Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Visualization Fallacy

A seldom-observed cognitive problem: We visualize concepts, and then we falsely associate the made-up visualization with the concept (usually with the help of movies and TV).

For instance, aliens travel in saucer-shaped ships, right? If you ever spot a saucer flying around at night in the desert, you'd certainly know how to explain it. That's an alien! We "know" this from movies and TV. Some random visualization caught on, creating a false consensus that's utterly non-meaningful.

Alien visitors may or may not be real, but the flying saucer trope almost certainly isn't. We couldn't begin to imagine alien tech, yet most people feel they could identify an alien spaceship because they've been conditioned by some random visualization. It's a form of tail-wagging.

If you walk around an old, dark house at night and encounter a hovering gauzy white presence, your brain will likely tell you - based on movies and TV - that this may be a ghost. Yet, for all you or I know, disembodied spirits look like manicotti, and are delicious, and we've been eating them for years.

When abstract concepts (or concrete concepts with no observable examples) become visualized, we easily become tied to that visualization.

It works at subtler levels, as well. We think we know a few things about how parallel universes work, but for most of us, that's entirely been forged by treatment in fiction. And it's a hindrance. Modeling and conjecture have their uses, but when we unconsciously lock in to a certain conjecture, that's conceptual kludge which must be cleared out before we can really understand. It's an intellectual detour; active miscomprehension dragging us further from the truth than mere non-comprehension ever could. But we can't help ourselves. I'm not sure even the most objective-minded scientist can avoid this trap.

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti (who I consider the only 100% non-bullshit living speaker on the subject) observes that no one ever experiences ultimate reality and reports back that "it was exactly what I'd thought!" Everyone hoping for such an experience shoots for some imaginary canned fluffy-fluff (usually something they read in a book). The folly of seeking after some errant visualization lures them further and further away from the truth.

As with most cognitive failings, this evolved as a feature, not a bug. There is no such thing as a table, or a tree, or a toenail beyond the human brain. These are entirely conceptual, serving simply as very loose shortcuts. That's clear from observing the enormous trouble computers have in distinguishing between classes of objects (a tree from a bush from a telephone pole from a totem pole). This might seem like a computational deficiency, but it's not them; it's us. Our diverse universe does not really divide in this way, so we've been sloppily kludging it all along. Our taxonomies are fuzzy, arbitrary, even irrational. That's why it vexes the bejesus out of computers.

Yet our human flair for generalization serves a purpose. If we allowed ourselves to remain freshly aware of every ant, or taxi, or eyelash - as unique expressions - we'd never get anything done. Preoccupied with each and every fern, we'd miss the tiger dashing out of the underbrush. It is evolutionarily adaptive to dismiss the mundane and key in on the surprising.

In time, nearly everything becomes mundane as more and more becomes patterned. We disconnect from the Actual as it's subsumed by overarching generalization. You don't actually perceive the chair you're sitting in because its individuality has been lost to the category. It's not real, it's been reduced to a concept. Not a unique and constantly (subtly) changing arrangement of matter...merely "a chair". Similarly, you've only interacted with a tiny fraction of the molecules in your house, yet you've convinced yourself you have a perceptual and conceptual grip on the chaotic mass of matter you associate with "home". It all stands on the flimsy proposition that we know perfectly well what a "home" is. We abstract it, then we exist in the abstraction (much as we imagine ghosts to be gauzy things, then pattern our world to that visualization).

We create and inhabit Worldworld, a universe of symbols and categories. By adulthood, we barely register anything freshly unless we are surprised. Things fitting poorly within their apparent category blink back into our awareness, becoming real and individual until we manage to reclassify them (that's a necktie, not a snake) or make it fit better into its category (adding a missing fourth leg to a table).

(Note: this is why time seems to speed up as we age. Babies live in the Real World of fresh perception, but as we age we replace Real World with Worldworld, losing the moment-by-moment experience of full reality (an experience babies have, and that we envy) making time appear to fly.)

Living in abstract Worldworld, we forget that labels are mere labels, and that the approximation we've swapped in for reality is a cheat - a vast simplification. Worldworld is not the real world, just a model thereof. In the real world, there's no such thing as ferns. A fern is only distinct from the ground it grows out of and the surrounding air if we've drawn those dichotomies intellectually. Ultimately, it's all fresh and unique and interdependent. It all just Is.

So when we associate aliens with flying saucers, or ghosts with gauzy white presences, it's no different from the expedient means we use to model our entire conceptual world. In the parallel universe of Worldworld (I think parallel universes are subjective frames of perspective; whenever we reframe our attention, we shift into another reality), the aliens really do arrive in flying saucers!

Read the follow-up posting, Visualization Fallacy Redux



Paul Trapani said...

Some interesting and thought provoking stuff. I'm still pondering on the parallel universe aspect, though. As an analogy I think it's great, but not sure about actually shifting to a parallel universe. Whenever I think of parallel worlds I'm OK on the theoretical aspect of it, in that these are all hypothetical worlds that could occur after a given point. but not sure about their "existence" in the same way that our world exists. Or maybe the do exist but are inaccessible to us. Of course I get the point that trying to say "our world" is also illusive as there are billions of "our world"

Jim Leff said...

"Existence" is the trickiest word in all existence. In fact, my whole piece (at least the voluminous italicized digression) is an argument that we project even the the world that we consider the most existency of all. We project and inhabit a world of symbols and shortcuts and generalizations, hardly investing the least attention/focus into What Is. Not one of us lives for even 1% of our time in what we generally term "the real world". We languish in Worldworld.

(Extra snaky digression: we can't live in World X, anyway - not any of them. No one has ever lived in "A World". You're not in a world now; you're in a chair, reading a screen, and your world, for the moment, ends there (and even that chair, per previous argument, is a symbol, not an actual aggregation of matter). We only live in the slice of World X that we frame our attention around. It's ALL framing! All the way down!)

Plus, our world radically changes - qualitatively and quantitatively - depending on how we internally frame it. You can't say it doesn't.

Sure, it's assumed by human beings that there's reality and there's imagination, but I defy you to find any demarcation point in light of the above. All there is is framing. Attention pivots, zooms, and retracts in a highly creative infinity of moves (though most of us get stuck in a few habitual ones). That's what gives rise to the impression of movement, time, and manifestation amid what's actually a piano smash (i.e. all possibilities are apparent and available, if you can only reframe in a way that pays attention).

I fail to see a reason to assume our infinite framing latitude doesn't offer infinite universes. Especially when the universe you and I inhabit is almost entirely abstracted/symbolized/generalized, and so untethered in reality that computers (which are GOOD at working with symbols!) can't begin to parse it. We've done it once, in a quite obvious way. Depressives, cut off from the world and infinitely mulling in their dark internal realms, do it, as well. Forgetting you're in a movie theater: same. This is what we do: reframe to shift realities.

You have created Worldworld via your framing. And you've seen that the world (even what you think of as "external", which is merely signals registering through slits in your head) changes radically depending on your framing. Framing is obviously the paramount factor.

The fact that nobody talks about framing is another clue that it's paramount. They also don't talk much about the non-moving part; the only realm of objectivity; the presence that's always peered out from your eyes (call it "True Nature" or "Pure Awareness" or "Witness", but shmancy terms are unnecessary). The things that matter are the least discussed.

Paul Trapani said...

Thanks that was helpful, particularly "piano smash." I was considering parallel universes like isolated parallel lines never touching, so I looked at it as if I was in World X and then somehow would move to World Y. It makes more sense as a cacophony of possibilities and reframing attention onto a specific one.

Jim Leff said...

"I was considering parallel universes like isolated parallel lines never touching"

That, of course, represents the larger issue - the visualization fallacy - I was discussing in the first place.

Jim Leff said...

Also, the "isolated parallel lines" thing works, too, with what I'm saying. It's as good a metaphor as any. It isn't incompatible with piano smash.

With a piano smash, you tune your attention here or there. Nobody has bandwidth to experience the entirety at once (remember how the world contracts into your screen and, maybe, your partial, mostly abstract chair). This "tuning" is what I'm calling reframing.

You can describe this tuning as attention directed to isolated parallel lines, or to elements of a disorganized cacophony. The structure doesn't matter. We're talking about infinity, so any manifestation is not only possible but compulsory. The tuning itself is the interesting part, the rest is just the infinitude of yadda-yadda.

Resist the impulse to pay attention to the sexier, more dynamic, objects. The more interesting (though utterly unverbalizable) subject. The Tuner.

What doesn't work in multiverses is the notion of "going somewhere". "Traveling to a new world", etc. It's pretty juvenile. Sure, we're talking about worlds, which we associate with a round globe thing. But whatever heaven and hell are, or Earth/Paul-23398 is, you sure as heck don't travel to get there. Nor do we pack our lunch and venture to Worldworld, nor to our dream world, nor to the town of Deadwood. It's a flip of one's attention; a tuning to a different note. That's the sweet spot. The crux is the SUBJECTIVITY of it.

So, cacophony or parallel lines or doesn't matter. But the one element you can absolutely rule out is the thing most people can't shake (due to Visualization Fallacy): of it being about GOING somewhere. Of a PLACE. There's no place but "here" (or: "Wherever you go, there you are"). Our here-ness is the only solidity/commonality amid this kaleidoscope of manifestation.

For a helpful metaphor of the banal simplicity of the actual point of tuning - the eternally
here-present pole star around which the infinitude of manifestation roils, and the nowhere/everywhere from which disembodied Subject selects, frames, identifies itself with, and inhabits Object - see "The Fan"

Blog Archive