Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Phenomena [We are all mistaken]

I'd like to put forward that idea that people are often wrong about stuff. People attempt to understand reality, but many times, we have only a semi-accurate model of reality in our head. How does this work? Well, that brings me to the interesting ideas of Immanuel Kant, who is an ancient and well-known philosopher. Years and years ago, he wrote about the difference between "noumenon" and "phenomenon." I'll try to describe some of theories for you now.

Phenomenon: a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from a noumenon, or thing-in-itself.
Noumenon: a thing being perceived

Noumena, plural of noumenon, is reality. Phenomena is our mental model of reality. Why do these two often differ so much? Before I answer that question, I would like to say that much of humor is based off of these two concepts. Often what we find funny, though we do not analyze it, is funny to us because of the differences between a noumenon and phenomenon, or between two different phenomena. For example, why do we find it amusing when a guy steps on a banana peel and goes flying? Why is it even funnier when he sees the banana peel, and sidesteps it - only to fall into open manhole? It is funny because in his mental model of reality, he was safe, but before of a minor oversight, he didn't realize how very FAR from being safe he was. When his mental model of reality and true reality collide, the man goes flying! and while we all feel sorry for him, it still is just a bit amusing.

Moving on, why does our phenomena not actually match noumena? Kant proposed that it was based on three things. Firstly, sometimes our senses are not accurate. This can be exampled in the case of blindness. However, this is not the main reason for our inaccuracy. It is often said of magic tricks that "the hand is quicker than the eye," but that generally isn't true. The vast majority of magic tricks do not rely on fooling the senses, but rely on the other two ways that we can percieve things inaccurately. Magic tricks are a great example of how fascinated we are when we see clearly that our phenomena (which dictates the situation is logically impossible) contradicts noumena (which shows us clearly that it is, indeed, possible).

Secondly, we sometimes mislabel what we sense. For example, suppose I glance across the room and see a guitar. Without really thinking, in my mind I have labeled it as "a working guitar", and I go to pick it up, and find that I have mis-labeled it. I should have labeled it as "a semi-working guitar with one broken string." This is not deception of the senses, for when I look carefully from here, I can see that a string is missing. However, I am more like to be less careful than that and label it quickly.

That reminds me of this one scene in "Home Alone 3" when this kid is being hounded by these spies, and he's trying to escape with his life (and the chip). Before they arrive, he takes apart the in-ground trampoline, and puts the trampoline pad over the pool. The pool is freezing cold, of course, and he also arranges the snow and metal things so that it appears that the position of the pool and trampoline are swapped. Later, one of the spies looks out the window, sees correctly the placement of the trampoline pad and snow, but mislabels the position of the pool. He assumes that the trampoline is where it looks like it is, that the pool is also where it looks like it is, chooses to jump, and ends up in the pool. The pool is so cold that by the time the police get there maybe five minutes later, he is still in the pool, and looks like he has hypothermia. Similarly, I myself know a magic trick that is based off of the audience mislabeling my equipment.

Thirdly, occasionally we apply incorrect implications to what we have correctly seen and labeled. For example, suppose I see a jellyfish, and correctly label it in my mind as a "live jellyfish," but then think that "jellyfish are harmless, and therefore this one can't hurt me." Who knows where I got that notion? But in any case, my phenomena included, because of incorrect implications, a harmless jellyfish, while noumena includes a dangerous one. If I touch it, I'm sure that my phenomena, my mental model of the world, will instantly become more accurate. Logic used in implications. For example, I know that if A is true, then B is true. I also know that A is true. Therefore, the correct implication is that B is true. However, if I am illogical, I will come to incorrect implications. For example, suppose I believe that if A happened before B, then A must have caused B. I also know that A happened before B, and therefore I come to the incorrect implication that A caused B.

All of these may seem very abstract, but they effect the way you perceive each and every part of your life. Even as you are reading this, the lights on the screen are noumena, but your mental understanding of this blog is phenomena. It is because our mental model of the world does not match reality that we are fallible, that we do not always correctly interpret scripture, do not always program things correctly, and occasionally might trip over banana peels.