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The Light From Our Eyes
Stephen Brewer wonders what’s in the (mind’s) eye of the beholder.
Max, Freya and Orin are in the café of a downtown contemporary art gallery. Freya is sipping a glass of oolong tea while gazing at a print of brightly colored circles. Max is reading his newspaper, drinking his black filter coffee, and eating a chocolate muffin. He looks over his paper and winces as Orin drops three teaspoonfuls of sugar into his espresso and gives it a vigorous stir.
Freya: Just look at that! Even this print – which is number 16 of 25 – costs $2,500. Who knows what the original’s worth? Perhaps ‘Terry Frost RA’ was the first person to think of painting just circles on a canvas… Still, it’s so fascinating that I just have to look at it. I wish I took an art degree.
Max: [pointing to an article in the paper]: Instead of being fascinated by colored blobs, you professors should be horrified by this report. It says that fifty per cent of American college students think you only see that picture – and everything else – because a light shines out of your eyes! How dumb is that?
Orin: In fact, it’s interesting because they’re supporting Plato’s ancient ‘extramission’ theory of perception. It is good to hear that our brightest and best students are still reaching the same conclusions as the ancient Greek philosophers and their Medieval scholastic followers.
Max: Nonsense! It’s listening to you and the philosophy you teach them that gives these students such crazy ideas. How can they be so stupid as to ignore all the scientific progress over the past three centuries? It’s as if the Enlightenment never occurred and they still live in the Dark Ages. And the disproof of the idea is so obvious that even the dumbest student could test it – simply close your eyes and you won’t see anything.
Orin: Well, color and taste emanate from us; so perhaps in that sense our eyes and also our tongues do in fact illuminate the world about us.
Max: What utter drivel!
Freya: Wait Max. Before you dismiss the idea out of hand, you should listen to what Orin has to say. Orin, in what sense do you think our eyes and tongues illuminate the world?
Orin: Well you tell me… Max, does light itself have color, and is sugar itself actually sweet?
Max: Well, no: visible light is just electromagnetic radiation of different wavelengths. That red circle over there is reflecting light with a wavelength of about 650nm; but the light itself isn’t red. Similarily, sugar is just a chemical with a lot of readily released energy, but it’s not in itself sweet without us. The redness or sweetness is just in the way we react to them.
Orin: So we produce the color red and the sweet taste in our minds, then.
Max: How do we do that, then?
Freya: To know that would mean solving one of the biggest mysteries of consciousness.
Orin: For the sake of the current argument, it doesn’t really matter how we do it. All that matters is that somehow qualities such as redness or sweetness emerge in our minds as a result of highly complex operations in the brain.
Max: So by some unknown mechanism the light from that picture produce a particular experience of red that floats around in my mind…
Orin: Oh Max! Do our sensational experiences ‘float around in your mind’ as you say? When you see a red color, or taste sweetness, where is that color or taste located?
Max: Well the sweetness is on the tongue, of course; so the redness must similarily be in the eye.
Gallery View © istockphoto.com/lordrunar 2013
Orin: ‘Of course’? But when you scientists say sweetness is a property of the sugar, it’s not really a property of the sugar itself, is it? It’s better to say that it’s a property generated in your mind as a result of your tongue being in contact with the sugar. And to get that sensation requires your brain doing some pretty sophisticated processing of the information produced by the interaction of your taste buds with sugar molecules. So what does it mean to say that the taste is on the tongue?
Freya: That’s all very interesting, because that red circle, although its redness is produced by my mind, is on the picture over there. It’s sort of pasted back onto the canvas by my mind – just like those circles were originally put on the canvas by the artist.
Orin: Quite right. Somehow the mind projects these qualities back onto the source of the stimulus… Sweetness goes into my cup of coffee and red onto that circle over there. Take the picture or the coffee away and the experience disappears…
Max: I see your point. But if what you say is true, none of it’s actually out there, is it? It’s in our minds. So, it has the appearance of being outside us, but let’s face it, it’s not. Instead, our experience of colour and sweetness and all the rest is an illusion.
Freya: And a pretty damn good one at that…
Orin: I think we should see our minds as being at the intersection of all these sources of energy, light and chemicals active in the physical world, adding qualitative value to them by generating the sensory mental experiences we have. These generated values are then projected back onto the source of the stimulation. But it’s only our minds that make the world full of color and taste. By adding such properties to all these different sources of energy or chemical stimulus our minds fill the world with objects with different properties. Without these sensory valuations that our minds make, the world would only consist of boring forms of physical energy and chemistry.
Freya: But for us this means it’s no longer an alien place inhabited by various impersonal forms of energy, but filled with objects that now have value to us.
Orin: Yes, and these valuations are not projected onto a screen inside our minds, but onto the world itself.
Max: So, now you’re saying we’ve invented the world. Still nonsense!
Orin: But I’m not saying that Max. Our division of the world into objects is not an invention, because it requires there to be the real objects to act as the sources of the various forms of energy or chemistry that interact with our senses. Now, whether these mental qualities we impose upon these objects are invented by our minds or discovered, is a big philosophical question…
Max: All the same, attaching these mental qualities to things is not the same as projecting light from our eyes!
Orin: Nevertheless, we are illuminating the world in much the same way as a manuscript is illuminated by the artist adding color and form to the plain text.
Freya: It also has the effect of making the world a beautiful and interesting place. It makes the world fascinating to us so that we want to explore it. Without this illumination, there would be no reason to enjoy the world, or even to reach out for it.
Max: But these college students don’t see it that way. That’s not what they’re saying. You’re only going to confuse the issue even more with this sort of talk.
Orin: On the contrary, it is you scientists confusing them, by claiming that the world is full of inert objects neatly placed in time and space with us as mere disconnected observers of them. But the world which you maintain is the real one has no art or poetry in it, perhaps no reason for us to act on it at all. Obviously, it is the taste of sugar, not pure physics, which is causing you to down that muffin! And the artist, not the scientist, is the one capturing the real world full of beauty, color and passion.
With a noisy rustle Max turns the paper’s page. Licking the tip of his index finger, he picks up the crumbs from the plate with it and transfers them to his tongue. Freya, again gazing at the picture, gets up, crosses the room, and begins to trace out the shapes with a hovering finger. With a loud grunt Orin adds another spoonful of sugar to his untouched and by now cold coffee. With much rattling and clinking he gives it a vigorous stir; but Max makes no further response.
© Dr Stephen J. Brewer 2018
Steve Brewer is a retired biochemist and the author of The Origins of Self (2015), available for free download from originsofself.com.