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Perception: Learned Or Innate? A Debate

Perception: Learned Or Innate? A Debate

My long term debating acquaintance from another place, who I’ll just address as MG, started off having an electronic chinwag over the merits of the Simulation Hypothesis. However, that also branched off into a parallel debate over the nature of perception. MG suggests that perception is a learned skill and has nothing apparently to do with the brain. I argue that percept is totally innate and your brain plays the most central of roles. Here’s the gist of that long debate in chronological order on that parallel topic of perception (I’ll save the Simulation Hypothesis debate for a later time). Let the readers decide.

MG – “It doesn’t matter how appealing the Simulation view might be; it is logically incoherent.”

JP – I’ll just sum up it up with the following. If we can create computer-generated simulations then we in turn could be a computer-generated simulation. There’s nothing incoherent about that possibility at all.

MG – “Thus it makes no logical sense to speak of the simulation itself thinking that it is an actual world.”

JP – If a simulation can simulate reality to a fine enough detail that the simulated reality is indistinguishable from really real reality, what’s the difference? Further, if we’re all simulated beings in a virtual reality, then the virtual form of our reality is the only reality we know and we have no really real reality to compare it to.

MG – “Just like the landscapes in a painting, there is no reality at all to what is simulated by computers.”

JP – Tell that to the characters in our computer-generated simulations. That aside, virtual reality is real enough than numerous professions require training on simulators before they are allowed to strut their stuff in really real reality. If you undergo any form of surgery, you’d better hope your surgeon practiced on simulated beings first! Virtual reality is a form of reality. In fact you generate your own virtual reality every time you dream, and some dreams can seem really real. Your computer-brain generates a form of virtual reality just like a real computer program can generate virtual reality.

MG – “I, at least, really exist.”

JP – Of course you just might be a figment of my imagination. I might be just dreaming that my posting here and replying to you is happening in an actual reality. Maybe it’s not.

MG – “Therefore, I am neither a painting nor a simulation.”

JP – As far as I can tell, you’re just a collection of letters, words and paragraphs that appear on my computer screen. For all I know all of this text (your text) might be just being generated by an artificial intelligence; by a computer program.


MG – “I think part of what has gone wrong, such that this Simulation stuff is taken seriously, is that people think we (or, worse yet, our brains) are taking in data from the outside world and constructing a mental representation of it all the time.”

JP – Which is IMHO a true statement. If you’re in the water with a hungry shark nearby, your brain had better pay darn close attention to the data it is taking in, otherwise you’re oatmeal.


MG – “The oatmeal thing is the clearest example of you having no interest in actually defending your position logically or engaging like a rational person with my points.”

JP – What a sourpuss you are. I’m just having a bit of fun albeit at your expense!

MG – “Again… seriously? “Tell that to the video game characters”???? Do you really believe that even makes sense?? There are no video game characters. There are just lights on a screen. What are you even talking about?”

JP – Okay, I can see there’s no having any degree of levity with you. But your quite wrong about the “just lights on a screen” bit.

When I read your various posts, all that I experience are letters, words, sentences and paragraphs that form your whole message. That’s just a virtual reality version of you. You are presenting yourself as a form of bits and bytes virtual reality. You are presenting yourself as just a virtual reality character to me. You are “just lights on a screen” as far as I’m concerned. So are you therefore denying your own reality?

What’s actually important here? Your really real reality bombards your senses with INFORMATION. Your brain / mind processes that information and if your brain does its job properly you survive another day, even thrive. Those “just lights on a screen” also bombards you with INFORMATION and some of that information might just be really, really important, as in for example pilot training simulators. So virtual reality contains just as much INFORMATION as really real reality so how can virtual reality be unreal and really real reality, real?

I know of no other person who would claim that virtual reality isn’t therefore a form of reality. In fact it has to be since the hardware PC and the software video game you buy in the store both exist in what you would call really real reality. So virtual reality is a subset of really real reality. There’s nothing contained therein that means that we have to be in the really real reality and not in a virtual reality.

Now instead of you being a virtual figment of my imagination and “just lights on a screen” and me being a virtual reality figment of your imagination and “just lights on a screen”, perhaps we are both the figment of someone else’s imagination, just expressed as bits and bytes and as ‘lights on a screen” and not as CHON (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen) based neurons. What’s the real difference in principle between being the figment of someone else’s imagination and someone’s computer code? What’s different in principle between you being just a configuration of electrons and quarks or a configuration of bits and bytes? You are still you.

MG – “There is no reason to think “the mind” (or brains, for that matter) perceive or pay attention to anything.”

JP – Okay, so from here on out please cross the road without first looking out for oncoming traffic.


MG – “There is no reason to think “the mind” (or brains, for that matter) perceive or pay attention to anything. Animals do that.”

JP – By the way, humans ARE classified as animals – vertebrates; mammals; hence primates to be exact. Perhaps you should enroll in Biology 101 and in a course in physical anthropology.


MG – “As I suspected, the belief that our brains take in information from the outside world and process it into a representation in our minds is where this whole conceptual train gets derailed, and leads eventually to things like the Simulation idea.”

JP – So you’re saying that your brain didn’t take in the information I posted – part of your outside world – and processed it? If that was the case how could you reply to information your brain didn’t take in and didn’t process?

MG – “Neither minds nor brains perceive anything, but animals obviously do. So, I can perceive things just fine. I can see oncoming traffic.”

JP – What ARE you smoking? I want some of that! Okay, so you see oncoming traffic, and you step out of harm’s way, but that had absolutely nothing to do with your brain / mind? Really?


MG – “I didn’t say that stepping out of the way of traffic had “nothing to do with my brain/mind”.

JP – Here are your two quotes that claim otherwise.
MG quote 1 – “There is no reason to think “the mind” (or brains, for that matter) perceive or pay attention to anything. Animals do that.”
MG quote 2 – “Neither minds nor brains perceive anything, but animals obviously do. So, I can perceive things just fine. I can see oncoming traffic.”

You saw traffic coming. Your brain / mind perceived that visual information and that perception resulted in you consciously realizing that you were in harm’s way and so stepped back out of harm’s way. Yet your two original quotes seem to deny that you could do that since your brain / mind played no role.

MG – “I identified myself as an animal (I said “brains don’t perceive; animals do… therefore, I can perceive just fine”), so I don’t know why you’re acting like I said the opposite… “

JP – No you did not specifically say that you were an animal. You indicated that you have a brain that doesn’t perceive anything and that only animals can perceive anything. My reply was just to point out that you – as an animal – also perceive things like other animals do and that perception requires a functional brain / mind. Methinks that you just phrased things awkwardly.

MG – “You posted: “So you’re saying that your brain didn’t take in the information I posted – part of your outside world – and processed it? If that was the case how could you reply to information your brain didn’t take in and didn’t process?”
My answer: I am replying to written statements that I (this speech-capable animal) had read and thought about and constructed a response to.”

JP – Recall your quote: “There is no reason to think “the mind” (or brains, for that matter) perceive or pay attention to anything.” If your brain / mind doesn’t perceive or pay attention to anything, be it oncoming traffic or the information that I’ve posted, then you couldn’t step out of harm’s way and you couldn’t reply to what I wrote. Your phrase “thought about” requires perception and that takes a brain / mind.


MG – “That’s right: I can perceive traffic coming and get out of the way, despite the fact that my brain does not perceive anything.”

JP – “You can see oncoming traffic but it is your brain / mind that tells you (i.e. – itself) that “Hey, there’s oncoming traffic – danger, danger – step back”. That’s the way it works. Your sensory organs just transmit external information to your internal brain / mind. It’s the job of the latter to perceive and process what that information actually means or represents. But hey, go talk to an authority figure like a neurologist.


MG – “Brains don’t perceive anything. Even if they did, it wouldn’t be by “processing information”, whatever that means in this context. To see traffic coming requires that you have eyes and a set of skills for using those eyes.”

JP – And just how do you develop a set of skills when using your eyeballs? Do they teach you eyeball skills in high school? Who taught you eyeball skills? Your eyeballs (without any training at all) just convert photons (that carry information) into electrons or electrical signals. And where do those electrical signals go? Into the BRAIN via the optic nerve where the BRAIN tries to make sense of the information it is receiving based for the most part on previous experiences or knowledge learned. I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not your BIG TOE that’s warning you to back off and out of the way of oncoming traffic!

MG – “Animals see traffic because they are looking and they move away because they are cautious. “Looking” and “cautious” are not predicates you can (in any meaningful sense) apply to brains or any other organs.”

JP – And there’s still a lot of roadkill in part because animals haven’t been taught that it isn’t healthy to pass in front of oncoming traffic. And when animals are cautious, that’s because their BRAINS are instructing them to stay out of harm’s way. Survival skills often use the hardwired principle that it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’re in the savanna and you think (a BRAIN activity) a lion is lurking behind the tall grass it’s prudent to move away. If you’re wrong about the lion being present, no damage done. If you’re right about the lion but don’t move on, well enjoy being lunch.


MG – “Animals learn to use their eyes just as they learn to use their hands. By practice. Indeed, when they sewed the eyes of various newborn mammals shut, then reopened them, the animals were blind. Nothing wrong with their brains. They just hadn’t learned to see.”

JP – You learn something new every day. I didn’t know that all animals have “hands”. Anyway, your cited experiment doesn’t prove that you have to “learn” to use your eyes. All it demonstrates is that when denied the use of your eyes, associated anatomical developments don’t take place or develop fully. I repeat, you don’t LEARN to use your eyes (or ears, or nose, etc.). When a kitten opens its eyes for the first time, it sees. No learning required. The development happens automatically unless there is deliberate interference with that development. OK, I think you’ve now entered woo-woo territory. There is a reason your eyeballs are connected to your BRAIN and not to your Big Toe (or any other part of your anatomy). If it is just your eyes that see, there wouldn’t be any reason for your eyeballs to be connected to your brain!

MG – “I see a car coming with my eyes, and I (this animal organism) know that that is dangerous, so I move.”

JP – You were taught – presumably by your parents – that standing in front of traffic heading right at you is dangerous. You don’t actually know that based on first-hand experience – at least I assume that having been taught that it is dangerous to stand in front of oncoming traffic you didn’t decide to test that out firsthand by offering yourself up as an experimental test subject! Your brain remembered the lesson it was taught – presumably the numerous times and every time your parents warned you about looking both ways before crossing the road – and relied on the memory of those lessons to suggest to you in rather strong terms that you move out of the way.


MG – “I didn’t say all animals have hands.”

JP – Here is your exact quote: “Animals learn to use their eyes just as they learn to use their hands.” That certainly implies all animals since you didn’t qualify it in any way by saying “some animals”. Now I realize that you were probably just engaging your hands before you engaged your brain in this case.

MG – “The test subjects were anatomically fine. They still couldn’t see. It exhibits all the earmarks of a learned skill.”

JP – And you know this how? Did you do the experiment? Did you read the published paper(s) or are you just making assumptions?

MG – “Newborn animals have terrible sight. They get better at it with practice.”

JP – They get better with it as their associated anatomical infrastructure continues to develop.

MG – “Indeed, I was taught to avoid traffic.”

JP – A toddler will crawl right out into traffic having no comprehension that s/he is in any danger or what the concept of danger even means even though s/he sees the oncoming traffic. So there is no initial association between seeing oncoming traffic and getting out of the way of oncoming traffic.

So when you were a brand new bouncing baby boy, at some stage you opened your eyes and you saw for the first time – probably Mum and Dad. But you still didn’t see very well since all of the relevant anatomical infrastructure was still in the development stages. But you did see – no training required. You saw because the relevant part of the brain that translates electrical signals from the eye into a perception of what you call vision is the – Visual Cortex. The Visual Cortex is part of the brain – the part that translates the photons come electrical signals come perception come vision.

If I stick you with a sharp pin really hard you are going to go “ouch” or even come out with several more choice four-letter words. But you didn’t learn to experience pain. It comes naturally with the territory, just like sight does.

MG – “And, yet another misquote. I did NOT say it is just our eyes that see. I said it is WE who see. Why do you keep missing that? It seems rather obvious. Eyes cannot see. Neither can brains.”

JP – So you see with your Big Toe after all! Really now. Here is your exact quote: “I see a car coming with my eyes” so therefore it is your eyes that see! If I remove your eyes and your Visual Cortex even leaving the associated infrastructure (i.e. – the optic nerve) in place, you are NOT going to see. If I remove one or the other you are not going to see. So it would seem that both have to be in place and functional in order to see. There is no “WE” that sees. It’s these specific organs that sees on our behalf. Your Big Toe is part of you so why doesn’t that play a role in your vision?


MG – “Pain is a sensation we are born able to feel. So what? We feel it. Our brains don’t feel anything (seriously, poke them, they feel nothing).” stub your Big Toe, you’re not poking your brain now, are you?

JP – You are correct insofar as the brain in and of itself feels no pain. But when you stub your Big Toe the message is carried to the brain where it translates the electrical signals into a realization / perception that you’ve stubbed your Big Toe and that you’re in pain. Just because the brain in and of itself doesn’t experience pain to itself has no bearing on whether or not it can perceive pain to parts of the body that can experience pain.

The bottom line is this. You do NOT need to train to experience pain. You do NOT need to train to experience sound. You do NOT need to train to smell ammonia. You do NOT need to train to taste chili. And you do NOT need to train to see things providing all of your relevant anatomical infrastructure related to vision is in place.

MG – “So let me just say this: I did indeed learn from others that cars are dangerous. I learned. My organs didn’t learn (including my brain, which is just an organ and doesn’t learn or think or believe); I did.”

JP – There is no “I” or “you” without your organs or body cells. Now here’s an interesting scenario. I could pick you apart body cell by body cell and give each of those body cells a nice test tube home. By the time that I am finished, you would no longer exist as you – no awareness, no self-awareness, no self-identity, and no consciousness – even though all of your constituted cellular parts still exist and are alive. So there is no real you now is there?


MG – “[P]erception (like sight) is a skill that we become better at with practice.”

JP – “Become better at” does not acquaint with having the basic skill from the get-go. A professional musician can identify the note that s/he hears playing – A-sharp or B-flat – but I hear the exact same note without any training. If you need eyeglasses to help you attain 20/20 vision then no amount of training is going to help you go glasses free and still have 20/20 vision, no matter how much you squint.

MG – “The picking-apart thought experiment leaves me at a complete loss as to how to recover you to even basic sense. You exist.

JP – Yes, I exist. But I wouldn’t exist unless most or at least much of my anatomical also existed. No heart – no me. No lungs – no me. No brain – no me. No nervous system – no me. No blood – no me. You owe a considerable debt to the rest of you without which there would be no you.

MG – “A plane cannot fly without its engine. Still, it is the plane that flies; not the engine.”

JP – And the engine has to go along for the ride!

MG – “Likewise, you could not learn or see without a functioning brain (you would be dead, in fact). Still, it is you who learns and sees; not your brain.”

JP – And just who the heck is “you”? As already noted, “you” don’t exist unless you have the relevant and associated anatomical infrastructure.


MG – “I completely agree that my existence depends on lots of body parts also existing… I am not a brain. I have a brain.

JP – You don’t have a body, you ARE a body. The “You that you call “you” has to reside somewhere inside your body. Just about every body part except the brain can be artificially replaced with no loss of the “you”. I therefore conclude that the “you” resides in your brain; you brain is the home turf for the “you”.

The debate at this point just runs out of puff, or more correctly, I just hit my maximum state of entropy on the issue!