Perception and “The Dress”

So this picture of a dress has been going around – you may have seen it – and apparently 74% of people see white and gold. I see blue and black. I’ve tried really hard to see white and gold, but it ain’t happening.

Go here to see the dress:

And here’s an explanation for why people are seeing different things:

This incident with The Dress – and the way people can see the same thing so differently and are so sure they’re right about the way they see it – reminded me of some conversations I’ve had with others about God and Nogod. Many of those dialogues have been frustrating for everyone involved. But there was a dialogue I had on this blog a year ago with Andrey Pavlov, a young medical doctor and atheist, that was one of the most enjoyable conversations I believe I have ever had with another human being regarding “God.” I had met Andrey on the website, and he had kindly joined me on my blog so we could carry on our conversation.

I’d tried to describe to Andrey what “God” is to me. I’d written: And perhaps “God” IS nothing more than my own consciousness of good, really – but I feel this Good as a presence in my life. It’s as real to me as the air I breath. It speaks to me – not in a man-voice – but… it speaks to me as Truth. As Love. In times when I’m scared, I feel this presence of Love and comfort around me – and, again, maybe that’s nothing more than my own thoughts – but whatever it is – whether it’s just my own consciousness – something inside me – or whether it’s something I am inside of – this power I call God has been with me when I’ve been sick, and when I’ve been scared, and when I’ve had to make important decisions in my life – and this presence has helped me.

And Andrey responded with this –

“This is interesting to me. I believe you, I really do. I absolutely believe that you have these experiences and feel the things you do as you say them. And I do not think these are evidence of any sort of psychiatric illness, cognitive dysfunction, or anything someone may call ‘abnormal.’ I don’t really know (nobody does) but there is plenty of evidence to lead us to think that this is simply one of the many fluid ways in which an individual processes the universe around them.

“It is, IMO, important to realize that everything a person sees, feels,experiences in any way is highly processed by the software and hardware of our brains. We (mostly) all agree that an object which reflects electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of 650nM looks ‘red.’ But how do I know that what you actually experience as ‘red’ is actually what I experience as ‘red’? I can’t know and you can’t know. That is what philosophers refer to as the ‘qualia’ of life – that purely internal subjective processing and experience of life and the universe through the consciousness we have. It raises this interesting idea of ‘p-zombies.’ Dan Dennett has written a fair bit on them and it stems in part from the concept of a Turing test.

“So when you say that you ‘feel’ the presence of Love, Goodness, etc. I believe you. I can’t possibly imagine what that means in the same way I can’t imagine what it means when a synesthetic says that someone’s name is “lime green” in color. But to that synesthetic, it is a consistent, meaningful, and very real experience.”

I really appreciated the way Andrey listened – heard me – and made an effort to understand my perspective and translate it into something he could relate to in some way.

And wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if we all could do that for each other?

7 thoughts on “Perception and “The Dress”

  1. I first saw white and gold for the dress…but the moment I saw the article and the original colors…I could suddenly swich back and forth, by an effort of will, between the two versions…but then I am a person who practices switching paradigms…vase to face, frog to horse, box coming towards to box going away, Magic Eye to desigh (those are all those are visuals with paradigm shifts.) And the far far more difficult– Liberal to Conservative (almost no one I know can do this…but it is part of “Seeing With Eyes Unclouded By Hate”)

    But all that aside, in the case of the dress, I can’t help wondering if, in my case, this comes partially from having been stuck watching black and white TV years after everyone else had switched to color.

    Beautiful conversation between you and the atheist gentleman–it was a conversation very much like that that opened a door in my husband’s thinking to the parh that led him from atheist to Christian.

  2. lampwright – I think being able to switch back and forth between viewpoints – and to be able to see the world from different perspectives – is a really handy gift to have as a writer, isn’t it? And it’s a pretty handy gift to have as a human being, too. Maybe that’s the key to understanding each other? Thank you so much for your thoughtful response!

  3. Hi Karen. I had completely missed that this post existed until recently when I decided to reference our conversation in one I am currently having with another person of religious faith.

    First off, thanks for the kind words. While I still obviously think that such faith is arguably nonsensical and believe there is evidence that ditching it would be an overall boon, it is just as true that for many, in some sense, it remains a *personal* boon. It is merely an example of the ecological fallacy to think otherwise. The ecological fallacy is essentially saying that you cannot assume that population level data/effects can be extrapolated down to the individual level and vice versa.

    In other words, just because I think that overall the state of things would be improved by abandoning all serious consideration of metaphysical propositions and adhering to a strict philosophical naturalism, that is not because I think that there is zero real benefit to seriously considering metaphysical propositions as true. It is because I think that there is so much real harm to it. To varying degrees and in varying ways, no doubt, but very real indeed. ISIS is a current prime example of this.

    I also argue that we can replace most, but admittedly not *all*, of the benefits derived from faith-based thinking and experiences with a wholly secular and evidence based approach. Sure, there are parts that are truly unique but from my perspective they are a distinctly small part of the human experience. And even many of those can be at least reasonably understood from an entirely naturalistic basis. I myself have feelings that I would reasonably describe as numinous. And I continue to have them and find them growing in number and profundity over time. As I understand things more deeply from a naturalistic perspective it afford me the opportunity to feel awe at the depth of it. Learning more about how the cosmos around us works is profoundly fulfilling. That is something both you and I share (and I believe is essentially *the* common motivating factor for religionists). The difference is that I am of the subjective opinion that a perspective of philosophical naturalism and limiting oneself to the highest levels of evidentiary standards is still both a very deep and full description *and* deeply satisfying in a numinous way. I merely recognize that the feeling is entirely naturalistic in origin. As Carl Sagan said:

    “It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

    At the end of the day, the most important principle to agree on is that nobody should be coerced by threat or violence to believe in something they do not wish to. How that ends up actually manifesting in practice is myriad and arguable about which is best. So long as we can agree on which would be worse, I’d say progress is being made. Wherever we may or may not end up after we die, we can at least all agree that we at least (and possibly most) have just this one infinitesimally short life. Stands to reason people should be allowed to live it how they think is best for them, as much as that is possible.

    • Andrey! I’m so glad you popped up here again! Just yesterday I had reason to remember our dialogue again – and how very much I enjoyed it. Thank you so much for taking the time to listen and ponder, and share your thoughts with me during our conversation. Those kinds of thoughtful exchanges between people of differing perspectives seem to be getting more and more rare. There’s so much… it seems to me that there are a lot of really angry people in this world – people who get angry if you don’t agree with them, or believe what they believe – people, in fact, who are willing to kill you if you don’t believe what they believe. We live in interesting times, do we not?

      Did you ever get around to reading Norman Cousins’s book, *Anatomy of an Illness*? I have a feeling you would appreciate it, and maybe find it useful in your practice.

      The key thing for me, as a patient, is to be treated with respect, to feel that my practitioner is listening to me, and treating me as a human being and not just as a slab of flesh and bone. I do not like being expected to unquestioningly obey orders or take commands. I like feeling I have choices, and control over what people do to my body. I’m not sure this is because I was raised in Christian Science, so much as just who I just am. I am not always so good about following orders. 🙂

      You write: “…people should be allowed to live it how they think is best for them, as much as that is possible.” And on that notion we are in total agreement, my friend! 🙂


      • Excuse my brevity… I have some downtime on my call day right now so I decided to post a quick response.

        I’m glad to have popped by for a bit. I enjoyed our dialogue as well.

        What’s interesting is that we have this sense that *now* are the times that people are willing to kill over ideas. Now actually happens to be a small uptick in an otherwise overall radical decline in such thoughts and behaviors. It was in fact the norm to be killed (or otherwise punished) for what you did or did not believe in. Don’t forget about the Inquisition and the Crusades, that heretics were burned at the stake, and so on. This is precisely why I argue that religious thought and faith are overall negatives to the human experience. It provides a platform by which to believe certain things are true without the ability to demonstrate them wrong *and* by their nature can be easily turned into something worth killing or dying for. After all if it were in fact true that THE almighty creator of the universe, who held your eternal soul as ransom, told you to kill or die for something it would not be logical or rational to do otherwise. But if the idea is one that is acknowledged as coming from a human mind, then it tends to carry much less cachet. The examples we see of otherwise atheistic thought leading to that all share one commonality: that the originator of the ideology claimed to be more than just human. It is replacing religion with a cult of personality. And while indeed truly horrible, it was also short lived. Pol Pot and Stalin were atrocious monsters, but their regimes fell whereas Christianity and Islam endure millennia onwards.

        In the past such things simply weren’t question. Now, despite being much less the norm, they become popularized and reach the senses of countless more people in a time when questioning such things is also the norm.

        I did not have a chance to read Cousins’ book but I will keep it on my list for whenever I do get around to it. Sadly these days I rarely get to read actual books (I’ve read 2 in the last year) since most of my time reading is spent on journal articles or keeping up with the world in general.

        As for how you wish to be treated as a patient… I absolutely agree. That is precisely how I treat my patients. In fact I make it a point to state quite clearly that my job and the limits of my abilities are to be the expert providing factual statements about what is and is not possible or probable in terms of options. It is then up to the patient to decide what (s)he values most and what risks for what sorts of benefits (s)he would like to undertake over the course of treatment. That said, not everyone is like me. Doctors are people too and some are better at communicating than others. It is also true that at the end of the day providing high quality, evidence based care is the most important thing and that social/interpersonal concerns take a back seat. That said, my argument is that to actually achieve those high quality good outcomes the interpersonal aspects play a very important role for most, but not all, patients. But one must also recognize that some doctors are just not quite as good as other ones and that while for us patient interactions are ultimately ho-hum experiences that for the patient who typically doesn’t see the doctor very often it is always much more meaningful. That’s not an excuse for us to forget it, but an explanation of why it often happens.

        Anyways, just got called to go admit a patient so I will bid you adieu for now.

      • Andrey, if I were in need of a doctor, you’d be the kind of doctor I’d want working with me. Just the fact that you’ve been willing to listen and try to understand my perspective tells me a lot about who you are as a physician.

        You’re right, of course, about violence over beliefs being something that’s been with us for thousands of years. I guess wars are, basically, fought over three things: 1) territory (or spices six hundred years ago and oil more recently); 2) some egomaniac wanting to be king/emperor/ supreme ruler; 3) ideologies.

        Of course, not every person who calls himself a Muslim is involved with ISIS; not every person who calls himself a Christian should be blamed for the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades or the Westboro Baptist Church; and not every person who calls himself an atheist should be lumped in with Pol Pot and Stalin. To lump whole groups of people together like that would be a sign of bigotry. As someone raised in Christian Science, I know that often what people think they know about a religion – or what they think they know about the people who practice it – can be total baloney. Ignorance can lead to bigotry, and if there’s one thing that toasts my cookies, it is bigotry.

        The fact that you’re here talking with me tells me you are NOT a bigot. 🙂

        Andrey, I’ve been wanting to send you a copy of Norman Cousin’s book, and also one of my own, if that’s alright. Are you still working in New Orleans? Would it be alright for me to send you books there? I know you’re very busy, and might not have a chance to read them for a long, long while – but it would make me happy knowing you had them.

        Thank you, once again, for popping in here. Your thoughts and perspective are always appreciated.

      • Once again, thank you for the kind words. Hopefully you won’t need a doctor but if you do and we happen to be in the same area I am more than happy to help if I can.

        As for what people kill and die for… I think there is a lot of overlap in your categories. It really boils down to resources and procreation. Everything else is either an outgrowth of that or a co-optation of those basic evolutionary motivators to some modern equivalent. Territory and spices were about money and resources. Which in turn would allow you to attract more mates and procreate more effectively as well as further ensure your genes get passed on. Same thing goes with power – that is a means by which to get the resources which then get you the mates and the offspring. Ideology is merely one way of attaining those desires which came about once our species developed enough cognitive capacity to have culture. Which is why every single holy text ever written has a few very important commonalities. There is always the ritual/rites and specific identifiers that mark you are worthy members of the ideology. There is always specific regulations about what can be eaten and how and who can be mated with and how. There is always a means by which those closer to “god” are more special and for the institution they represent (and usually themselves as well) to profit from the resources of others. And there is always the excuse that it’s not what the priest/imam/whatever wants but God himself. The rest is just window dressing, typically throwing in a number of otherwise reasonable passages to make the whole thing more palatable.

        Of course not every Muslim is an ISIS member nor is every Christian a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Nor, apparently, is every Christian Scientist dogmatically going to withhold medical care as they watch their children die. But it is *just as wrong* to say that members of ISIS *aren’t* Muslim, WBC *aren’t* Christian, nor that those CS’ists who do withhold medical care and watch their children die aren’t CS’ists. Each of them draw their inspiration, motivation, and justification from the same set of texts that others that everyone else would agree are Muslim, Christian, CS. And that’s the whole point: there are over 38,000 recognized sects of Christianity and numerous sects of Islam precisely because there is no objective grounding in reality for the claims made by those ideologies. We can all agree that what most people call “red” is a photon of light with wavelength of ~635nm even though we can’t say with certainty that what you subjectively perceive as “red” is the same as what I do. But when it comes to claims of the metaphysical, nobody can agree on *anything* about it because it is all nothing more than the evolution of our ancestor’s earliest cultural heritage, spawning from a new evolutionary exploit to get more resources and offspring: culture. That there were both personally and culturally beneficial aspects to the advent of religion/ideology/culture only makes sense. If it were uniformly deleterious it would have been selected against. But evolution doesn’t care about making something perfect, only good enough to be better than before. Specifically better at getting more of your genes passed on.

        Regardless we do a great disservice and are actively losing ground by refusing to acknowledge that the problems we see in regards to the examples mentioned above are indeed directly the result of faith-based thinking and religious ideology. The problem is that once that gets admitted, then the whole of the house of cards of religion crumbles down around it.

        So sure, you can say that this or that specific case of a religious person or religious thought is baloney, but the question is how well does it apply overall? To say that not every Muslim is an ISIS member or even ISIS sympathizer is an accurate statement, but also nearly worthless. What percentage of Muslims *are*? And the answer is quite a few. Same as it is with CS and what originally brought us together. Perhaps a good portion of CS’ists don’t abhor medical treatment and don’t let their children die unnecessarily. Fine, then I would merely say that those people have silly beliefs that are theirs to have if they wish. But there are also a large number of them that – by any rational measure – can reasonably call themselves CS’ists and *do* in fact do that.

        As for the books, I am still in New Orleans. Shoot me an email at andreyapavlov at google’s email service and we can see what makes sense.

        Ciao for now!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s