls that give them a squashed look (boxers, pugs) are still dogs. On the other hand despite being furry, carnivorous, quadrupeds, no kind of cat is is a member of the category dog. In Cambridge there is a couple who take their cat out on a lead. But even a cat on a lead is not a dog.

    However, the prototype is not fixed or absolute. It is relative to many things, not least of which is how we interact with the category. With respect to dogs, a farmer or a hunter may think in terms of a working animal, a pet owner in terms of companionship, and so on. On the other hand in India dogs are often semi-domesticated urban scavengers - neither pets nor workers, but barely tolerable vermin. In some cultures dogs are seen as food. 

    It's possible for there to be doubt about membership at the periphery. Is a wolf a member of the dog category? Is a fox? The wild dog is another peripheral case: it looks like a dog, but we interact with it as a wild animal (to which category it belongs with wolf and fox) rather than as pet or worker. There is no upper or lower limit on how many categories we employ or the extent to which they overlap. 

    navy
    royal
    cobalt
    azure
    sapphire
    beryl
    electric
    sky
    turquoise
    cerulean
    teal
    cyan
    Our terms for colours are categories also. Typically for an English speaker the prototype for blue is the sky. This can get complicated because in England the sky is more often grey than blue, and when it is blue, it's often a very pale and washed out blue compared to where I grew up (about 15 degrees of latitude closer to the equator, about 1000ft above sea level, and with much less pollution). In some cultures lapis lazuli or the throat of a peacock are prototypes (the latter is important in India for example).

    Other languages, including many living languages define their categories differently. And research has shown patterns in how languages categorise colours. Many languages for example put blue and green in one category. In ancient Chinese the word 青 qīng meant both blue and green, but also black. In this sense it appears to be similar to the Sanskrit śyāma which can mean black, dark, dark shades of blue or green. Used of people it refers to a dark complexion. So in fact, Śyāma Tārā is not Green Tārā, but Dark or Swarthy Tārā despite the fact that she is routinely depicted in bright hues.

    Does this mean that those languages which lump blue in with other colours lack a concept of blue? Not necessarily. Because even blue is a broad category. I can distinguish many shades of blue, from cyan to navy, but I don't have words for all these colours. Similarly I can distinguish many shades of green from the almost yellow green of new spring leaves, to the dark blue-green of New Zealand jade. Think about all the distinctions of colours on a typical paint sampler that we have no words for, but for which arbitrary names have to be invented for marketing purposes. We also have at least one word for a colour that is made up, indigo. When Newton was describing the colours of the rainbows he created with prisms he wanted their to be seven colours to fit in with an alchemical scheme and so invented the colour indigo. What Newton called blue is what today we'd call cyan, and what he called indigo is deep blue like ultramarine or cobalt blue. In fact most English speakers shown swatches of these colours would call them both blue. 

    As Lakoff explains in his book on categorisation, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, those languages that have four colour terms will have black, white, red and one of either yellow, blue or green (p.25). Now it seems that Ancient Greek was a four colour language.
    "Empedocles, one of the earliest Ancient Greek color theorists, described color as falling into four areas, light or white, black or dark, red and yellow; Xenophanes described the rainbow as having three bands of color: purple, green/yellow, and red." (Ancient Greek Color Vision)
    This fits the pattern noticed by colour perception research. The Greeks used four colour terms, roughly, white, black, red and yellow. So when Homer uses the phrase "wine dark sea" or describes the sky as "bronze", he is employing categories that are much broader than we currently use in English. In fact modern English has eleven basic colour categories:
    "black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and gray."
    This does not stop us seeing blueish green, yellowish red, reddish purple and other colours for which we have no name or category. Categories are as broad as are useful to us. And often colours are difficult to categorise. Blue-green colours for example may appear to be in different categories to different people. But there is no evidence to suggest any anatomical differences between speakers of languages with four or less colour terms and those with eleven.

    Now colour perception is a feature of our particular sensory apparatus. We've seen recently with the example of "that dress" how the background against which we see something and the colour of the light illuminating it, affect how we perceive it. But vision does have an objective component because the physiology of it is the same for everyone. Light of particular wavelengths hits our retina and activates patterns of the three (sometimes four) kinds of colour sensing cone cells. Each of the cells responds to different frequencies of light.




    The peaks of these curves are the same in all humans. This means that where languages have the same colour terms they tend to agree on where in the spectrum the prototype for that category lies. I presume this has applied at least since anatomically modern humans. Now of course turning the signals from our cone cells into the experience of colour is a process that happens in our brains. But it's not arbitrary. For people who are not colour blind the brain is set up for blue cone cells to respond to the same frequency of light. If I shine light with a frequency of 500 nm in your eyes, you'll perceive this in more or less the same way as every other human being regardless of language and culture. Linking the experience to a word is a function of language, but the ability of the language to translate the experience into words is always limited. People with four cones describe a far more vivid palette of colours (What it's like to see 100 times the colors you see). Some animals have cones sensitive to different wavelengths. In particular bees can see much shorter wavelengths - well into what we call the ultraviolet. While snakes can detect much longer wavelengths in the infrared (though not with their eyes)

    Now, the story goes that because some languages lack a word that corresponds to the English word blue, and they treat what we call blue as a member of broader colour category, that this means that the speakers of that language could not see blue. This is like saying that because the English lack a word for schadenfreude that they do not enjoy the misfortunes of others, whereas in fact the laughing at the misfortunes of others is very popular here (it is perhaps the most important theme of English humour). So why does this suggestion keep surfacing?

    The idea about the Greeks not being able to see blue can be traced to the 19th century British Prime Minister and amateur philologist William Gladstone. He published a long and highly regarded study of Homer's epics and noticed that Homer's colours did not match ours, the "wine-dark sea" being one of the well known examples (wine being reddish-purple in our language, a colour we never associate with the sea). Others joined in. More recently the idea that how we use language reflects how we perceive the world is called Linguistic Relativism.  It is also known as the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis because theories about it were postulated (separately) in the early 20th Century by linguistic Benjamin Lee Whorf and his teacher Edward Sapir (amongst others). Whorf in particular was interested in the way that grammar divided the world up into entities and activities. He discovered that some Indigenous American languages seem to not make the same kinds of distinctions. On the basis of this he hypothesised that these differences in grammar might affect how we see the world at a very deep level. How would the world appear to us, for example, if we did not divide it up into nouns and verbs. What if we only had verbs for example, if everything was seen as a process? Whorf asked is the world really is divided up into objects

    Linguistic relativism comes and goes in the media. Every few years some journalist comes across Whorf or some other author and writes a piece about it. I should add that Whorf's essays make very good reading (they were collected into a book, Language, Thought and Reality, MIT Press, 1956). The "Greeks couldn't see blue" meme is a popular version of this and one can find many variations on the theme, on the internet, including a few other attempts to debunk it. 

    However, quite a bit of research has shown that because of the physical apparatus of seeing there is no room for relativistic effects in colour perception. All humans see colour in the same way, even though different languages categorise colours in different ways. Every (normally sighted) human being is capable of seeing millions of colours, most of which we don't have names for (which is where categories come in handy). And all this commonality is true of subsets with variations on the the normal pattern: people with four cones see similarly to each other; people who are red-green colour blind all see the same shades of grey and so on. In other words the research disproves idea that having no word for blue means one cannot see the colour blue. So basically the whole "can't see blue" thing comes down to a failure to read the research on colour vision.

    Ironically if you do a simple image search on "Greece" the predominant colours in the results are white and blue, the colours of the modern Greek flag.


    ~~oOo~~



    16 Feb 2016. See also, Bogushevskaya, Victoria. (2015). Qīng (青) in Chinese: when and why it means ‘green’, ‘blue’ or ‘dark’/‘black’, in Thinking Colours Perception, Translation and Representation [Edited by Victoria Bogushevskaya and Elisabetta Colla]. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 26-44.

    28 Mar 2017. 'Why don't Americans have a name for the color 'light blue?' Study finds unique color terms used in Japan, US.' Phys.org

    09 December 2011

    Saṅkhāra qua Construct

    This word saṅkhāra is one of the most puzzling terms in our Buddhist lexicon. It is used a number of different ways, meaning quite different things in different contexts. There is no reason why a word should not have different senses - a phenomenon known technically as polysemy 'many meanings'. Indeed polysemy is the rule with words in most languages. Take a word like gravity. It has a sense in Physics as one of the fundamental forces. As an adjective in ordinary speech it might signify that someone, or something is important or wise. Incidentally the Sanskrit word guru is cognate and means 'weighty'. Context usually resolves any contradictions so if I say that "Newton spoke with gravity about gravity", you'll probably be able to see the two distinct ways I'm using the word gravity. However within a technical jargon it is much less useful to have important words being polysemic, in fact it's downright confusing. And yet so many of our important Buddhists jargon terms are polysemic: dharma is particularly troublesome, and whole books have been written on this one word.

    I want to highlight a particular use of this word saṅkhāra in a Pāli text, but let's see if I can encapsulate the main senses of the word to begin with. The Pāli saṅkhāra is equivalent to the Sanskrit saṃskāra - the skā conjunct being reduced to khā in Pāli. The root of the word is √kṛ 'do, make' and here the prefix saṃ is equivalent to the Latin com- and means 'with, together; or complete'. The basic sense here is 'to construct or make up', and a close English cousin is confect, where -fect is from the Latin facere 'to make, do'. The word has a technical meaning in Vedic, but we'll leave that aside for our present purposes.

    Saṅkhāra occurs in Pāli as the second of 12 nidānas, and the 4th of 5 khandhas. In the first instance it seems to mean volitional activity (and is defined in terms of cetanā). In the second it suggests a wider definition of all mental activity or indeed everything constructed from conditions - e.g. in the phrase sabbe saṅkhārā anicca. It is used in the sense of 'function' in reference to the body, speech and mind. So we might say that it has the active sense of "putting together" and the passive sense of "having been put together". [1]

    In the text I am exploring today - The Pālileyya Sutta (SN 22.81; S iii.94f) it seems to have the sense of 'construct'. I'm particularly interested in this sense because it appears to confirm an intuition I've had about this term for some time (which should alert readers to the problem of confirmation bias!). In the Pālileyya Sutta we find this equation - I have simplified the text a little:
    rūpaṃ attato samanupassati... yā samanupassanā saṅkhāro so.
    he perceives form as his self, that perception is a construct.
    Why is the perception (samanupassanā) a construct? Because in order to have a perception sense object and sense faculty must come together in the presence of sense cognition - perceptions are constructed (saṅkhāta) from these specific building blocks. The text asks the same question and answers (again simplifying a little:)
    avijjāsamphassajena vedayitena phuṭṭhassa [tassa] uppannā taṇhā, tatojo so saṅkhāro
    thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance.
    Bear with me here as this sentence is not easy to translate. Firstly uppannā taṇhā is easy 'desire has arisen'. Here tassa 'for him' is standing for assutavato putthujjanassa 'for the unlearned ordinary person' and phuṭṭhassa tassa 'for the one who has been affected (phuṭṭha)'. Then vedayitena 'by the experience [which is] 'avijjāsamphassaja'. This last compound needs unravelling: it is made up of three parts: avijjā 'ignorance' + samphassa 'contact, reaction' + ja 'born'. So the whole thing is probably: 'born of contact with ignorance' or perhaps 'born of a reaction from ignorance'. I suggest the latter makes more sense. Bhikkhu Bodhi has come up with a particularly torturous translation here: "When [he] is contacted by a feeling born of ignorance-contact, craving arises." It's not clear what "ignorance-contact" is. [2] Thanissaro does better on Access to Insight with "To [him] touched by the feeling born of contact with ignorance, craving arises." But what is "contact with ignorance"? In the Buddhist model of mental functioning it can only be contact while being ignorant surely? Hence my translation: "thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance." Thirst for existence perhaps?

    The sutta notes that this construct is impermanent (anicca), constructed (saṅkhāta) and arisen in dependence on conditions (paṭiccasamuppanna). Similar constructs include
    rūpavantaṃ attānaṃ samanupassati - perceiving myself as endowed with form
    attani rūpaṃ samanupassati - regarding form as within myself
    rūpasmiṃ attānaṃ samanupassati- seeing myself amongst forms
    All of these are conditioned and impermanent constructs. The whole formula is repeated with other four khandhas vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāṇa. Note the statement that saṅkhārā are a saṅkhāra does not seem to bother the author of the text, probably because he is consciously using the word in two different senses. In the plural it is defined in some places as the cetanā or 'intention' associated with the six senses (e.g. S iii.60).

    So we may say that these perceptions of a being a self are only what we project onto experience., they are a construct, and not a property of experience. By the way, I see no connection here with Upaniṣadic thought on the nature of the ātman. There's no reason to think that this formulation of the teaching was in reaction to Brahmanical metaphysics.

    ~~oOo~~

    Notes
    1. Nyanatiloka in his Buddhist Dictionary insists that the interpretation of saṅkhāra as 'subconscious tendencies' (which is common in the Triratna Movement) is incorrect and "entirely inapplicable to the connotations of the term in Pali Buddhism" (p.193).
    2. Bodhi. (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom. P.922.