A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Some quick diversions

I have a few more posts about Beyond the Brain left to do, but I want to take a quick break to post about some other things. In part, I'm looking for a change of pace for a little bit, in part I have some other ideas percolating to the fore, and in part I promised to loan the book to a philosophy-professor friend and he is getting testy. Topics I hope to cover in the next few weeks:

  • How Holt suggested we think about brain functions (work for the chapter I am preparing with Andrew and Sabrina)
  • Why we need to be suspicious of physiological "explanations" of behavior
  • How the problem of "illusion" goes to the core of psychophysics, social psych, and comparative psychology.

Topics still coming from Beyond the Brain:
  • The interesting discussion about Anthropomorphism
  • Some instances where the ideas were great, but I didn't quite get the metaphors that were supposed to simply/clarify the ideas. 
  • How far should the "extended cognition" idea should be taken? 

A Final Thought

Just so this post isn't a complete wash, content wise, let me add the line in Barrett's book that most made me stop in shock - unsure if I had just read crazyness or brilliant insight. It is a quote from Peter Hacker (on p. 103) that appears in the middle of the discussion of Gibson's system vs. the alternatives, and as cool as the line is just sitting here, it is even better in context. Hacker states:
To argue that since we can see nothing without having a retinal image therefore what we see is the retinal image is like arguing that since we can buy nothing without money what we buy is money.
Having read the sentence several more times, I'm still not sure if it is crazy, brilliant, or maybe even both.


    1. I had the same feeling about that sentence. I'm still not sure.

    2. Quite apart from whether the analogy works, doesn't sensory substitution ala Bach-y-Rata make the premise that to see requires "having a retinal image" false under a broad - but arguably reasonable - concept of "seeing"? (Just as the analogy's premise is false under a broad concept of "buying".)

      And in any case, isn't the conclusion "what we see is the retinal image" an egregious misuse of "see" independent of the premise?

      Ie, isn't the analogy a distraction (as they almost always are, IMO) from the straightforward observation that the inference Hacker's trying to discredit is prima facie fatally flawed?

    3. Tom Stoffregen has an interesting approach to this stuff that I am trying to integrate into the intro of the eco-psych textbook.

      Basically, "see" should be defined as "responding to illuminated stimuli". Thus a person can be said to "see" if they are responding to lit objects, no matter what method they use to do so. Typically, in humans, this is accomplished through a process that also produces a retinal image. However, exactly as you say, work by Bach-y-Rita show that such is not at all necessary in people, and plenty of animal work show that it isn't necessary for other organisms.

      I'm not sure the claim that we 'see' a retinal image was egregious, or if it was an just wrong in its implications. Certainly, it was always a metaphor, weirdly applied. Hmmmm.....

    4. What's the Bach-y-Rita stuff? The name rings a bell but I'm not sure what for.

    5. Paul Bach-y-Rita pioneered the cool experiments where people can "see" by having devices that turn visual input into pressure changes on their skin or tongue. The ecological take is that the experiments demonstrate that it was the information that was important all along, not the particular sensory system. I'm not sure anyone has really pushed to determine the full implications of his study - for philosophy or technology.

      (Full disclaimer, I was familiar with the research, but double checked the name through Wikipedia to be sure: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bach-y-Rita)

    6. Basically, "see" should be defined as "responding to illuminated stimuli".

      Agreed, although I might rephrase something like "to 'see an object' is to respond to stimuli caused by light reflected from an illuminated object".

      But then "what we see is the retinal image", becomes:

      "what we respond to are stimuli caused by light reflected from an illuminated retinal image"

      which strikes me as "egregious" nonsense.

      I don't mean to nit pick, and might well agree that in casual conversation, common metaphors are preferable to unintelligible jargon. But I've had a tough time getting a lot of the jargon straight because even in formal conversation, misleading metaphors are often carelessly thrown in - which is really annoying to a neophyte struggling to understand the concepts.

    7. Charles,
      I think we agree, at least based on current evidence. People should have realized a long time ago, for lots of reasons, that the "all you REALLY see is a retinal image" claim is bogus and nonsensical.

      Given my minor fetish for enlightenment-era ideas, however, I'm always very cautious about declaring that bogus ideas were obviously bogus from the start. Thus, I only wished to hedge my claim so as to leave open the possibility that it might not have been an absurd hypothesis back when people were first trying figure any of this stuff out. Certainly, for example, it was reasonable for people several hundred years ago to hypothesize that we somehow mentally build a 3D world out of a 2D retinal image.

    8. Sorry, I neglected to comment on the metaphor issue. In the Renaissance, artists, and educated people in general learned a lot about how we see three dimensionality in pictures. This is the work on the numerous types of depth cues, etc., that is now quite mundane. Just as people were starting to get a handle on picture production and picture perception, the retinal image was discovered.

      It seems reasonable, based on that, to hypothesize that all perception works on the same principles that had been discovered regarding picture perception.

    9. Eric -

      My complaints are exclusively about those alive and kicking today, or recently, who know better but throw such metaphors about carelessly. I assumed that Hacker's quote was directed at ideas current today and expressed in roughly the language he used. If either assumption is incorrect, my objections don't apply.

      I fully appreciate the tremendous advantage of knowledge accrued over the years being readily available to anyone with Internet access - and of access to patient tutoring via blogs like this one!