Missives from a fly bottle
barang dot sg
Last revised 31 August 2017
Seeing and being

An essay on the “hard problem of consciousness,” using visual consciousness as a model case. For many, this would be the problem of explaining how the everyday phenomenon we call seeing “arises” from the brain.
But I have never liked this way of phrasing the problem because it seems to me that we have a very poor grasp (to begin with) of the everyday phenomenon of seeing itself. What is this thing we call seeing?
So the essay explores instead the prior question of what we suppose the everyday phenomenon of seeing even to be – a question just as hard, but considerably more tractable.
And the only decent answer I can come up with suggests that a certain form of “neutral monism” may be the true relation between mind and body.
Written in 2014.
9. The partiality of perception

Psychologists tell us that, in perception, our brains piece together various clues from the senses (often meagre ones) in order to make the best possible sense of our surroundings.

What we “perceive” is simply the brain’s “best guess” as to what is transpiring around us.
Note. There is no implication that the guesses tend to be poor. The brain is usually a very good guesser.

This is a useful way of thinking about perception, provided we remain alive to the possibility that perceptual notions may themselves figure in the “best guess” made by the brain.

For example, where seeing is concerned, we must not suppose that the brain simply ventures a guess as to what is being seen, taking the occurrence of the seeing itself for granted. Rather, the very notion that “seeing” is occurring may be part and parcel of what the brain is guessing to be going on. The brain does not merely guess what I’m seeing, but also that I’m seeing.

So if I see a large, yellow tree before me, the guess is not simply that a large, yellow tree is before me, but (more inclusively) that I see a large, yellow tree before me. The act of seeing is as much a part of the guess as is the large, yellow tree.

From this point of view, the following question is what interests us. Whenever the brain guesses that seeing is going on, why must the notion of seeing be introduced at all? Why does my brain guess that I see a large, yellow tree before me? Why not settle for the simpler guess that there is a large, yellow tree before me – foregoing the seeing bit altogether? Why trouble oneself to construct this additional concept of “seeing” – whatever it amounts to; we have yet to find out – and then incorporate it into the guess? What does it really bring to the table?

This is essentially the question that we asked previously in connection with the man and the portrait.

The man does not judge simply that a certain portrait is before him, but (more inclusively) that he sees that the portrait is before him.

But what role does the seeing-being distinction play in the man’s attempt – or his brain’s attempt – to “interpret” his suroundings? Presumably, the man can “make better sense” of his situation if he distinguishes seeing from being, but what “interpretive gain” does observing the distinction really bring?

I suggested above that the answer to this question has something to do with the fact that the man does not see everything. More accurately now, it has something to do with his realization that he does not see everything.

Thus, in seeing the portrait, the man is doubtless aware that there is more to reality than the portrait then before him. He realizes that there are large tracts of reality which he does not then see – e.g., the things behind his back, or the room beyond the wall, or the space between the portrait and the wall, and so on. This seems to be an integral part of his grasp of his situation, no less than his grasp (simply) that there is a portrait before him.

More generally, whenever we judge that a certain thing is seen, our judgement automatically incorporates the thought that other things exist unseen. And it is really our need to fashion this latter thought that compels us to separate seeing from being, since the notion of “unseen existence” – being without seeing – positively demands it.

In contrast, as we saw, an omnivisual being would have no (essential) need to distinguish seeing from being, and would thus have no use for either concept. —Or, supposing that it had a brain, its brain would not need to introduce either concept in its “best guess” of what was going on.

So it is really the notion of unseen existence from which the concepts of seeing and being are “disentangled,” as it were. This is the right word because the concepts prove to be entwined in a way that is impossible completely to sever – they “feed off each other,” in a sense I will explain. Many philosophers imagine, in contrast, that seeing and being are “self-standing” concepts that bear no constitutive relation to each another. Indeed, the concept of being (e.g., physical being) is often regarded as well-enough understood, unlike the concept of seeing, held to be perplexing in contrast. A philosopher who “isolates” the concepts in this way might imagine that an omnivisual being could surely acquire the concept of seeing by focusing on the “directedness” of its powerful vision onto the world. But there is no such “directedness” for him to focus on, as generations of philosophers have testified. The concept of seeing is not a concept of that sort, as I will try to make clear below.

I have not yet explained what the concepts of seeing and being amount to, or in what their exact relation consists. At this stage, we merely have a “working understanding” of why we distinguish them – viz., because we readily acknowledge that a typical case of seeing is one in which not everything is seen. But this is a good place to start. Let’s consider this “ready acknowledgement” a little further.

The fact that, whenever we see, we only see a slice of reality, is an entirely familiar part of lay metaphysics. No layman would be surprised to be told this; it is something that he already knows. The same is true of our other senses like hearing and touch – indeed of perception and knowledge more generally. It is part of our concepts of “mind” and “world” that a mind reaches out and grasps the world, but it is easy to miss the significance of the fact that the mind’s grasp of the world is (typically) only ever partial.

Phenomenologists like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty have often emphasized this “partiality of perception” and pointed out various aspects of the phenomenon. In a narrow sense, it refers to the fact that we always perceive a physical thing from a particular persepective or vantage point, as a house might be perceived from the inside or the outside, the front or the back – but never from “all sides at once.” Husserl puts it like this in one of his writings:
The perception of a physical thing [necessarily] involves a certain inadequacy. Of necessity a physical thing can be given only “one-sidedly;” and that signifies, not just incompletely or imperfectly in some sense or other, but precisely what “presentation by adumbration” prescribes.
... [This one-sidedness] points ahead to possible perceptual multiplicities which, merging continuously into one another, join together to make up the unity of one perception in which the continuously enduring physical thing is always showing some new “sides” (or else an old “side” as returning) in a new series of adumbrations.
... To be infinitum imperfect in this manner is part of the unanullable essence of the correlation between “physical thing” and perception of a physical thing. (Ideas, §44.)
We all know what it means to see something from one side rather than another, but we might wonder (in passing) whether this was a necessary feature of object perception. Husserl clearly thinks that it is, but is there anything intrinsically incoherent in the idea of seeing a single object (a solid sphere, say) from all sides at once? I won’t try to pursue this difficult question here, since it is enough to point out that in our world, at least, the phenomenon Husserl describes rings true.

When the partiality of perception is intended more broadly, it doesn’t just concern the “hidden sides” of a single thing – the thing then perceived – but includes the thought that other things simultaneously exist unperceived. Merleau-Ponty captures the broader idea in this way:
The hysterical child who turns round ‘to see if the world behind him is still there,’ suffers from no deficiency of images, but the perceived world has lost for him that original structure which ensures that for the normal person its hidden aspects are as indubitable as are its visible ones. (Phenomenology of Perception, p. 28.)
A normal person would not need to check if the rest of the world was there because he would automatically have “located” the seen object in a larger reality, a part of which he would have granted “in the background” to exist unseen. If he failed (in general) to grant such unseen “background” existence, he could not sensibly regard himself as ever “seeing” anything, since he would now have no use for the distinction between seeing and being. (Merleau-Ponty does not make this particular point though, so far as I know.)

This broader sense of the phenomenon is meant to subsume the narrower one and is all that we need for our purposes. The phenomenologists themselves went further and observed that the phenomenon had (e.g.) cultural aspects too:
Not only have I a physical world, not only do I live in the midst of earth, air and water, I have around me roads, plantations, villages, streets, churches, implements, a bell, a spoon, a pipe. Each of these objects is moulded to the human action which it serves. Each one spreads round it an atmosphere of humanity which may be determinate in a low degree, in the case of a few footmarks in the sand, or on the other hand highly determinate, if I go into every room from top to bottom of a house recently evacuated. (Ibid., p. 405.)
But we do not need to go so far. Indeed, what the phenomenologists proposed to infer from the partiality of perception is not very easy to decipher from their writings. They clearly attributed a great significance to the phenomenon,
but it is not clear to me what they proposed to do with it – what their bottom line really was.

My own conclusion – sticking with the case of vision – is that the phenomenon reveals why we distinguish the concepts of seeing and being. It lays bare the genesis of the distinction, as it were; the essential role that it plays in our conceptual scheme. With this in mind, we can now gradually try to articulate what the concepts of seeing and being really amount to.