Blind Perception: Into Darkness

I blindfolded myself one Sunday morning, and spent 6 hours in darkness. During that time, I did many activities around my house that were interesting and enjoyable in new ways. My son was a big help, getting things for me and spotting things that I didn’t think of. He also walked me around the neighborhood, a really fun experience. The questions that I want to address are about ultimate reality, mind body dualism and consciousness.

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“Blind Sandwich”, a sketch of the tuna sandwich that I made while blindfolded.

Ultimate Reality and The Cave

When I close my eyes, the world doesn’t go away. All the things that were there before are more or less there still. I can know that they’re there because I can reach out and touch the things. I can hear them if they make sound that I can hear, and so on. In other words, I have other sources of information that can tell me about the world. There are many things in my sighted life that I do simply by feel, without looking. Typing this sentence is easy once I place my fingers on the home row keys. In fact, keyboards have bumps on the F and J keys to help people find the home row without looking, so the whole process is independent of sight. One rather funny thing about being without sight is that I move much slower and think that everything is much closer than it is. Here’s an example. The couch is about two regular steps away from the nearest wall. In feeling my way to the couch for the first time, I took no less than five blind feeling steps, most of the way convinced that I missed the couch completely and was about to run into something with sharp corners. None of the dimensions of the couch, the wall, or the floor of my house changed appreciably when I put on the blindfold, so why did it seem so much further? My estimation of how fast and how far I am going is way off, it seems. Of course, later on in the experiment I felt more confident in my movements and found myself doing this less.

I can see things now. Or I think I can see things now. What I understand from science is that I’m actually seeing photons bouncing off of the objects rather than the objects themselves. If that’s true, then am I experiencing anything? I mean, how close is my experience of a thing or a person if I am merely seeing them, if sight is only light interacting with objects and being captured by my eye? The same could be said for any of the senses. If there is an ultimate reality that is beyond what we can access with our senses, how can we access it when senses are literally the only ways for information to come in?

These questions about reality as experienced via the senses are likely unsolvable and mostly just something to think about, but I am reminded of another question about ultimate reality. According to Plato’s allegory of the cave, there is a reality that we are seeing and experiencing and thinking that this is it. Really that is just shadows dancing in smoke on the cave walls. Through some kind of awakening process we are meant to discover the illusory nature of the cave and choose to step into the light and live in the real world. This sounds wonderful and is certainly something to strive for if we are to have fulfilling lives. There is a problem, however. In the metaphor, one either is or isn’t free. It’s binary. In real life, the process of waking up is better seen as a continuum. How can one know when they have truly stepped out of the cave and seen the sun? How can someone know that they have gone from merely waking up to being awake? To really know the answer would require some access to ultimate reality, which, as I determined above, is not possible. So the waking up process must be continual. There will never be a point where one can say, “there, I’ve woken up now, everything will be clear to me from now on.” The process of cultivating awareness leads to more awareness and it becomes a positive feedback loop, albeit a neverending one.

Mind Body Dualism

Towards the end of my sojourn into darkness, I went for a walk around my complex. I had my 12 year old son to guide me. During the trip, there was a bit of disconnect between which way I thought I was going and which way I was going and I required several corrections by my son. Still I had an idea in my head about where I was, and I tried to keep up by asking him to give me a running commentary on where we were, did we pass the mailbox, etc. By the end of the walk, I got to a point where I didn’t really know where I was. This sensing matching or not matching reality got me thinking about mind body dualism. It seems that my mind, the thing trying to calculate how far I had gone and whatnot was not just involved in the movement, that it was part of it, inseparable. In reaching and feeling for things, I found myself bent over, even scouring the floor with my hands “looking” for a slipper. My mind was reaching out with every sense organ that it could, somewhat desperately in those moments, with a feeling like a novice swimmer coming up to catch a breath.

After the walk, my son’s friend came over and he asked if he could go outside. Feeling very confident in my blind abilities, I told him to go. I decided to practice yoga. I did some sun salutations. I had a difficult time balancing and at one point, it felt difficult to breathe. I almost tore off my blindfold so that I could breathe better, even though the mask was not restricting my breathing at all.

Penn Jillette, reflecting on being on The Celebrity Apprentice in a Big Think video, said that willpower was this tangible, finite resource that he felt being strained every minute on camera. He said that by having to filter everything during filming, other areas which people exercise willpower to overcome were free to take over. Chocolate? Sure, I’ll eat all of it. Another glass of wine? Just leave the bottle. It’s as though all the willpower is used up in one area and there was none left over to guard against this other thing. This thought occurred to me, of finite willpower being stretched too far from one challenge leaving it powerless to overcome a different urge, in this case that momentary desire to remove the blindfold.

In these experiences, I cannot get around how the physical state of my body directly affects my mental and emotional state. This fact forces me to reject mind body dualism.

Consciousness

If “mind” is the result of the physical brain/body and nothing more, then that must address my views on consciousness as well. The view of panpsychism, where consciousness is a state exhibited by matter arranged in a certain way, makes sense to me. I see it as a continuum that allows for, shall we say, differently evolved nervous systems to have a kind of consciousness. Flies have hundreds of thousands of brain cells, for example, but I doubt that anyone would argue that the experience of being a fly is anything like the consciousness we experience.

I also found the view of Daniel Dennett on this topic to be interesting; the Hard Problem is a fiction because the phenomenon of experience is an illusion. At least that’s my brief synopsis of his position, click the link for his TED talk on it. I think this phenomenon, the “what it’s like to be me” is just the sum of the inputs to the brain being processed, moment to moment. We string them together and invent stories to go with them and create feedback loops and obey the inputs in the way that we are programmed to do. It follows that I don’t think Free Will is a thing either, but that’s another story.

To answer Chalmers’ thought experiment: What would it be like to have a human automaton? I say the question is flawed for the reasons I mention above. It’s a kind of sum-greater-than-parts kind of thing, the feeling of Being.

This view, I will admit, leaves a great deal unanswered. The feeling of being stared at and the plant mind reading are both phenomena that appear well supported, but not explained as of yet. I am keeping an open mind with regard to Remote Viewing, but so far it hasn’t convinced me. It seems to have a good amount of confirmation bias and vague, very charitable interpretation. Also, the fact that proponents say that skilled practitioners are correct with “greater than chance” frequency raises a yellow flag. How should one go about calculating the odds of something like this? I am still open to learn more about this, I have videos in my Youtube queue and everything. These things are exciting as it means that there are more questions in the world, and I’ve long felt that questions are better than answers. There is much more to these phenomena and it will be interesting to see what can be discovered.

I’m listening to an audiobook by David Brooks right now, called The Social Animal. I’ve only just started it, but so far it follows a couple as they meet, date, fall in love, get married, and have a child. It tells this story by way of subconscious or unconscious emotional reactions and a little evolutionary background on this. There’s also a section about how emotions help with decision making, “coloring” certain choices a certain way to push us toward one choice and away from another. There is a case study mentioned at this part. A man suffered a brain injury that made him unable to feel emotions in the same way as people normally do. This, the doctor believed, made him unable to make decisions competently, an observation also based on his long string of poor life decisions.

Some time ago, I listened to the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. It’s a book about thinking and the processes involved in that. It’s a fascinating book. It talks about an art appraiser having a “hunch” that a piece was fake a split second after seeing it that turned out to be true, though it was a very good fake and fooled several others. There were many other cases discussed in the book, but this one served as a jumping off for a discussion of intuition and how people can just “know” something without having any idea how to articulate how they know. The unexplained phenomena above remind me of this book and this part in particular.

In Closing

I don’t have all the answers. I can hardly claim to have any answers if I’m being honest. Being blind gave me some extra hardships, but it also opened me up to finding new ways to solve problems and use my spatial memory more. I decided to do a sketch, which I never do, and I rather enjoyed doing it.

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