It’s been awhile, but thankfully I took some notes which led me to recall this powerful assertion from David Deustch – who’s work in physics led him to encourage a “multiple parallel worlds” investigation of quantum theory. Here he talks a bit about perception and testable observation en route to explanation:
“But what creationist and empiricists both ignore is that, in that sense, no one has ever seen a bible either, that the eye only detects light, which we don’t perceive. Brains only detect nerve impulses. And they don’t perceive even those as what they really are, namely electrical crackles. So we perceive nothing as what it really is.
Our connection to reality is never just perception. It’s always, as Karl Popper put it, theory-laden. Scientific knowledge isn’t derived from anything. It’s like all knowledge. It’s conjectural, guesswork, tested by observation, not derived from it. So, were testable conjectures the great innovation that opened the intellectual prison gates? No. Contrary to what’s usually said, testability is common, in myths and all sorts of other irrational modes of thinking. Any crank claiming the sun will go out next Tuesday has got a testable prediction.
Consider the ancient Greek myth explaining seasons. Hades, God of the Underworld, kidnaps Persephone, the Goddess of Spring, and negotiates a forced marriage contract, requiring her to return regularly, and lets her go. And each year, she is magically compelled to return. And her mother, Demeter, Goddess of the Earth, is sad, and makes it cold and barren. That myth is testable. If Winter is caused by Demeter’s sadness, then it must happen everywhere on Earth, simultaneously. So if the ancient Greeks had only known that Australia is at its warmest when Demeter is at her saddest, they’d have known that their theory is false.
So what was wrong with that myth, and with all pre-scientific thinking, and what, then, made that momentous difference? I think there is one thing you have to care about. And that implies testability, the scientific method, the Enlightenment, and everything. And here is the crucial thing. There is such a thing as a defect in a story. I don’t just mean a logical defect. I mean a bad explanation. What does that mean? Well, explanation is an assertion about what’s there, unseen, that accounts for what’s seen.”
So then, explanation here is framed as a the result of a phenomenon we perceive, wherein a testable observation is a mark of reality. But when we hearken back to the early 18oo’s, when physicists and philosophers were trying to wrap their heads around our manners of perception, we find just how difficult truly locking down an observation can be.
In a recent lecture, Eric Rosenthal explained to my classmates and I that everything we’ve been told about light and color is inaccurate. Two German fellows, some couple hundred years ago, took an evening to go through every color they could see in the room they occupied. They counted some 15,000 primary colors, which can be diagrammed like so:
But if that’s the case then our ~400 year held beliefs about color, the RGB color theory that is the foundation of computational and televised color, would only account for a portion of what we (or those German guys) actually perceive, looking something like this:
And, Eric went on, if we then look at how much of our color perception is accounted for in printed color, we find that it is a an even smaller area: