The Dress and evolved loopholes

Doug FreyburgerCommunication, Epistemology, Leaving Truth, Science3 Comments

In the news recently was #TheDress.  It’s a dress that appears black and blue to some people, white and gold to other people.  It tricks the eye.  I have no idea if the people who made the dress expected this to happen or if they did it deliberately.

Parlor magic is a science that exploits this type of flaw in our evolved perception systems.  A magic act tricks our eye to see something differently than what actually happened.  We see something that isn’t possible or at least a different version of events than what actually happened.  Less often, parlor magic does with with our senses other than sight.  The now infamous dress is one of the finest examples of these tricks that use science in this way.

It turns out the way our vision system perceives color is relative not absolute so it’s possible for different people to perceive the world differently.  This particular dress is perceived one of the two ways depending on how its background was processes by our vision system.  Other tricks exploit the fact that vision has a lower bandwidth than most think and a lot of what we see is interpolated by our perceptive systems.  The neurons in our eyes do extensive image processing before transmitting to the brain and the brain does more image processing still.

The way our systems process data is distributed with different processing conducted in different places.  This system is evolved not designed so there are flaws in it.  These flaws get exploited by the science of parlor magic.  Parlor magic, easily seen as trickery, is actually carefully experimented exploitation of flaws in our evolved processing.

As I progressed through this article I’ve expanded the context of the evolved flaws.  This is deliberate.  We are evolved at all levels and there are flaws to be found at all levels.  At each level we should expect to be able to find flaws and once understood we should be able to exploit these flaws for our own purposes.  Parlor magic exploits flaws mostly in our vision but also sometimes in our attention.  Politics and psychology have found ways to exploit flaws in our emotions.

Here comes the fun part.  There are flaws in our reasoning systems.  Different people have points of strength and points of weakness.  I can puzzle through almost any computer problem but I find calendar scheduling to be mysterious.  Thank the god(desse)s I had the sense to marry an organized woman who handles calendars easily.  The fact that our reasoning systems are evolved and flawed explains part of why different people react differently to articles on science and philosophy.

Flaws in our reasoning isn’t going to be just a matter of individual variation.  There are tools of science and philosophy specifically intended to get around our flaws.  Mathematics is taught to overcome very limited number sense.  Formal logic is taught to overcome a tendency to form invalid conclusions.  And so on down the line of reasoning tools.

Our minds can step outside of the valid reasoning box.  Sometimes the results are positive like discoveries in science.  Sometimes the results are negative like the repressive systems of some religions and governments.  Is it a flaw or an advantage?  By your fruits shall ye be known.

Consider the implications – The process of reason is flawed because our brains are evolved not designed.  The results are visible around us in diverse forms from the color shifting dress to the anti-vaccination movement.  If you ever wanted to know why all knowledge is provisional and absolute truth is at best an asymptote, this is one of the reasons.

Some form of reason is likely out there that works very well but that so far no one has ever dreamed up.  The universe is a wondrous place with or without deities.

3 Comments on “The Dress and evolved loopholes”

  1. Allan Havinling

    Thanks for posting this Doug. It gives me a chance to slip in a small bit of philosophy I’ve been knocking about, but never got mature enough for a post.

    Your post discussed several ways in which our brains wrangle certainty from uncertainty. Another one is discretization. That is that The Dress HAS to be [chose from any pick list of finite number of colors]. (I don’t want to get into an argument over how important discretization was to The Dress relative to the other factors; it’s just the example du jour.) One of my initial problems with Leaving Truth is that after we leave truth we are to construct a Knowledge Selection Procedure (KSP) which sorts all knowledge proposals into “accept” and “reject”. We all know the world is not like that (witness The Dress), but the KSP actually makes no such lofty claim.

    Chopping the world up into discrete anthropogenic divisions is at least as old as language. As long as there are a finite number of words available to describe the world, the vast continuity of the world will beggar description. And yet what power we gain through the forfeiture of accuracy! We have been unknowingly leaving truth in exchange for power for untold millennia. Now if we are to have any chance of saving us from us, we need to start leaving truth knowingly, with full awareness of what we are doing and why.

  2. Allan Havinling

    Aside from wanting to get in my 2 cents about discretization, Doug, I really did like your post. It reminded my of migrating salmon and how flaws in the return program are what get them into new rivers and streams.

  3. Doug Freyburger

    The salmon return program seems to be a combination of going up stream no matter which stream it is, plus using scent to select which stream to go up, plus some unknown mechanism that brings most of them close to the mouth of their native river about the time the other two programs trigger. Taken together it brings most salmon to their native grounds and since they survived that’s likely to be a good location. It also ensures that some salmon end up well up every variation near there ensuring genetic mixture. Outright errors lead some to go up different rivers thus seeding those rivers with populations. Releasing salmon in depleted streams renews the population. Now that we have farmed salmon, escapees are populating rivers that empty into different oceans than their native location – Atlantic salmon are now found in western regions.

    One implication I thought of is how scientific discovery interacts with parts of mysticism outside of usual reason – Thinking outside of the box occasionally leads to important discoveries. Much of the rest of science is puzzle solving within the box making corrections and filling in gaps. The scientific method is self correcting to the point that the initial discovery can be far off the mark but as long as it addresses a previous unexplored domain the process eventually converges correctly.

    Another implication I thought of has to do with claims about how patternicity arose in evolution and what that says about the minority of the population who have direct personal observation of the spirits of the world. The evolutionary claim runs like this – Predators evolve camouflage to avoid detection before pouncing. Prey evolve pattern recognition to detect camouflaged predators. If a prey animal bolts when no predator was present it gets to breed the same as a prey animal that bolted when a predator was present. This lead to patterns being detected when they are not present. This gets called a cognitive failure but in fact it’s how scientific discoveries happen. That means it’s what I have called a loophole.

    Is direct personal observation of the spirits of the world an example of patternicity detecting patterns that are not present? Or is direct personal observation of the spirits of the world an example of an evolutionary trait that has enough of an advantage that it continues in populations but not enough that it pervades populations? The answer does not have to be a discrete choice between those two poles. How fun is that when viewed as an epistemological puzzle!

    Loopholes like this are known to trigger irrational acts. The anti-vax movement is one of many examples in the modern world. Humans have all manner of herd behaviors that are not rational – That ties into your post about tragedy of the commons in many ways.

    We can take it as a goal to be as rational as we can achieve, but we’ll never know how rational it’s possible to be.

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