6 April 2011

I See BETTER With Glasses

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:41 pm

Here’s what Daniel Dennett has to say about vision in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:

We know that eyes have evolved independently many times, but vision is certainly not a necessity on Earth, since plants get along fine without it. A strong case can be made, however, that if an organism is going to further its metabolic projects by locomoting, and if the medium in which the locomoting takes place is transparent or translucent and amply supplied with ambient light, then since locomoting works much better (at furthering self-protective, metabolic and reproductive aims) if the mover is guided by information about distal objects, and since such information can be garnered in a high-fidelity, low-cost fashion by vision, vision is a very good bet. So we would not be surprised if locomoting organisms on other planets (with transparent atmospheres) had eyes. Eyes are an obviously good solution to a very general problem that would often be encountered by moving metabolizers. (p. 128)

Dennett makes a pragmatic case for the evolution of vision —  locomoting “works much better” with eyes. The pragmatic value of visual acuity can be understood only to the extent that the visual system accurately conveys information to the organism about the “ambient optic array” (JJ Gibson’s term) generated by the environment through which the organism locomotes.

It’s likely that, beyond a certain level of visual acuity, the costs of improved vision (more retinal cells, more refined neural processing of retinally-conveyed information, etc.) don’t outweigh the benefits (“at furthering self-protective, metabolic and reproductive aims”). So, for example, humans don’t need as much visual acuity as hawks because humans aren’t as likely to increase their chances of survival by spotting small prey animals at great distances. However, if an individual member of a species has less visual acuity than its conspecifics, then that individual will likely find itself at an adaptive disadvantage, since the visually-impaired individual is not equipped genetically to redeploy bioresources usually allocated for vision in order to compensate for its visual defects. In short, the visually-impaired individual doesn’t just see differently from its peers; it has poorer vision, both informationally and pragmatically. I would recommend that this creature be fitted with corrective lenses.

This all seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?



  1. I’m starting to fear that the Narcissistic kitten might have suffered some kind of a coveted abuse – like the way the child’s mother forced him to wear the wrong shoes in ANTICHRIST – as long as the kitten’s parents didn’t realize until the 2nd or 3rd grade that she needed glasses! Poor kitty!

    By now you’re operating ideally, Eloise, as the cat’s cognitivist incision, interrupting her obsessive jouissances in a healthy way.

    I’m not sure however that your argument about the survivalist function of sight denies anything the kitten said about the fact that humans do tend to prefer their subjective vision to anything ecologically sound.

    Comment by center of parody — 7 April 2011 @ 5:54 am

  2. Speaking strictly for myself, I subjectively prefer the umweld afforded by my corrected vision to the blurry uncorrected umwelt. Is this just an aesthetic preference? I’ve read that one of the famous early impressionists allegedly was nearsighted or had astigmatism. I remember when I first realized I needed glasses. I was about 8 years old, and I had persuaded my parents to take me to the drive-in movie to see Godzilla. Even though the title character is a monster and the destruction of Tokyo was massive, I still had to borrow my mother’s glasses in order to see what was going on.

    I’m out of town for two days, not taking my computer with me. Try not to reduce the place to flaming rubble during my absence.

    Comment by ktismatics — 7 April 2011 @ 6:38 am

  3. I like how you’re talking about that special person without ever mentioning his name, John. Are you afraid of him now?

    Comment by Михаил Емельянов — 8 April 2011 @ 10:45 pm

  4. John, if you are going to be proactively corrective in the present, you are surely denying humankind the eventual genetic correction that it would otherwise have gotten through your unfitness for the unfulfilled metabolic projects that you would have missed out on otherwise. On the other hand, if there is a subpopulation of the female ‘half’ that get turned on by myopia (or whatever) then you are going to subject the human race to evolve in an unusual way. But all of that is quite obvious too… As a whole, evolutionarily humanity is now destined to move away from physicality altogether as we increasingly don’t need the physical to ‘do’ anything except perhaps- Fiend Without A Face (1958).

    Comment by sam carr — 9 April 2011 @ 6:35 am

  5. You’re right, Михаил, my immediate inspiration for this post came from He Who Must Not Be Named in this post, although I had previously wondered whether HWMNBN’s ideas would lead to this assertion that “it is not that the world that appeared when I got my glasses was closer to reality, but rather this new world is different.” Begin with the ontological equivalence of the world being perceived and the subjective perception of that world, combine it with the idea that perception doesn’t represent the world but rather spawns the emergence of a new hybrid subject-world hybrid object, and the idea of “corrective lenses” becomes hard to justify.

    Sam, I might have to track down Fiend Without a Face — it must have come out about the same time I realized I needed glasses. It would be an interesting exercise to look at “seeing” as a metaphor for spiritual perception in the Bible. Of course there’s the “through a glass darkly” passage, and one definitely gets the sense from Paul that the unredeemed just don’t see things the way they really are. In medieval art, clarity of spiritual vision didn’t correspond to what Harman and Bryant would call the “sensual object.” The real essence of the object withdraws from direct interaction with other objects: on this point the OOOlogists and the medievalists would agree. The iconists surely must have had the skill to draw representationally, but they were trying to lead the viewer beyond the sensual features of the subject to that withdrawn real essence, which can be reached contemplatively rather than visually.

    Comment by ktismatics — 9 April 2011 @ 3:43 pm

    • I went off on an evolutionary tangent, whereas you were talking about OOO. Well, I see your point and of course, it used to be that objects were considered only stepping stones to the deeper underlying reality. OOO actually does end up there because an object can never be completely defined. One has to work with practical summaries and categories and perceptions that actually function as stepping stones to ‘the real’, AND discrete objects hardly can interact at the level of their objectness (which has to remain discrete or ‘the object’ will cease to exist). In evolution, the genes go from parent to child, a continuum that points to a whole different type of object interaction. Then there is the ‘problem’ of development… do objects develop?

      Comment by Sam Carr — 11 April 2011 @ 3:46 am

    • The evolutionary reading is relevant too, Sam. Culture compensates for inherited limitations at both the individual and the species level, and it accelerates cumulative adaptations beyond what a million generations of mutation-and-natural-selection cycles would offer over millions of years. Whereas evolution is (presumably) unintentional, cultural adaptations often as not are both created and evaluated according to explicit normative criteria: does this new telescope enable me to see better and farther than other telescopes? All humanity benefits to an extent, though wealth and power control access to innovations that might afford more widespread enhancements to the human condition. This socioeconomic inequality of access too seems amenable to normative evaluation, and perhaps even to incremental intentional improvement.

      While OOO valorizes difference, it doesn’t seem able or willing to acknowledge normative evaluations like better/worse or improved/deteriorated. Levi Bryant has previously written that he regards normative judgments as smacking too much of law-based morality reminiscent of his strict Christian upbringing, but I don’t see why that should be the case. Of course we can’t know whether it will prove adaptive or catastrophic in the long run for humans to pursue their intentional and normative agendas in technology, politics, and ethics. Christianity is historically skeptical in this regard: humans making themselves like gods, worshiping the creation rather than the creator, and so on.

      Comment by ktismatics — 11 April 2011 @ 8:38 am

  6. In short, in OOO there seem to be no norms by which to evaluate vision. Here normativity doesn’t mean that there are rules for how one should see, but rather that there is an objective standard — i.e., what one is looking at in the real world — against which to assess one’s subjective view of that world. How am I to choose between natural myopia or wearing glasses that correct to 20/20 vision, or wearing black patches over both eyes for that matter? Maybe for OOO it becomes a matter of power: the glasses-wearer finds it easier to make differences in the world. Or would he? If I drove down Route 36 with patches over both eyes I’m sure I’d make a difference. I expect the retort would be that ontological sameness and difference doesn’t imply anything about ethical criteria for evaluating differences. I think we’re better off sticking with the problem of making comparative judgments between visual perceptions in their own right.

    Comment by ktismatics — 9 April 2011 @ 3:56 pm

  7. Good job with cutting and pasting…

    Comment by Михаил Емельянов — 9 April 2011 @ 11:44 pm

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