A Tale of Two Senses
Can we trust our senses to tell us the truth?
Alex mentioned an interesting scientist on one of our podcasts: Donald Hoffman, the author of The Case Against Reality. I’d heard of the book but ignored it because I assumed he was just another Silicon valley bro thinking the simulation hypothesis is a new idea or explains anything. But it turns out he is much more interesting a thinker than that and like him, at least what I understand of his ideas so far. He has the balls to go against a lot of the silly scientism and materialism that are holding back new ideas when it comes to consciousness, while at the same time avoiding the just as silly woo woo of the spiritual bros. He seems top be rigorous and non-dogmatic at the same time – quite rare.
One of his main ideas is that if evolution by natural selection is true then our perceptions have evolved for fitness, not truth. In other words they are to help us survive and reproduce, not to give us a true picture of some objective reality out there. The assumption people have - me included when Alex first explained on the podcast before I looked into Hoffman – is that if perceptions help evolutionary fitness, and therefore helped our ancestors survive, then it’s because, slowly over time they became closer and closer to the objective truth. We acknowledge our perceptions are not perfectly accurate and complete - we’ve all seen the optical illusion colour experiments. But assume our subjective perceptions must align with objective truth over time, as shown by the fact that we survive and don’t die before we reproduce or at least our ancestors did.
His idea is that this intuition isn’t true, and his team have some sort of mathematical equations and simulations to show there is a zero probability that evolution would select us for perceiving the objective truth as opposwed to what is best for fitness. I’m unqualified and ignorant to comment on this but this is the idea he runs with and has some other theories and predictions based on this, some getting very far out into what sounds like things spiritual practitioners might say. Expect to hear him mentioned on and interviewed by those type of youtube shows in future.
Example:– A Tale of Two Senses
Anyway here I only want to point out a real example of what he is talking about, but in a limited sense. I will use an example from my conscious movement experiments.
Do our perceptions of movements tell us the truth about reality? To be less general and more specific, let’s compare types of perceptions, those that come from two different sensory systems.
On the one hand we have the Proprioceptive/Kinaesthetic sense, the feeling of where your body is in space, where the parts are, and what they are doing at any one time. These perceptions are the immediate events and experiences we habitually use to guide and control our everyday movements.
On the other hand, we also have the sense of Sight, which gives us different type of perception into movements we can see happening in front of us. We use this sense for judging and predicting the movements of other people and objects. And in some ways also use it to guide and control our own movements, e.g. by looking at your hands as you hammer in a nail. Although most people don’t use this sense to help with postural control (unless you’ve had a lessons with me!)
In addition there is also how how both these sensory systems interact with out higher cognitive processes such as reasoning, along with their effect on our emotional reactions and feelings judgments we make in the moment.
In one to one sessions I get the ‘pupil’ to do some movement experiments on video over Zoom. I won’t show images of this experiment just in case you have a lesson with me (it’s very powerful) but will explain as best I can in words here.
First I define two specific bony parts on the body, name them, and get the pupil to touch them so we both understand exactly which objects we are talking about. By naming and defining, the physical object also becomes a mental object – something we can think about. I choose two quite pronounced bony parts on the front of the body, everyone can find them easily and is aware of them, but has probably never given them names before or been asked questions about them.
So then i ask questions. Speciality questions about the relationship between these two parts. Is part A further forward than part B? or is it further backward? I have them sit side on to the camare and get them to imagine looking at themselves from the side - in other words the view of the camara video they can use to verify for themselves after.
But I ask them now to keep looking forward and go by their Proprioceptive/Kinaesthetic sense of where these two parts are, and to answer the question based on which feels further forward. In almost every untrained person, when standing, there is a clear and visible relationship between these two parts, and one is definitely and obviously further forward than the other. No one would argue with this - when they see it on video. But they are going by feeling here, not sight.
The person 90% of the time will get the relationship wrong. Their feeling tells them part A is further forward, whereas I can see that part B is much further forward when seen and not felt. I don’t expect them to take it on faith. So I screen record this entire discussion and experiment and then play it back to the person in real time during th session. As soon as they see it they agree, yes it is part B that is actually further forward, not part A, are they are often shocked by just how much further forward it is - because the feeling was clear and strong that part A was further forward!
So one perception - based on the Proprioceptive/Kinaesthetic sense says the opposite of what the other sense, sight, tells you. Which one do we go with? Obviously we both go with sight not the feeling, and “the camera never lies” is true enough for this situation, as he knows it’s not an optical illusion and unlikely I faked a video so quickly. The pupil discovers that his most intimate sense of his own body which he has lived with and trusted his whole life is… a little untrustworthy to be kind. Or an out and out liar and deceiver! This doesn’t sound like a big deal until it happens to you. Especially if you have experience with movement practices or physical skills, and assume you are the exception.
So what is going on here? Well, neither of the perceptions and their sensory systems are, according to Hoffman, designed to lead us to “objective truth” but in our case sight is more “true enough” and would have to assume leads to greater evolutionary fitness. Or does it? – we all seem to be surviving fine while our basic body awareness we trust to keep us safe and find food or mates, is outright lying to us! All quite mysterious and complex, much more to investigate here.
The experience of not being able to trust the truth of your kinaesthetic awareness is quite shocking and some pupils have taken temper tantrums. Feelings of your own body parts are so intimate and immediate and real, how can they not be true – how could they be false? Not just wrong or inaccurate but the exact opposite of what our sight is telling us? But then sight can be agreed upon and experienced by more than one person using technology like video, although I’m sure back in the day you could do the same with reflection in a pond.
So no big deal right, we just need to “get out of head and back in our body” do get some somatic therapy, do embodiment practices, get fitter and lift weights, do sports, take up meditation etc or whatever your favourite trick is and eventually with enough practice you will get more accurate and trust your feeling senses, right? Nope. I’ve tried the same experiment with advanced meditators, famous sport starts, martial artists, scientists, artists and every type of person and body type. Almost everyone has perceptions which are demonstrably not true in ONE lesson. It appears to just be something about the human condition.