How we perceive and what to do about it

Human perception is massively based on human memory, expectations, and schemas already formed and present in the brain.

A recent study on visual perception came to this conclusion:

Altogether, these results show that many neurons in the medial temporal lobe signal the subjects’ perceptual decisions rather than the visual features of the stimulus. (Source)

This study is about visual perception and it focuses on neurons in the medial temporal lobe of the brain, but it’s conclusions have been discovered in many other studies—that is, we very often perceive what we already know or expect to perceive visually, aurally, verbally, semiotically.

Humans are capable of seeing new things and forming new conclusions and perceptions, but our default brain state is that most of the time we react to what we already think we know, consciously or unconsciously.

And how could it be otherwise? We could not function if we had to reassemble every pixel in a photo or our visual field every time we looked at anything. Same for sounds, sentences, concepts, and semiotics in general. If we are unable to quickly generalize and categorize something as something we already know about, we will find ourselves utterly lost in a maze of astounding complexity every second of our lives.

We cannot live without that default state, but when we use it during interpersonal communication we frequently run the risk of applying an erroneous “perceptual decision” about what someone is saying or about how we think they have heard us.

If you make erroneous perceptual decisions at a normal pace, which can be several times per hour, you will almost certainly begin to build up bigger and bigger wrong perceptions of the person you are doing it to. If that person is a spouse or close friend, you will have problems.

How do we usually deal with or work around problems of that type?

  1. We ignore them.
  2. We spend time away from the person.
  3. We get mad openly or seethe quietly.
  4. We resort to the simple generalities of basic friendship—shared activities, safe topics, declarations of loyalty or friendship.
  5. We believe or hope that mistakes will average out and not matter much.

In order:

1) If we ignore problems that arise from erroneous “perceptual decisions,” we are merely pushing them aside where they will continue to fester. Some people are truly able to completely ignore or forget, but do you really want to do that to your memory? And what replaces what you have forgotten? Isn’t it just another false “perceptual decision?”

2) This works to dilute feeling and perception, but not to improve or upgrade it. In most cases, this is a losing strategy with close friends.

3) Getting mad is better than most responses if you have the tools to fix the problem. Seething silently is a horrible way to go, though unfortunately a very common one. The worst of all is “not getting mad but getting even.” People who do this with friends are universally idiots.

4) Sad way to go but probably the most common halfway-decent thing people do. This describes most friendships and marriages. They become  sort of lifeless card games that go on and on because no one knows what else to do. And the longer they go on, the less likely there will be change.

5) I think this is an unrealistic belief because false perceptions can go off at many different angles. They don’t cancel out. At best, this belief may produce an outcome similar to item four above.

There is a way to handle these problems and that way is FIML. With practice, FIML partners will find that they have no festering false perceptions about each other and that they have not been forced to compromise the integrity and complexity of their relationship by resorting to any of the above strategies.

If you read about morality in books and essays, it is all usually very philosophical. What is it? What are the foundations of it? How does fairness contribute? Is it emotional? Cognitive? Non-cognitive? Etc.

But how do you do it? Not how do you do it in the big sense of politics or global warming or philosophy, but how do you do it with just one other person? Can you do that? Have you ever done that? Can you conduct a complex and moral relationship with even one other person?

I don’t mean just sex, though that’s in there. I mean everything. Can you get very, very clear about all of the complexities of your relationship with just one other person? How can you be psychologically healthy if you cannot? I think most people are stuck, at best, on level four above. The reason is not that they want that but that they do not see another way.

You absolutely have to do something like FIML. If you don’t, false perceptions will accumulate and lead to one of the five things mentioned above.

Ethics, morality

If we consider our minds to be networks of signals, then we can say that it is better that the signals be more efficient and contain fewer errors.

This might be a good definition of a sound ethical position—to reduce signal error and increase signal efficiency.

In many ways, the two are the same. When we reduce signal error, we increase the efficiency of the entire system.

Thus, for any one system, such that there is a such a thing, the best ethical position would be to reduce signal error while increasing signal efficiency. That one system might stand for one human being.

But what if there are two or more systems that interact with each other?

In one sense we might say they are the “same” system, especially if interaction is imperative. In another sense, we can treat them as different systems.

If they are seen as the “same,” then reducing error and increasing efficiency will benefit the whole system (of two or more).

If they are seen as separate and not the same, there are two possibilities. Separate systems within the whole may decide to lie or cheat or they may decide not to lie or cheat.

If none of the separate systems within the network ever lies or cheats, efficiency will be increased and error will be reduced.

If one or more of the separate systems within the network decides to lie or cheat, efficiency will decrease and errors will multiply.

The separate systems can be understood to be people while the large network can be understood to be human groups. Lying and cheating or refraining from lying or cheating must be conscious acts.

Errors that just happen non-consciously (misspeaking, mishearing, misunderstanding, data mistakes, etc.) are not moral errors unless they could be or could have been avoided by a reliable method.

No network without lying or cheating has ever been achieved by large numbers of human beings. Even very small groups, as few as two people, rarely are able to achieve an ideal ethical state of no lying and no cheating. And even if they do get pretty good at that, it is very difficult for even just two people to remove non-conscious errors from their interactions.

FIML practice can greatly reduce non-conscious error between partners while at the same time providing a robust basis for increased moral awareness and increased understanding that both partners are benefiting greatly from the honesty (or ethical practice) of both of them.

My honesty with you greatly improves my understanding of and honesty within my own network and also gives me much better information about your network. And the same is true for you. Together we form an autocatalytic set that continually upgrades our mutual network and individual systems.

Clarity, honesty, and efficiency in interpersonal communication is satisfying in itself and also it improves efficiency between partners as it upgrades the self-awareness of each.

One partner could lie and cheat while doing FIML practice, but since FIML is fairly involved and somewhat difficult to learn, it is likely that most partners will do their best by each other and that most individuals will come to realize that honesty benefits them much more than lying.

I think it is fair to conclude that the best ethical or moral position to take is one that increases efficiency of signalling (talking, doing, etc.) while also reducing signalling error. The problem with doing that is people can and will lie and cheat and we do not (yet) have a reliable way to tell when they are lying and cheating.

A good way to tell if someone is being honest will be an accurate lie-detector, but even that may not be efficient or work well with the dynamics of real-time human communication.

Thus some other technique is needed. FIML can be that technique and I know of no other one that works as well. Thus a sound ethical position in today’s world would be having the aim of reducing signal error while increasing signal efficiency through the practice of FIML.

Without FIML, interpersonal communications is at least an order of magnitude cruder and thus much less efficient. FIML is not perfect, but it is much better than what we ordinarily do. If you can increase resolution and detail at will within any system, it will improve that system. If you can do that with interpersonal communication, it will improve all aspects of that system.

The Diamond Sutra and modern thought

Modern thought is characterized by physicalism and atheism.

The forerunner of physicalism was materialism. Basing everything on matter doesn’t make good sense so materialism became physicalism. Physicalism, very simply, means that everything obeys the laws of physics, and thus physicalism has an open-ended definition because the laws we understand today will surely be different in the future.

Criticisms of physicalism claim it is vague since, as of today, we can’t say what the ultimate laws are and we are unlikely to ever be able to for how do you know when you know all there is to know?

I have no problem with physicalism and would be happy to call myself a physicalist. I think physicalism fits well with Buddhism and if you push at it a bit it can easily include many aspects of religion and the “supernatural,” which just means that which has not yet been explained by the laws of physics. See The invented God argument for more on this angle.

Another interesting way to connect modern thought with Buddhism is to look more closely and with different eyes at the Diamond Sutra or any other major wisdom teaching within the Buddhist tradition.

The Diamond Sutra is a long answer to a single question: “…when good men and good women commit themselves to complete, unsurpassed enlightenment, on what should they base themselves, and how should they subdue their minds?”

The Buddha’s answer is that they should be generous and not base their generosity on anything. That is, no phenomenal thing, nothing material, nothing conditioned. To say it another way, they should be generous but not base their generosity on any transient thing or material calculation.

Doesn’t that sound like the Buddha is indicating a higher level of understanding not unlike the laws of physics? Consider some questions: Where are the laws of physics? What holds them together? Do the inhere in matter, do they spring from matter, or do they “reside” at some other level?

I don’t know what it would mean for them to inhere in matter or spring from matter. Are the laws “out there?” Are they  more fundamental than matter? Higher than matter? We don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but there is nothing wrong with the questions.

The Buddha’s answer to Subhuti also contains this: “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

In Buddhist thought, our senses are sight (form), sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. These, of course, can be expanded to include proprioception, balance, and much more. The important point here is that the Buddha uses the six senses mentioned to categorically exclude all phenomenal input including thought.

It takes time if you are coming from a modern language to see thought as being a sense. But look at how materialism has transformed into physicalism and how we can’t be sure even today which of our thoughts is really good and will be viable in a hundred years and which of them will look outdated in ten years. Psychoanalysis and materialism, to name just two thoughts, have suffered complete falls from grace over very short time-spans.

Consider again the six senses of Buddhism. Sight depends on light, something outside the body system. And so does sound, smell, taste, and touch. We see and perceive via our senses because those things are “out there.” Birds fly because air supports them. Fish swim because the water allows this. The fish are adapted to water and have evolved within it.

But what about thought? Is thought material? An epiphenomenon of matter? Since materialism is a weak philosophy, we should ask instead is thought physical? Does it obey the laws of physics?

One answer is reductionism, which goes down deeply into matter to find what we may already know. But another answer is that thought is “out there.” It exists independent of our bodies and brains. Just as the laws of physics do not inhere in matter, so also does thought not inhere in the body. As a bird’s wings are supported by the air, so our thoughts are supported by a reality that is different than the material world and probably superior to it.

If that is so, our capacity for thought is shaped by the laws of physics as much as our bodies are shaped by matter. Birds crash, make mistakes and die due to their mistakes. So also, we humans make mistakes in our thoughts and crash and die due to those mistakes. To glimpse a higher source for thought and being is not to say that our thoughts cannot be horribly mistaken.

Glimpsing a level of reality, profound physicalism, that is “superior” to the reality apprehended by our senses is not to say that we are enlightened or that we have reached the end of the road. We have, rather, caught sight of a way of understanding our lives that is fuller and probably truer than anything on the current spectrum that lies between materialism and spiritualism.

Is this what the Diamond Sutra is indicating when the Buddha adds generosity to the emptiness of the self? As sentient beings, we are capable of being generous. But we also tend to want to have our actions confirmed by our lower senses, our material senses, thus reducing them in much the same way that materialism can reduce higher sensibilities by binding them to a lower calculus.

Is this why the Buddha makes his point so explicitly? He says, “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

Profound wisdom (prajna) means being generous without basing that consciousness on anything material or any understanding we have (so far) of physicalism. Now, does this mean that generosity is itself an element of the deepest laws of physics? Do we perceive unconditional generosity because it is already “out there?” Is the universe as we know it generous or is it cold, as so many materialists claim?

The Buddhist answer is that the universe is generous. We know it is vast, abundant, and creative. We k now it “obeys” the laws of physics such as we know them. We know birds fly due to there being air. Is the Buddha saying we can grok profound, unconditioned generosity because it is already “out there?” It’s part of what an enlightened being knows?

In this respect, can we say we have made some progress in analyzing whether maths are “out there” or are mere constructs of our minds? The answer would be both, with an emphasis on maths being “out there.” Surely some of them are wrong, and some are not deep enough, but like the laws of physics or the generosity of a Buddha, maths are also very importantly “out there” and that is why we can find them.

Similar things can be said about other uses of the mind that rise above materialism—music, in this respect, is far more than mere “pleasing sounds,” art more than pretty pictures, poetry more than good sounding words.

Another way to look at this is consider what you mean by your “self,” your “personality,” “ego,” “autobiography,” etc. Can your personality, such that it is, handle detailed analysis of active communication as in FIML practice? I am all but certain it can’t. So what good is it if it cannot even analyze its own listening and speaking while they are happening?

In Buddhism, the self, the personality, the ego are fictions. They obscure reality rather than reveal it. If your personality or self is a touchy little thing inside your head that loses control of its emotions every time it hears anything out of the ordinary, how can it be true? Why would you want it? Why do we organize our senses and beings around such bankrupt concepts as self or personality?

The small answer is we don’t know any better and everyone else does it so we can’t be different. The big answer is the Buddha’s answer. The self is a narrow organizing principle that relies on base sensory calculations to maintain itself and as such is subject to the selfish delusions of greed, pride, anger, and ignorance, to name just a few.

The answer the Buddha gives in the Diamond Sutra to Subhuti’s question is a supreme “physicalist” answer which indicates that just as birds can fly humans can soar.

The Diamond Sutra section 4

Section four has been added to the Diamond Sutra. A link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page or here.

In this section, the Buddha continues to answer Subhuti’s question by emphasizing the importance of generosity. Generosity and wisdom are two of the most important behaviors or aspects of Buddhist practice. In the language of the Diamond Sutra, they are two of the main virtues of a bodhisattva.

Wisdom is always the preeminent Buddhist virtue because without wisdom, all other virtues can be misdirected. And yet, wisdom without generosity can be cold and stale.

But what is generosity and how does one do it? How are we to be generous? The Buddha answers, “…Subhuti, within this phenomenal world, a bodhisattva ought to practice generosity without basing it on anything.”

Then he continues, “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

Form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought are the six basic senses recognized in Buddhism. In this context, form indicates sight and also anything that gives rise to the skandha of sensation. Again, the Buddha is making an unambiguous  statement: “…within this phenomenal world…a bodhisattva…ought to practice generosity without basing it on anything.” And that means neither sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.

The Buddha could not be clearer or more emphatic. Generosity subject to phenomenal attachments, definitions, or rewards is not the sort of generosity he is talking about.

“Subhuti, when the generosity of a bodhisattva is not based on laksana, his goodness is… immeasurable. Subhuti, a bodhisattva should base himself on this teaching and this teaching alone.”

What teaching is that? Being generous without basing it on any laksana, any phenomenal sense or form.

(If you click on the Diamond Sutra tag on the right side of this page, you will find explanations for the parts of the sutra that have already been posted.)

An anthropologist on Rotherham

I think we are going to have to consult with anthropologists if we want to figure out what happened at Rotherham and what to do about it.

The anthropologist Peter Frost does a good job of analyzing Rotherham in his essay Rotherham: The search for answers. Here is a short passage:

 First, most Britons have been living in denial. Few wish to believe, at least openly, that organized gangs are preying on school-age girls. Fewer wish to believe that the gangs are overwhelmingly non-white and largely Muslim. And even fewer wish to believe the extent of the problem: perhaps one in ten of Rotherham’s white families, if not more. It all sounds like vicious propaganda that only ugly hate-filled people could believe.

Yet it’s true. So what comes next?

Frost argues convincingly that the root of the problem is not “racism” or “Islam,” but culture because, as he says assimilation to British society

…does not mean giving up the restraints of one culture and taking on those of another. It means the first but not the second. Immigrants leave an environment where behavior is restrained mainly by external controls (shaming, family discipline, community surveillance) and they enter one where behavior is restrained mainly by internal controls (guilt, empathy). To the extent that assimilation happens, external social controls will weaken and may even disappear, but they will not be replaced by internal mental controls. There is no known way to give people a greater capacity for guilt and empathy than what they already have. No such psychotherapy exists. This is true even if we assume that population differences in these two traits are due solely to cultural conditioning, and not to inborn tendencies.

Please read Frost’s whole piece as the short quotes I have used do not do his argument justice.

A proper analysis of Rotherham must go much deeper than political memes or the maddeningly shallow emotions of political correctness, for as Frost writes, humans are not “…interchangeable units in a global community. Each human and each community is a product of adaptations to specific circumstances, and what works in one set of circumstances may not work so well in another.”

Israeli soldiers from elite wire-tapping unit refuse to use ‘extortion’, ‘blackmail’

“I’m worried that Israeli society will see us as traitors, as people who are trying to harm Israel, while in reality it’s the opposite. We’re doing this because we feel a sense of urgency, a sense of responsibility for the place we live in,” another captain said.

“The continuous cycle of violence is something that has to be stopped and something we can’t be a part of.” (Source)

A person can do great moral good by just stopping. Sometimes what is stopped is a “cycle of violence,” one that goes back and forth and on and on. Sometimes the good comes from just stopping reacting badly. For example, a tree falls on your car, making you feel bad, so you yell at your wife who then is sharp with a colleague who then goes home and drinks too much….etc.