Friday, February 16, 2007

Flying Blind

Research psychologists are digging deeper into a phenomenon that first entered the psychology lexicon in 1998 when they published the book, “Inattentional Blindness.” Their book, named for the phenomenon they uncovered, exposed some striking discoveries regarding how the mind actually perceives what the eyes see.
Mack and Rock's standard procedure was to present a small cross briefly on a computer screen for each of several experimental trials and asked participants to judge which arm of the cross was longer. After several trials, an unexpected object, such as a brightly colored rectangle, appeared on the screen along with the cross.—busy paying attention to the cross—often failed to notice the unexpected object, even when it had appeared in the center of their field of vision. When participants' attention was not diverted by the cross, they easily noticed such objects.
There are three reasons this study got my attention. The first is personal.

… aviation psychologist Christopher Wickens, PhD, at the University of Illinois at Urbana­ Champaign, has examined how pilots in flight simulators perform while using head-up displays—equipment that projects information such as airspeed and altitude onto the windshield. The research has shown that when experimenters put something unexpected but important in pilots' field of vision, such as an airplane on the runway, pilots often miss such objects.

“Because pilots have such an incredibly high visual attention load, the issues of what causes breakdowns in attentional allocation become critically important,” Wickens notes. “Now we know that just superimposing images on a head-up display does not guarantee that events both on the display and in the world beyond the aircraft will always be detected.”

This phenomenon explains how a USAir flight could have landed on an airplane sitting directly in front of it on the runway at LAX in 1991. The pilots of USAir flight 1493 never saw the SkyWest commuter airplane that had been cleared onto the runway ahead of them. Even the air traffic controller who allowed the SkyWest commuter onto the runway was confused and lost awareness of the airplane’s position because she had formed an incorrect mental picture about the actual situation on the ground.

That is scary professionally because it could happen to me tomorrow. Being aware of it may literally save my life. But there are two more profound reasons I was taken by this phenomenon.

The second goes to the "Mind-Body Problem" with which philosophers have wrestled for centuries. Here, an acceptance of Physicalism (a subsidiary of the Naturalistic worldview) entails that we should expect that all facts will be physical facts and that all phenomenon can be explained by material/physical causes, thus denying the existence, or even the possibility of the existence, of anything like a human soul. Given that, the “Mind-Body” problem arises from the notion that some real facts about our humanity seem to suggest that physicalism is not true. Sight is one of them. Listen to what the researchers say about inattentional blindness:

“This research is showing us something that we didn't think was the case—that we can fail to perceive very major things going on right in front of our eyes,” remarks cognitive psychologist Brian Scholl, PhD, of Yale University. “In contrast with a lot of research on visual perception, these studies are truly surprising for both scientists and lay people because they're so at odds with how we assumed vision worked.”

Research on inattentional blindness has come to the fore more recently. That work, showing people's inability to detect unexpected objects to which we aren't paying attention, raises other questions: How much visual input can the mind encode, consciously and unconsciously? What brings some visual objects to conscious awareness, while others remain unnoticed? What is the fate of information that is perceived only unconsciously?

These, it seems to me, are questions that physical explanations can’t address.

Suppose that you had a small video camera surgically attached to the side of your head – a video camera that was continuously in the “record” mode. The video camera is a purely physical, intricately-designed instrument that simply collects light input through a lens, registers that input on some medium (a tape, disc, or computer memory chip), and stores it there until you choose to retrieve it. Because the video camera is always “on” it will record everything that passes in front of it all day long. It doesn’t “miss” things. It physically cannot miss things. It just goes about robotically recording everything within the lens’s field of view. It follows therefore, that you could stop the recording at any point during the day and examine an actual, real-time snapshot of what had passed in front of the camera at any given point.

Physicalism wants us to understand our ability to see – our eyesight – as a biochemical video camera that does the same thing. But inattentional blindness seems to suggest that “seeing” entails more than just recording light input that comes to us through the lens of our eyeball’s cornea. Seeing requires something external to the video input we receive from our eyes. Further, it suggests that that “something” cannot be described in physical terms. Notice the researchers’ inclusion of findings that suggest that consciousness may be a factor involved in eyesight. In other words, they are invoking a non-physical explanation for seeing and that non-physical portion may be the most important aspect of that human faculty. Further, it suggests that something non-material does actually exist and that it helps to define the most critical aspects of our human personhood.

Naturalists will debate the idea that consciousness in not also a physical “epiphenomenon” but it seems illogical to suggest that non-physical effects (or faculties) can arise from purely physical causes. Strict Darwinism demands that this be true however, and that brings me to my final observation.

Thirdly, notice the researchers' surprise at uncovering findings that are "so at odds with how we assumed vision worked":

Inattentional blindness is one of two perceptual phenomena that have begun to change scientists' view of visual perception, from one of a videotape to something far less precise. Beginning in the 1970s researchers began to recognize a phenomenon called "change blindness", finding that people often fail to detect change in their visual field, as long as the change occurs during an eye movement or when people's view is otherwise interrupted.
I am suggesting that in assuming as they do, they have subjected themselves to change blindness of another kind – a philosophical perception that blinds them to a full view of reality. They need a paradigm shift that allows them to detect changes in their philosophical field of vision. Some of those changes are right in the middle of the road they are traveling yet they have missed them, and everyone following behind them is at risk as a result.

I realize that these findings are only meant to explain eyesight. But I cannot help but see a connection to human perceptions about ideas – in this case the idea of Naturalism in general (and Darwinism in particular). Hard core naturalists seek, and accept, only physical explanations for everything because their worldview demands it. It is the only paradigm under which they will even allow a discussion on any subject to take place.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Though I do not moderate comments, I reserve the right to delete any comment that I deem inappropriate. You don't have to agree with me, but I don't tolerate abusive or objectionable language of any kind.