Meaningful perception | Metarationality

As I always say, I think David Chapman is one of our greatest liiving cyberneticians, and I think this demonstrates why. Big ideas, patiently illustrated.


Meaningful perception | Metarationality

In The Cells of the Eggplant

Leveling up technical work with context and purpose

Meaningful perception

All ravens are black. Image courtesy Casey Horner

Understanding perception as meaning-saturated resolves several of the difficulties Part One found rationalism faces.

Recall from “Is this an eggplant which I see before me?” that the usual rationalist assumption is that perception’s job is to deliver an objective description of your physical environment. “Objective” would mean that it is independent of your theories, of your projects, and of anything that cannot be sensed at this moment, such as recent events. We saw that, for several in-principle reasons, this seems impossible.

Fortunately, that isn’t what we need from perception. In routine, practical activity, what we want perception to tell us is: what are the meaningful aspects of the situation we’re in right now? And what possibilities for ongoing activity do they suggest? The answers depend on what we know, what we can do, what we’re are up to right now, and what else is going on.

Unsurprisingly, then, scientific study of perception shows that it does not attempt to deliver objective descriptions; and shows how perception does operate on a task-dependent, contextual, meaning-saturated and knowledge-saturated basis.

The science is fascinating, and I’d love to review it in detail here, but that would take another book.1 Instead, I will explain just enough that you can understand how routine, reasonable activity cooperates with perception to address issues that rationality unaided cannot.

I will discuss only vision, because it’s the most important human sense, and the best understood scientifically. In this chapter, we’ll return to questions posed in “Is this an eggplant I see before me?” There we asked: what is the interface between perception and rationality? Here, our question will be: what is the interface between vision and reasonable activity? What is the division of labor? And the answer will be that they are intimately entwined, with no hard boundary between them. Seeing is an aspect of doing, not a separate, encapsulated function. This implies that what we perceive is, for better or worse, inevitably affected by what we are up to at the time.

Rationality also depends on perception, of course. We use perception in building objective, rational theories. However, this use is mediated through reasonableness, which limits how objective theories can be—as we’ll see in Part Three.

In Part Three, we’ll also come to understand how the nature and limits of perception and cognition force the rather awkward ways formal rationality must work in the material world. As a hint: how much of your technical, rational work could you do if you were blindfolded? Which parts can you do without looking at a computer screen or at your lab equipment?2 What does that tell you about the nature of rationality?

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Meaningful perception | Metarationality