Hume was skeptical of induction and causality. Descartes began his philosophy by doubting everything. Both thought we may be in great error about the external world. But neither could bring themselves to seriously doubt the contents of their own subjective conscious experience.

Philosophers and non-philosophers alike often say: "I may not know whether that is really a yellow banana before me, but surely I know the character of my visual experience of a yellow banana! I may not know whether I really just dropped a barbell on my toe, but surely I know the subjective character of my pain experience, right?"

In this article I hope to persuade you that yes, you can be wrong about the subjective quality of your own conscious experience. In fact, such errors are common.


Human echolocation

Thomas Nagel famously said that we cannot imagine the subjective experience of bat sonar:

Bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.1

Hold up a book in front of your face at arm's length, close your eyes, and say something loudly. Can you hear the emptiness of the space in front of you? Close your eyes again, hold the book directly in front of your face, and say the book's name again. Can you now hear that the book is closer?

I'll bet you can, and thus you may be more bat-like than Nagel seems to think is possible, and more bat-like than you have previously thought. When I discovered this, I realized that not only had I been wrong about my perceptual capabilities, I had also been ignorant of the daily content of my subjective auditory experience.

Blind people can be especially good at using echolocation to navigate the world. Just like bats and dolphins and whales (but less accurately), humans can make sounds and then hear how nearby objects reflect and modify those sounds. People with normal vision can also be trained to echolocate to some degree with training, for example detecting the location of walls while blindfolded.2 After some practice, blindfolded people can use sound to distinguish objects of different shapes and textures (at a rate significantly better than chance).3

You can try this yourself. Get a friend to blindfold you and then move their hand to one of four quadrants of space in front of your face. Try hissing or talking loudly and see if you can tell something about where your friend's hand is. Have your friend move their hand to another quadrant, and try again. Do this a few dozen times. I suspect you will find that after a while you'll do better than chance at locating the quadrant your friend's hand is in, and you may be able to tell something about its distance as well. If so, you are echolocating. You are having an auditory experience of the physical location of an object - something you may not have realized that you can do, something you probably have been doing your whole life without much realizing it.

Alternatively, have a friend blindfold you and place you some unspecified distance from a wall. Step toward the wall a few inches at a time, speaking loudly, and stop when the wall is directly in front of you. Most people find they can do this quite reliably. But of course you can't see or touch the wall, and the wall is making no sound of its own. You are echolocating.

One final test to prove it to yourself, this one relevant to shape and texture. Close your eyes, repeat some syllable, and have a friend hold one of three objects in front of your face: a book, a wadded-up T-shirt, and a mixing bowl. I think you'll find that you can distinguish between these three silent objects better than chance, and that the book will sound solid, the T-shirt will sound soft, and the mixing bowl will sound hollow. You are echolocating shape and texture.


Does a coin look circular?

Set a coin on a desk or table three feet in front of you. Is its shape circular or elliptical?

One popular view is to say that we perceive the coin in two aspects. In one aspect, we perceive the raw sense data from our visual plane, which shows the coin as being elliptical (because one end of it is stretching away from us). In another aspect, we perceive it as circular because our minds have an intuitive physics about the shape permanence of solid objects. Perhaps our minds 'flip' between seeing the coin from the two aspects - a kind of 'Gestalt shift' - just as it flips between seeing a rabbit and a duck in Wittgenstein's famous duck-rabbit drawing.

Schwitzgebel (2011) reports his own confusion:

What exactly is my sensory experience as I stare at a penny? My first and recurring inclination is to say that the penny looks just plain circular, in a three-dimensional space - not elliptical at all... However, I also find that if I dip my head lower to view the penny from a flatter angle, I begin to see how one might think it looks elliptical. Closing one eye helps too... Am I experiencing the ellipse too? Maybe not. But neither can I say that I noticed any Gestalt shift... Could it be, simply, that my visual experience is disorganized, so that there is no simple relationship between viewing angle and apparent shape...?

Maybe my terms and concepts are muddled. What is it for something to 'look elliptical'? ...

Or am I simply a poor introspector? Maybe the fact that my own phenomenology in this case doesn't seem obvious to me reveals my introspective ineptitude... And yet I am not sure I should trust other [people's] introspections either.4

The character of our subjective experience of shape at varying angles and distances is widely debated by philosophers and psychologists,4 lending some support to the claim that we are unsure of it.


What is the character of an imagined scene?

Close your eyes and picture the front of your house or apartment building from the street.

Presumably, you know that you experience an image, and you know some aspects of its content (that it is a house, from a certain angle). But what else do you know? Schwitzgebel questions:

How much of the scene can you vividly visualize at once? Can you keep the image of the chimney vividly in mind at the same time that you vividly imagine your front door, or how does the image of the chimney fade as you begin to think about the door? How much detail does your image have? How stable is it? If you can't visually imagine the entire front of your house in rich detail all at once, what happens to the aspects of the image that are relatively less detailed? If the chimney is still experienced as part of the imagery when your imagemaking energies are focused on the front door, how exactly is it experienced? Does it have determinate shape, determinate color? In general, do the objects in your image have color before you think to assign color to them, or do some of the colors remain indeterminate, at least for a while...? If there is indeterminacy of color, how is that indeterminacy experienced? As gray? Does your visual image have depth in the same way that your sensory experienced does... or is your imagery somehow flatter...? ...Do you experience the image as located somewhere in egocentric space - inside your head, or before your eyes, or in front of your forehead - or does it make no sense to attempt to assign it a position in this way?5

When questioned in this way, most people quickly become uncertain about the character of their own subjective conscious experience.


Do you dream in color?

Most people, when asked, are fairly confident of their answer. But the answer given (in questionnaires or after awakened during REM sleep) has varied widely throughout history and between persons.6 Pre-scientific authors tended to assume they dreamed in color, while studies in the first half of the 20th century found very few people who reported dreaming in color. In the 1960s, this consensus was overturned, and recent studies show that today, more than 80% of people report that they dream in color. But there are also certain populations that overwhelming report dreaming in black and white.

Is there something in our genes or in the air that decides whether or not we dream in color, or are we confused about our own subjective experience?

Schwitzgebel reviews the arguments back and forth, but none give a clear answer. And unfortunately, there remains much disagreement about the neurology of color experience.7


Is experience persistent?

Schwitzgebel asks:

Do you have constant tactile experience of your feet in your shoes?... Constant visual experience of the frames of your eyeglasses? ... Is consciousness abundant, the stream of experience bristling with phenomenology in a wide variety of modalities simultaneously (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, imagistic, proprioceptive, emotional), or is it sparse, limited to one or a few things at a time?

Suppose you have driven to work by the same route a thousand times. Today, you are absorbed in remembering an unpleasant interaction with your department head. Traffic is light, no dangerous situation occurs, and you drive habitually. You arrive at your usual parking area and seem to "wake up" - "Ah, I'm at work already!" - with virtually no memory of having driven there. Did you have visual experience while you were driving? You responded to events on the road, stopped at red lights, and stayed in your lane... But perhaps visual input can influence behavior without the involvement of consciousness.

These are difficult questions, and both experts and laymen disagree as to their answers.8


Sound and vision biases

Have you noticed that you perceive vertical distance as greater when you are looking down than when you are looking up? Well, you do.9

Have you noticed that you perceive changes in 'approaching' sounds as being greater than equivalent changes in 'receding' sounds? Have you noticed that you perceived 'approaching' sounds as occurring more near to you than 'receding' sounds? You do.10



As many people who practices meditation seriously can tell you, the subjective contents of conscious experience are often surprising and uncertain. We can be wrong about our own subjective conscious experiences. Thus, they cannot serve as a bedrock for certainty and a priori truth. (At least, minimally complex subjective conscious experiences cannot.)

It seems that all we can do is exercise some naturalized epistemology: "reflecting on your mind's degree of trustworthiness, using your current mind as opposed to something else." Luckily, the brain is the lens that sees its flaws, as demonstrated by surprising studies in human echolocation, the color of dreams, and more.



1 Nagel (1974).

2 Supa et al. (1944); Ammons et al. (1953); Roseblum et al. (2000).

3 Hausfeld et al. (1982); Rosenblum & Robert (2007); Gordon & Rosenblum (2004).

4 Schwitzgebel (2011), chapter 2. Note that I also interviewed the author here. This post is basically a summary of a few sections of Schwitzgebel's book.

5 Schwitzgebel (2011), chapter 3.

6 Schwitzgebel (2011) reports that most people he ask about dreaming in color are fairly confident of their answer. Also see his Table 1.1, which summarizes the results of 21 studies on the reported color of dreams, some of which include confidence measures. Chapter 1 contains a summary of historical assumptions about dreaming in color.

7 Gegenfurtner & Kiper (2003); Solomon & Lennie (2007); Wade et al. (2008); Conway (2009).

8 Schwitzgebel (2011), chapter 6.

9 Jackson & Cormack (2008).

10 Neuhoff (2001).



Ammons, Worchel, & Dallenbach (1953). Facial vision: The perception of obstacles out of doors by blindfolded and blindfolded-deafened subjects. American Journal of Psychology, 66: 519-554.

Conway (2009). Color vision, cones, and color-coding in the cortex. Neuroscientist, 15: 274-290.

Gegenfurtner & Kiper (2003). Color vision. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 26: 181-206.

Gordon & Rosenblum (2004). Perception of sound-obstructing surfaces using body-scaled judgments. Ecological Psychology, 16: 87-113.

Hausfeld, Power, Gorta, & Harris (1982). Echo perception of shape and texture by sighted subjects. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 55: 623-632.

Jackson & Cormack (2008). Evolved navigation theory and the descent illusion. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29: 299-304.

Nagel (1974). What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review, 83: 435-450.

Neuhoff (2001). An adaptive bias in the perception of looming auditory motion. Ecological Psychology, 13: 87-113.

Roseblum, Gordon, & Jarquin (2000). Echolocating distance by moving and stationary listeners. Ecological Psychology, 12: 181-206.

Rosenblum & Robert (2007). Hearing silent shapes: Identifying the shape of a sound-obstructing surface. Ecological Psychology, 19: 351-366.

Schwitzgebel (2011). Perplexities of Consciousness. MIT Press.

Solomon & Lennie (2007). The machinery of colour vision. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 8: 276-286.

Supa, Cotzin, & Dallenbach (1944). Facial vision: the perception of obstacles by the blind. ASmerican Journal of Psychology, 62: 133-183.

Wade, Augath, Logothetis, & Wandell (2008). fMRI measurement of color in macaque and human. Journal of Vision, 8(10): 1-19.

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A related anecdote: A few years ago, I asked my friend, a neuroscientist specializing in vision, why it's sometimes painful to look at the sky. After confirming that it's unrelated to cloud cover but vaguely correlated with the seasons, he suggested that it might be that I'm sensitive to the polarization of light, but said that this was unlikely since mammals in general are supposedly not capable of detecting it. Polarized glasses are cheap, though, so I tried them, and they entirely fixed the problem - notably, regular sunglasses do not - indicating that that is probably the case.

Even more interestingly, I discovered that some significant parts of my visual experience were related to polarization: Detecting the rotation of distant reflective objects (panes of glass, leaves) is helped by it, for one. More significantly, perceiving how far away objects are is affected by it: It's easier for me to tell how far away a small, relatively still object is without the glasses, but also much easier for me to tell how fast a large object is approaching with them, and I find crossing busy roads to be much less stressful that way. I also find certain kinds of reflective surfaces confusing with the glasses, but entirely sensible without them.

The human eye is slightly sensitive to the polarization of light. See Haidinger's brush, which is a yellowish bowtie shaped pattern some people can see in the center of their visual field when looking at the sky while facing away from the sun.

Huh, neat!

I may simply be unclear on what it means to be "wrong about the subjective quality of your own conscious experience," but it seems to me that this post is completely irrelevant to that question. All of the evidence shows flaws in our predictive ability, our memory, and our language. I don't see any contradictions or wrongness; indeed, I'm still unsure what such would look like. I'll go through it step by step.

Someone predicted that people couldn't experience echolocation. He was wrong. No evidence was offered that he could experience echolocation. Moreover, comparing the ability of the untrained to notice the difference between a T-shirt and a mixing bowl, and the ability of a bat or dolphin to render rich detail is disingenuous. But disputing the detail is besides the point: his mistake was about his abilities, not his actual experience. It's not like he experienced echolocation and didn't know it, or failed to and thought he did.

Does a coin look circular? This seems to be purely semantic and, if anything, a product of language. No one is disputing my ability to see a coin or predict or understand its properties. The problem is mostly whether we're describing the image o... (read more)

Dream in colour? With, like, pictures? I think I mostly dream in concepts. With occasional pictures included for effect now and again.
Can you describe a mostly concept dream? I always have visuals in color going on in dreams. I'm not sure that I hear sounds. I get some kinesthesia. Sometimes I get concepts in the sense of "just knowing" the backstory for something in a dream. I only remember taste/smell happening once. I've read that no one dreams of landing a real punch, which I assume means a plausible amount of tactile/kinesthetic input.
2Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
I read once in a book that you never eat anything in a dream. Shortly later I had a dream where I was eating my mother's homemade pumpkin molasses muffins, and they tasted very good...and had texture in my mouth, and the satisfying solidness as I swallowed. In general, what distinguishes my dreams from reality is how the locations are similar-yet-different to real life. If I notice that "wait, this bus stop looks too similar to the one outside my rez to be a different place, but it's not the same" then sometimes I can realize I'm in a dream. Also, my schedule gets mixed up; in a dream, I might be going to choir practice directly from class, even though I know I don't have classes on Thursdays. All my senses are involved in dreams though, and usually fairly elaborate plots, like trying to get to class on time when things keep going wrong (buses not showing up, people coming to distract me) and I'm worried about something else.
I've found my dream senses work about as well as my imagination and memory do - which is, admittedly, certainly a bit fuzzier than reality, but I have all my senses. Admittedly, upon being told I "can't" do something in my dreams (dream in color, read in a dream, observe fine detail), I'll usually have a dream within a week that contradicts that assertion. My subconscious is ornery like that. It's also annoying having learned that if I pinch myself in a dream, it does in fact hurt, which lead to one dream where I was utterly convinced it wasn't a dream until after I woke up >.> (Inexplicably, light switches never work in my dreams. This is the sole "sign you're dreaming" that has actually worked for me)
Mentioned in , as well as the non-reliability of the pinch test.
Interesting, thank you! I don't recall that information on the "pinch test" last time I read. That said, the "look at ground" has never worked for me, and I realized "look at numbers/text" doesn't work for me when I started doing comparison price shopping in my dreams. I'll have to try the breath holding one, but, ahh, given it's a very familiar sensation, I doubt that test will work for me either ^^;
One that worked for me was to check if I could see through my hands as if I had X-ray vision.
looking on Wikipedia I find this: I heard, and then self-interrogated and found it plausible, that most of a dream is backstory. Suppose a dream lasts 5 minutes subjectively, then the dream would actually be 5 minutes of subjective backstory with a few seconds of visual images. In particular, the dream only lasts a few seconds. (I also understand that the visual images come first, perhaps semi-randomly, and then the brain overlays a story.) Also from the same Wikipedia page:
In one of Patricia Garfield's books (either Pathway to Ecstacy or Creative Dreaming), she concludes after much introspection that dreams are stories built around bodily sensations.
Like playing a MUD or being absorbed in a good book. The story, scenario and actions are just there in the brain without necessary requiring an actual visual intermediary.
Note that for many people, reading books is a very visual experience. One of my friends is an eidetic imaginer. If she reads a book, she actually sees the events in almost the same vividness as if she was witnessing them for real. (I don't know about MUDs, but I don't see why they should be any different.) So "like playing a MUD or being absorbed in a good book" isn't necessarily a very useful way of describing this.
Not very useful, merely the most useful way that is practical in a brief sentence. Not all inferential differences can be crossed in a few words. The second sentence comes closer, an essay would have gone further and a neuroscience textbook further still. But for those with particularly different default styles of thought actually grasping in detail the entirely different forms of experience would take extensive mental training - when possible at all. It is hard to explain to a blind guy what it is like to see when you are deaf and dumb yourself.
Actually, now I'm curious. I wonder if any blind guys have ever hooked up with deaf chicks (or vice versa or vice vice). If I were in one of the groups I would definitely set out to do it at least once, even if only briefly. The two major communication lines cut off but two brains there that would, I expect, learn to cross that chasm regardless.
The solution that came to mind was typing (with a text-to-speech or text-to-braille solution for the blind person). If the deaf person could read lips and speak understandable English (and some can), they could just talk.
That seems to be the obvious solution. The part that makes me intrigued, however is how the increased overhead of verbal communication would encourage a heavily intuitive physical language to emerge. Even more fascinating would be if the participants started their interacting as children. I would expect a full physically mediated grammar to evolve. I distinctly remember typing 'deaf and dumb'. I must have edited that out while making the phrasing fit.
Me to, but unless I'm paying attention my brain often tries to reinterpret and overwrite the memory with best-fit images (and sounds, and occasional sprinkling of other senses, in abaut the same proportions that memories of real events have) when I try to recall it awake. If I hadn't realized what was going on I could have easily thought there were carefully rendered images the whole time, and I do suspect this could be the source of a lot of people thinking exactly this... EDIT: never mind this. I just discovered that as I keep reading this thread the memories and introspections shift in big and contradictory ways without me noticing. My current best guess is that I only have a few damaged memory fragments and that 99% of what my brain reports as memories are guesses based from what I know of how dreams work in general.
Sounds about right. Waking memories aren't that much better. :)
This is my experience -- I think. I don't remember dreams very well, so it's possible that I simply don't remember the images or their colours, just some vestigial concepts.
I think I do this too most of the time, but this post made me question it. I think I at least sometimes have pictures in dreams, especially when I was younger. I don't remember my dreams very often, so I have very little data.
Thanks for taking the time to point out the problem with each example. The key issue seems to be that "subjective experience" could refer to all subjective experiences, both past and present, or it could refer to one's current, this-moment subjective experience. The OP draws people in because it sounds like it's going to be talking about doubting the latter - which would be pretty shocking - but it ends up as a sort of bait-and-switch because it is really talking about doubting the former, more mundane and familiar sense, where one simply fails to accurately recall one's past experience or fails to catch all aspects of one's experiential phenomena as they whizz by.
Of course it's logically possible that we could still be 'right' about our subjective experience but then have our model be immediately corrupted by memory and language, but given the above I see little reason to expect that. But even if we are 'right' about our subjective experiences, but then our ability to think correctly about our subjective experience is immediately corrupted by memory and language, that still blocks our ability to use subjective experience for certain grounding in a foundationalist epistemology, for example.
It's a bit more than a "logical possibility." Consider these two options: 1. We actually dream in color, but we experience it as black and white, and remember it and report it correctly. 2. We actually dream in color, but we don't remember it very well (particularly old dreams, and particularly because the memory centers of the brain do not function properly during dreaming), so our answers to questions about old dreams are inaccurate, possibly biased by television or our most recent memory or some other factor we're unaware of. It's unclear to me that your position is logically possible, insofar as it is represented by 1. I don't know what it means for a subjective experience to be something different from how it is experienced. I know exactly how things can be misremembered, I do it all the time. So it's 2, which is not merely logically possible, but actually relies on a common and pretty unremarkable phenomenon, versus 1, which actually may not be logically possible because it doesn't seem to actually mean anything. As for your second point - didn't say immediate, but I think you need to be a bit more specific than "certain grounding in a foundationalist epistemology." I can't disagree with you because I'm not entirely sure what you're saying. If you can point to a specific epistemological problem that arises from any of the problems you've pointed out, well, that'd make this discussion a whole lot more useful.
Perhaps the post could be improved if it laid out the types of errors our intuitions can make (e.g. memory errors, language errors, etc.). Each type of error could then be analyzed in terms of how seriously it impacts prevalent theories of cognition (or common assumptions in mainstream philosophy). As it stands, the post seems like a rather random (though interesting!) sampling of cognitive errors that serve to support the somewhat unremarkable conclusion that yes, our seemingly infallible intuitions have glitches.
It surely seems improbable that most of people in the 1920s were dreaming black and white while today 80% dream in color. The perceptions can be culturally influenced in principle (I don't assume a significant biological change happening during the 20th century), but it is far more probable that a substantial part of people report about their subjective experiences incorrectly. The probable reason is that people can't remember what their dream was exactly like (or perhaps it even has no sense to speak about colors in dreams) and their report is contaminated by their expectations of what it should be, which are more easily subject to cultural influences. We may say that the flaw is in the memory and not in the experience itself, but that doesn't contradict the point of the original post. Lukeprog hasn't said that the experiences are wrong, but only that people can be wrong even about thier own experiences - and inconsistent reporting about the quality of dreams certainly requires being wrong about them.
If this study occurred in the US then it isn't so improbable. In the 1920s the primary form of entertainment were black and white movies. This might have had enough influence that many of the people who would have had dreams in color had substantial parts of those dreams in "color" but the only relevant colors were black and white. (This notion is partially inspired by my own dreams- I dream in color, but occasionally cartoon characters show up, and when they do, they look like they would in the cartoon even as they interact with normal people, or something sort of like that. So it isn't implausible to me that something similar could happen with black and white characters.)
That did occur to me, but I doubt the real influence of movies can be that big as to make all dreams of 80% of people black and white. What seems more likely to me is that the colour of dreams (or actually the whole visual quality of dreams) is hard to remember, a person familiar with b/w movies would be likely to assume that dreams are similar to movies, and therefore report that they were black and white. But the two theories seem very hard to distinguish empirically.
You could have people watch only black and white movies for a while and see if they were more likely to report dreams being in black and white. This would work since people today know that entertainment isn't in black and white. Alternatively, one could take black and white media and project it in some strange color scheme (like say orange and blue) and see if people started dreaming in that.
That would distinguish the hypotheses 1. Watching lots of black and white movies directly causes dreams to lose colour. 2. Knowing that all movies are black and white corrupts one's memories about one's dreams. But it will not decide between 1. Watching lots of black and white movies directly causes dreams to lose colour. 2. Watching lots of black and white movies directly corrupts one's memories about one's dreams.
I believe the primary form of entertainment for the last million years has had plenty of color.
How is that relevant? If the entertainment at any point (especially when there's lots of entertainment) impacts what dreams are like then what entertainment our ancestors have had won't be relevant.
Why? Do you know what causes people to dream in color? Is this change less probable than 50%+ of the population being incapable of remembering with any accuracy an event that happens several times a week? I don't know the cause, and I don't know the relative odds. But if your claim is that people are systematically making a large and serious error, I think you need more than broad population comparisons with a complete absence of mechanism. There is not a sufficiently direct contradiction to infer that people are collectively mistaken; I'm assuming that's why Lukeprog didn't actually connect the dots - because the evidence doesn't support dot-connecting.
I don't know what causes colours in dreams, but my expectation is that the causes are mostly biological, rather than cultural. My experience: I haven't noticed any significant change in perceptual qualities of my dreams in my life, although the contents of the dreams changed a lot. I suppose thus that while the topic of dreams may be strongly influenced by our daylight experiences (and the cultural environment in general), the low-level facts about dreams, such as their duration, colour and sound are rather biological. They may be influenced by diseases, drugs, perhaps meditation practices and such, but I am quite skeptical that watching black and white (or, on the other hand, coloured) movies could do that (this is the only mechanism I could think about now). Also, I am not entirely sure whether my dreams are coloured (and whether they have sound, for that matter). I can remember having only one dream where colour was salient - it was a rather nightmarish dream perhaps 20 years ago about an asteroid coming to destroy the Earth, and the asteroid was red - and still I am not much sure whether it actually was red inside the dream, or whether the idea of its redness emerged by later thought. I haven't noticed a particular colour-related fact in any other dream. On the other hand, when I wake up from dreams (and sometimes even inside the dream), I find the dream-world very strange and inconsistent, but never because of its colour. So my ability to distinguish between coloured and black and white dreams is pretty weak, which contributes to my estimate that it is fairly probable to misreport that, especially when answering a brief binary question of "do you have colour dreams"? Finally, I attach a non-negligible probability to the possibility that the dream qualia are very different from the daylight ones, and that all colour perceptions are created after waking up after trying to remember the dream and describe it in terms of the daylight qualia (not sure whether this
My expectation is that you've been moving through different cultures at a rate comparable to the one at which you've been moving through different biologies. This is a rather enormous problem with most "X must be biological" claims, particularly as applied to individual anecdotes. Bigger picture, this all adds up to a memory error, assuming all claims in your favor. This is particularly unsurprising in the area of dreams where our memory isn't really supposed to work - you dream several times per night, but most of these dreams are not stored in accessible memory. Your argument seems to be that people are actually experiencing dreams in color, but incorrectly remembering them as being non-color. My point may seem trivial, but this remains a memory error, not an error of subjective experience. Memory errors are extremely common, so that they occur in memories of subjective experience is no surprise. It's just like remembering that you liked a movie when, it turns out, you really didn't (and, say, emailed someone to that effect). It could even be a language error - dreams do not involve light and, in a sense, can't be in color. As another commenter has pointed out, they don't experience dreams like movies, but rather as concepts. I personally don't experience faces in dreams - I know who people are as part of the narrative, but they often lack detailed faces (or fail to look like themselves). Dream perception is not that much like conscious perception - at least for many - so using life-describing words may lead to serious error, just like the circle/ellipse question with a coin is principally one of language. Dreams are complex and impossible to directly reflect on and perhaps did not evolve to be remembered, so pointing out that people have trouble describing them doesn't really seem to be relevant.
Since my childhood I have encountered new technologies, most importantly computers and the internet, learned several foreign languages, changed my political opinions, moved to a different country and learned about cognitive biases, which strongly reshaped my thinking. If this doesn't cause a change in dream colour, why a culture change, of magnitude comparable to changes in the Western culture during the last 80 years, should do? I acknowledge the prominence of black and white movies then, as pointed out by JoshuaZ, but should that effect be so strong? Do you have some other cultural mechanism in mind? Overall, I probably don't understand your point. Do you say that I can't assume with reasonable certainty (95% or so) that the colour of dreams cannot be strongly culturally influenced? If so, I don't disagree - I am willing to accept a 50% estimate on that, given that the black and white movie bit is a fair point. Or do you say that you are reasonably certain that colour of dreams can be culturally influenced? If so, what evidence supports that? How does this not entail being mistaken about our experiences? A false belief about colour of one's dreams doesn't cease to be false when it is caused by memory failure. If there is actually no sense in speaking about color in dreams, it becomes rather "not even false", but still remains an error. The original article did claim nothing more than that we can hold false beliefs about our experiences. Whether the mechanism behind those errors is a memory error, language confusion or something else is irrelevant.
Suppose I believe I had chicken for lunch yesterday, when in fact I had pork. That does not mean that, when I had lunch, I actually thought pork tasted like chicken (or, I subjectively experienced the taste of chicken when I actually subjectively experienced the taste of pork - this convolution is my issue with the concept). If the point is, "Sometimes our memory is incorrect," it seems to be wholly uninteresting and hardly worthy of a top-level post - as it adds little insight to this established fact. On your earlier point: have your dreams changed, qualitatively, since you were a child? How would you even know? Unless you kept rather detailed diaries, then compared them to a large sample of other people to control for age-related changes, it'd be impossible to tell. Moreover, however complex your cultural upbringing, you had one cultural upbringing (perhaps a multicultural one, but one upbringing). Populations do not experience muti-cultural upbringings, they experience different cultural upbringings. My point is that attaching percentages to probabilities here is largely an exercise in futility. You are using a piece of evidence to fit into a large claim - we can be mistaken about our subjective experiences. Fact X isn't either evidence for Y or not-Y; the vast majority of the time Fact X doesn't really have much bearing one way or another. In short, it's very weak evidence for a highly specific (and, as I've argued, incoherent) proposition. I'll happily concede that some people may dream in color and not remember this (or vice versa), but
If 80% of people were systematically forgetting overnight what they had for lunch the day before, it would certainly be interesting and worthy of a top-level post.
True. But, if in a 1930 80% of people reported eating chicken at their last meal, and in 1990 80% said they had pork at their last meal, we would not assume that there was an error in their first-person experience without significant additional evidence. That's precisely what is missing here.
I think Luke's point is that people's intuitions about the nature of their subjective experience / consciousness can sometimes be wrong. The human version of echolocation is admittedly very primitive, but you still experience changes in sound and sound patterns. People think that when they imagine something, they see it sort of like a photograph, but in fact they don't (though some might do). But you do, to a certain extent. When you're absorbed in some conversation while driving to work, you could realize at some point that (almost?) none of your conscious attention is focused on the driving and is instead focused on the conversation. Your driving is automatic, without any need for much conscious input, unless something unusual happens. He isn't saying that some subjective experience is wrong (I'm not even sure what that means), he's saying that the way you (intuitively) think you're experiencing something can be different from the way you actually experience it. Edit: I think I do agree, though, with Yvain's point that probably none of these examples would've changed Decartes' mind.

"We can be wrong about our subjective experiences" is a very broad and maybe misleading way of summarizing this information.

You've shown that we can sometimes fail to consciously pick up on certain channels of sensory information (like echolocation) or fail to consciously appreciate certain qualities of our sensory experience (like the ellipticalness of coins or the vagueness of imagery).

But all your examples have the quality that if we consciously think about them, we realize our mistake (I know this is kind of unfair to you as you couldn't have used an example that didn't have that quality because people wouldn't admit they were wrong about it). So this post only re-affirms that there is a conscious-unconscious distinction, and that lots of the things we think are fully conscious processes are the conscious shadows of larger unconscious processes.

When I think of being wrong about subjective experience, I think of being wrong about the "contents" of "my" "own" "consciousness". The problem here isn't that I'm wrong about my consciousness, it's that certain things never entered my consciousness to begin with and were handled by unconscious routines without me noticing. As soon as I think about them consciously, I'm no longer wrong.

This is also how people like Descartes used the idea of subjective experience, and I don't think knowing about these examples would make Descartes hesitate to say with certainty that he can be sure he's really thinking if he thinks he's thinking.

Here's a more straightforward case of being mistaken about one's experience that happened to me:

Schwitzgebel describes somewhere an experiment you can do with a random playing card. Draw it, and hold it facing you at arm's length directly to your left or right while focusing your eyes straight ahead. Slowly move it around in an arc at arm's length, so it goes through your peripheral vision bit by bit, and try to guess if it's red or black.

I tried this, and I had the weirdest experience. I thought I saw it as black(1), and then I realized it was red, and as the card moved, I did not experience a change in its apparent color; it just became plain that that color, the same one, was red.

So either the card looked black and then red without changing its apparent color (implausible), or I was mistaken about my subjective experience somewhere (the initial color perception, or the absence of a change perception).

(1) I don't remember which it was actually, but it was the wrong one.

7Scott Alexander
This is more convincing than Luke's examples, but it's still a case of a flaw in between stimulus and perception, rather than one in consciousness. You think you perceive a quale of red. Then you think you perceive a quale of black. You notice that you never perceived a quale of change. Each time you are correct about which qualia you did or did not perceive. You would be wrong if you asserted "my conscious perception of color did not change", but you are correct in asserting "I did not consciously perceive the change in my perception of color." This may make more sense if you think of perception of change as a specific thing which the brain has to detect and register separate from the changing inputs, rather than as a "natural" consequence of stimuli changing. This might also make more sense if you think of a Photoshop-style gradient, eg a 200 px gradient between red and blue. You can't perceive a change between each individual pixel and the pixel after it, but pixel 1 is definitely red and pixel 200 is definitely blue. You're not wrong about your conscious experiences at any point, your conscious experience just isn't picking up the change very well.
That reminds me of a weird experience. I was listening to and watching a singer do a song about his guitar. One verse described it as blue. The next verse described it as green. Then I saw the guitar as a bright color that I couldn't specify. I'm not sure I would have said it wasn't red. Fortunately, he concluded with a verse about it being teal, and my ability to connect the color of his guitar to words was repaired.
There are certain colors which I tend to identify as green which other people assure me are gray. I didn't realize this until I got into an argument with a friend about her sofa. Now I see these colors in a weird superposition of green and gray. (I see some things as unambiguously gray, and correctly identify actual green things reliably.) I'm not sure if this is an actual vision issue (it doesn't seem to be a form of colorblindness) or what.
It might be a form of color hypersensitivity-- you might be noticing that some grays have a greenish cast. This might be checked with artists who work with color and/or with color chips.
The amazing thing is that people usually don't confuse gray with one of the RGB colours (or possibly with one of the colours that you get from reducing one of the above). It would seem to require a rather complicated and ongoing calibration mechanism.
Interesting. This makes me less skeptical of Derren Brown's color illusion video (summary: a celebrity mentalist uses NLP techniques to convince a woman yellow is red, red is black etc.).
It's only a small step away from what complete amateurs can do in a room in a university. Human judgement is careful not to get caught up with the actual real world when there is social influence at stake!
I don't think social influence alone is a good explanation for the delusion in the video. Or more precisely, I don't think the delusion in the video can be explained as just a riff on the Asch conformity experiment.
I agree (for the right definition of 'social influence', of course). That 'small step away' really is a step away.
Derren Brown's explanations for his effects are not to be relied on. Remember, he is a magician. Misdirection is one of the pillars of conjuring, and a plausible lie is a powerful misdirector.
I'm merely less skeptical that the woman in the video is a stooge after hearing what Nancy had to say. But yes, the anchoring techniques he uses in the video might be nothing but deliberate misdirection.
This is an excellent example, because it illustrates the two different ways one can be 'mistaken': 1. Having a mistaken 'folk theory' of subjective experiences. 2. Being wrong about the "contents of my own consciousness" as Yvain puts it. What you call "implausible" here is just something that would cause you to radically change your theory of subjective experience. One can trivially eliminate "mistakes" in Yvain's sense, simply by making ad hoc revisions to one's "folk psychology". The trouble is that, on the one hand, the "folk theory" cannot simply be ditched or we would have no way to even describe what we saw, but on the other, insofar as we have a theory at all, we cannot be certain that it won't need to be revised. The bottom line is that 'infallibility' is nowhere to be found.
I agree that lukeprog's examples don't really support his point very well. However there are other examples that do so better, that do not fit your criterion of "if we consciously think about them, we realize our mistake" - cases where people had to be actively convinced through experiment of what was really going on, denying it for quite some time. For instance, to reuse the same quote from Schwitzgebel I posted in another comment:
In those examples, it seems to me they were mistaken about how they perceived something rather than what they perceive, the 'implementation detail' of the experience, rather than its content. Most of the time we just experience things, and we don't think about via which modality we do so. This is not surprising, as unless when explicitly called for most of the time such knowledge would be quite useless. When you are blind, it's likely there comes a time you wonder, or were asked, how you managed to navigate as well as you do. Here you will apply some lousy introspection and your brain will serve up some lousy post-hoc 'explanation'. Thereafter, that hypothesis will just become an additional belief you have about what is going on with your perception. Of course, modality seems quite intrinsic to various qualia. 'Red' is obviously a visual thing. 'Birds chirping' obviously an auditory thing. But the understanding of 'red' as visual is a meta cognitive process separate from the visual experience of 'red' itself. For example you expect 'red' to be amenable to being painted on the surface of an object, when the same is not possible for 'chirping'. So no, the modality is not part of the content of the subjective experience. I would put it this way: You can be wrong about what your experience is referring to out there in the world or elsewhere in your body or mind. But you cannot be wrong about the contents of your immediate experience.
Most of the article seems to be about missing what is there in direct sensory experience and not noticing what's missing in imagined experience. I'm not sure where this is heading, though my snap reaction is "Why are you worried about living in a simulation when you're already living in a low-rez simulation?" One clue pointing in these directions is what people are willing to accept as immersive art. Why can people call a video on a screen plus stereo "virtual reality"? How can reading fiction be so engrossing that everything else gets forgotten? And one more small fact on the sensory front-- The Dance of Becoming by Stuart Heller has a little experiment of observing one's reactions to horizontal and vertical lines. My results were, as predicted, gung V qerj zlfrys hc va erfcbafr gb n urnil iregvpny yvar, naq qvqa'g (V'z abg fher jung, vs nalguvat, V qvq qb) va erfcbafr gb n urnil ubevmbagny yvar.
Well, yes, but this feels to me to be about as trivial as saying "You can be wrong about the correct answer to a maths question, but you can't be wrong about what answer you're giving".
It's certainly possible to say one thing while thinking you're saying another, though!
Perhaps it's simply my lack of experience with philosophy, but I fail to see any qualitative distinction between common perceptual failures like optical illusions, versus those examples given by lukeprog in the OP. I'm sure lukeprog is setting this up to do some work in one of his later posts in the series. But at this point given no particular reason to draw a boundary anywhere except at the tautology, I draw it at the tautology.
IMO you can be wrong about all of those things, just like you can be wrong about anything else. Your apparent belief that you can't seems to indicate that you define the contents of those beliefs in a self-referential way which seems weird to me. The only beliefs I'd even consider as candidates for being impossible to be wrong about in that way would be unambiguously tautological ones.
I am far closer to your position than sark's, I must admit. Lukeprog provided examples of how we can be wrong about our subjective experience, and commenters reached for more abstract subjective experiences; some of which we can also be wrong about (ie Alicorn's peripheral vision card experiment, the story about blind echolocation believed to be "forehead touch") and some of which are defined self-referentially so that we can't be wrong about it, purely by the virtue of the answer we give being the answer required. The self-referential subjective experiences (such as "I experience myself giving the answer 5 to the question 2+2=?") aren't useful; they're tautological. When it comes to subjective experiences that actually do work, we can be wrong. The only work that tautological subjective experiences do is contradict lukeprog's claim.
That almost sounds like a challenge. People can be wrong about a lot. Especially when it comes down to their experiences.

Some neat tidbits about our ability to recall our conscious experience and about how difficult it is to hold a passing thought in memory long enough to analyze it, but it is a total strawman of Hume's (and many others') position that "I cannot be wrong about my subjective experience."

What you've done here is equivocate on the term "subjective experience," using it in the introduction as if it were going mean your current, right-this-moment experience (e.g., "I am in pain now," which imparts a huge wow factor for readers, so I can see why), then proceeded to give a bunch of examples where "subjective experience" means something you subjectively experienced in the past, or had trouble bringing fully into conscious awareness in the first place.

Then, at the very end, you equivocate back to the Humean sense of this-moment conscious experience and flounder into this whopper:

We can be wrong about our own subjective conscious experiences. Thus, they cannot serve as a bedrock for certainty and a priori truth.

Sure, past subjective conscious experience is something we can be wrong about. We can misremember things. Hume's (and others') point is that... (read more)

There is no such thing as "right-this-moment experience", signals in the brain do not travel at infinite speed. What you think of as current conscious experience is just a combination of past unconscious experience and awareness/knowledge/something else? about that experience. No part of your mind can possibly know what any other part is doing right now (there is no equivalent of a processor clock with a global tick where right now means in this tick), and as much uncertainty as there is about how consciousness works it seems fairly clear that it's not something one discrete part of your mind is doing all on its own. If with "I am seeing blue right now" you mean something like "some part of my mind signaled recognition (erroneously or not) of a signal in my mind as representing blue and whatever would need to happen for such a signal of recognition to be rescinded did not happen early enough to fully influence this thought when it was formed" then yes, that's about as certain as you can be about anything in absence of independent verification. Any potential sources of error in such a belief would seem to exist in analogous form for any other beliefs as well (though it's imaginable that such sources of error affect different kinds of beliefs to different degrees, in that case some beliefs about the real word might be more trustworthy than some beliefs about your mental state of the sort described above).
Surely the cognitive processes which go into implementing your experience are not always elsewhere, that it would require receiving a signal from somewhere else in order to know what is going on with itself. There is no need for a signal from some other process to take time to travel to the processes implementing your experience if the process simply constitutes your conscious experience. There is no Cartesian theater, with you in the seat of the mind, receiving sensory/mental inputs from everywhere else in your brain.
Note that the passage you quoted doesn't specify whether those parts are different parts, and that the signal from the optical nerve has to be identified as corresponding to the signal representing the concept "blue" at some stage should be fairly uncontroversial. This was fully intentional since I wanted to make the statement to rely on as few assumptions as possible (e. g. avoided using the words brain, nerve, neuron, visual cortex etc). Nevertheless I would also mostly agree with the position you read me as expressing. Unless you think a single neuron can have full self awareness other neurons have to be involved to represent knowledge about the state of a particular neuron. Knowledge about a signal and the signal itself have to use separate (though potentially overlapping) brainware up until the smallest entity that has knowledge about itself. I see no reason to assume that there is a hierarchy with multiple levels of such entities. It seems entirely plausible that the lowest level at which explicit knowledge about mental states exists is at a level where (a subset of) such knowledge is available to the conscious mind. Of course not, that's just nonsense. But knowledge about experience and the experience itself are different things unless the experience is somehow self-referential, and I'm not convinced this is ever the case. Experience-> knowledge of experience -> knowldge of the knowldege -> detection of potential infinite loop seems at least as plausible as experience-> knowledge of experience -> localized self-referential knowledge. Also the process that leads from a signal arriving in your visual cortex to forming a thought like "I am seeing blue right now" would be complicated and involve many different parts of the brain (representing the exact shade of the color, recognizing it as belonging to blue and associating it with the concept of blue, activating all the various immediate associations including the word "blue", recognizing that this has happen
To add to FAWS' comment above, there are all sorts of factors that influence your subjective experience, e.g. your expectations can color (pun intended) your experience of seeing blue. And sometimes your brain can outright override sensory input, as this comment by Eliezer illustrates.
English doesn't give us a good way of distinguishing sensory input from sensations themselves - there's no easy way to distinguish "Light of a certain wavelength is entering my eye" from "I am seeing blue (in a dream or something)." So let me call the former seeing and the latter seezing (the purely subjective experience of seeing). If you show me a standard American (red) stop sign and I seez this (blue), I may be in some sense wrong about what color the sign is, but not wrong about what I am seezing. In fact, it wouldn't even make sense to be wrong (or right) about what I am seezing.
Utterly ridiculous comparison. Ever looked at the stars?

Since nobody's linked it directly here, I should probably point out that an old draft of Perplexities of Consciousness is available online.

Also it might be worth pointing in the post that blind echolocators typically do not realize they are echolocating unless it is pointed out to them.

In fact, let me go ahead and just paste in here another quote from that book (not as a suggestion to add to the post, I don't mean, but a neat thing to point out):

You might think that the blind, whose abilities at echolocation are generally thought to be superior to those of normally sighted people, and who often actively use echolocation to dodge objects in novel environments, would be immune to such ignorance. Not so. For example, one of the two blind participants in Supa and colleagues’ 1944 study believed that his ability to avoid collisions was supported by cutaneous sensations in his forehead and that sound was irrelevant and distracted him (p. 144 and 146). Although asked to attend carefully to what allowed him to avoid colliding with silent obstacles, it was only after a long series of experiments, with and without auditory information, and several resultant collisions, that he was final

... (read more)

I think the temptation is very strong to notice the distinction between the elemental nature of raw sensory inputs and the cognitive significance they are the bearers of. And this is so, and is useful to do, precisely to the extent that the cognitive significance will vary depending on context and background knowledge, such as light levels, perspective, etc. because those serve as dynamically updated calibrations of cognitive significance. But these calibrations become transparent with use, so that we see, hear and feel vividly and directly in three dime... (read more)

I've participated in a short version of this experiment as part of my psych lab class! We used goggles that shifted everything sideways, rather than upside down, which is obviously less radical. We found we could adapt to a certain extent (enough to take a few steps without collapsing, then pick up a ball rolling along the floor) within a couple of minutes, and a few more minutes was enough to throw and catch at a few metres reasonably reliably. Taking the goggles off again was disorientating for perhaps a minute or so.

You present some interesting material but I don't think it supports your conclusion. For example, that I am unaware of some of my perceptual abilities does not entail that I'm wrong about my own subjective experience. Subjective experience is generally taken to mean consciousness and I cannot be conscious of something of which I am unaware. Perhaps my hidden talent for echolocation has covertly aided me in the past but, by definition, it can't be part of what I was conscious of and therefore wasn't part of my subjective experience. This also applies to you... (read more)

Everybody's always citing Hume, but nobody ever seems to do him any justice. The OP is simply yet another example in this trend. I have no idea whether after reading the first paragraph of your post, Hume would agree that he couldn't "bring himself to seriously doubt the content of his own subjective experience", but I'm pretty sure that by the end of it, he would summarily reject your interpretation of his epistemology.

First of all, to make what I'm saying at least sound plausible, I need only give you one counter-example:

  • He referred to our pr
... (read more)
I'm currently reading the Treatise and I have the Dialogues and Inquiry on my table for after that. So far I get the impression that I would be far better off reading some cog sci, and PT:TLOS, maybe with some physics. Am I wrong?
First, a couple general considerations: * How far are you in the book? If you're stuck in Part II, I would recommend skipping to its last section. In my opinion, for somebody just starting out with his philosophy, the rest of that part simply isn't insightful enough to justify how difficult it is to read. Save it for later, if at all. * Remember that he wrote it over 200 years ago. You'll have to spend a lot of time getting fluent in his idiosyncratic 18th century English to really get what he's saying. I find that sort of thing interesting, so it was actually a bonus for me. But if it would only be an obstacle for you, and you have a sufficiently high time preference for this kind of thing, you might be better off sticking to something that uses more familiar language. Now, I want to say something about his philosophy. He used a rare method that I call "first-person epistemology" (FPE). He didn't start out from the usual premise: that he was but one mind in a physical universe. No, he began much deeper: from nothing but the immediately given. His world was simply a sequence of sensatons. For example, he didn't directly apprehend 3D space. His senses conveyed only a sequence of 2D images on his visual field. If the term "3D space" is to mean anything, we must define it as referring to a particular kind of sequence of those 2D images. Our belief in 3D space pays rent by helping us predict what 2D image we'll experience in what situation (perhaps among other things). I think that this method (FPE) is extremely important, but nobody ever seems to employ it. I've only seen two people: him and Berkeley. Perhaps there have been others. I'm still looking. Based on some bio I read a while ago, Carnap seemed to fit the bill, but I don't really know. I haven't tried him yet. I can't read German, and I hate reading translations. They usually suck. Anyway, I said that nobody seems to do Hume any justice. I'm not prepared to substantiate this, but I think that at least pa
Certainly not the writings in AI discussed on LW. Probably not any other writings either.
Isn't that what I said? I don't get what you're trying to say here. ETA: Oh, are you responding to "perhaps they all employ FPE like it's nothing"? At first, I thought you were responding to "I'm not well-read in AI".
Yes. Sorry for the unintended ambiguity.
I see. No problem. By the way, do you have an opinion on whether it's good or bad that nobody in the AI community seems to employ FPE?
I find that I must retract my statement (in great great grandparent) that first-person epistemology (FPE) is not used in the writings in AI around here. In particular, one of the most heavily referenced lines of AI research around here is AIXI, which is essentially a single equation, namely, (along with a mathematical tome's worth of exposition to explain the significance of the equation). There are four kinds of "points" or bound variables in the equation: computer programs (represented by the bound variable q), rewards (r), actions (a) and observations (o). If you examine the text surrounding the above equation, you find that the author gives "a camera image" as an example of an observation. I haven't read Hume, but given what you have said about FPE above, this AIXI formalism seems like an instance of FPE. I realize that it is unlikely that you want to learn enough math to understand this AIXI formalism, but I felt I had to bring AIXI up to stop the propagation of the probably-false information I had introduced in great great grandparent. Note that I probably do not have time to learn anything new about philosophy or to explain how AIXI might relate to the philosophical traditions or lines you are interested in.

I think it's important to distinguish between subjective experience and verbal reports of subjective experience.

You've convinced me that my verbal reports of subjective experience are untrustworthy. The next time I make (or am tempted to make) an assertion like "I see a right angle," I will ask myself, "Do I really see a right angle? What is actually going on here?" whereas before I would not have bothered to do so. So, thank you for the help understanding myself. That's a big step.

On the other hand, you haven't quite made out the case ... (read more)

Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained is a very relevant piece of work here. Early in his book, he seeks to establish that our intuitions about our own perceptions are faulty, and provides several scientific examples to build his case. The Wikipedia entry on his multiple drafts theory gives a reasonable summary.

Neat. Your conclusions don't surprise me much, but I hadn't heard of the evaluating-your-mental-imagery exercise before. It's obvious to me now that my mental images are very foggy; they're mostly concept with a small amount of visual detail attached. However, I'm sure this a faculty that can be improved. Before I started my music training, songs stuck in my head were tuneless, basically the lyrics in rhythm but in a kind of monotone. After 7 years of being in bands and choirs, I can now hear tunes in key in my head (imagining melodies involves feeling the... (read more)

Titchener wrote at length about exercises that he thought could improve people's ability to accurately report (to themselves or others) the character of their own subjective experience. But Titchener is long and boring, so I recommend the summary of Titchener's recommendations in chapter 5 of Schwitzgebel's book.
The use of the past tense here reveals the common belief that there aren't any composers any more. I would like to bring it to your attention that this is false. (Nor is it true that today's composers lack the aural skills of their predecessors.) FYI: the term for this is timbre. Texture is something different). On the substance: yes, aural skills are very trainable. There is no magic involved whatsoever.
7Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
Oops. Did not mean to imply that at all. I actually know several composers who have this ability. I guess my phrase was mixed up between "Mozart had..." and "composers (such as Mozart) have...". Agreed that if I did mean this is an ability only found in the past, people would be perfectly justified in taking offense, especially if they themselves are composers with this ability. (Are you, komponisto? Because that would be super cool.)
That is, at best, weakly implied, and the most charitable interpretation seems to be that Swimmer963 wanted to limit their message to things they knew were true (famous, dead composers had property X) and not speculate on things they might not know (alive composers have / don't have property X).
First of all, maybe I'm misremembering, but I thought Swimmer963 was a "she". Secondly, I can understand if maybe it doesn't bother you that people instinctively, automatically associate "composers" with "the past", but I am entitled to be bothered by it, and to correct it when I come across it. The error of this is not in being epistemically cautious, it is in drawing the distinction between "past composers" and "present composers", thereby privileging the hypothesis that the two groups may differ with regard to the characteristics under discussion. Here is a way that Swimmer963 could have expressed the thought without communicating the implication that contemporary composers (some of whom read Less Wrong) are too low-status to be acknowledged: "Some composers (Mozart being a famous historical example) have incredible capacities to do this..."
Thanks for pointing that out; I've changed the 'he's to 'they's. Ok, but emotionally satisfying responses are rarely strategic responses. The positive advice in your post (this ability can be trained) seems like an afterthought. If you led off with that, you would impart the same content (modern composers exist and have comparable or superior skill levels) and far superior context ('I am confident and helping' instead of 'I am offended and correcting').
5Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
It doesn't actually bother me what gender people think I am; I would like to think the ideas in my posts don't depend on the fact that I'm female to be relevant.
True, but I enjoyed komponisto's style in this case.
Perhaps, but they (modern academic composers) lack the skill to produce profitable hits that work their way into the culture like Ode to Joy and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik have. I will credit them, though, with having the ability to come up with convincing reasons why, despite their extreme, objectively recognizable musical skill, they cannot pass that kind of test of skill.
There are at least three things wrong with this comment: (1) It isn't relevant. Even if one were grant to that the reason modern music isn't popular is because modern composers lack some well-defined "hit-producing" skill that past composers possessed, that wasn't the specific skill being discussed. The specific skill being discussed was the ability to vividly imagine the sound of music. (2) Your categories are wrong. On your (implicit) analysis, most of Mozart's value derives from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (and maybe a few other "hits"), and most of Beethoven's value derives from his Ninth Symphony. In fact, it actually implies that most of the value of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony itself resides in the "Ode to Joy" setting in the last movement; and furthermore, since I bet you're really talking about a specific passage within that setting (the famous "tune"), it seems to follow that you believe Beethoven is a great composer (if you do) because one particular 2-3 minute passage of his music is commonly played on radio commercials and the like. I reject this out of hand, as would pretty much anybody else with a serious interest in music. (3) There is a peculiar irony in your position. On the one hand, you take it for granted that the popularity of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is the result of a specific compositional skill (which apparently Mozart wasn't exercising when writing, say, the Jupiter symphony), rather than having to do with random cultural processes. But then, on the other hand, you go around saying that e.g. Joshua Bell's reputation isn't the result of superior violin skills, but instead is due to socio-cultural "hype". Do you not detect any tension here?
(1) It's relevant to the question of whether modern academic composers (MACs) are learning skills that are entangled with ivory-tower-independent reality, that make distinctions carving reality at its joints, and that simply aren't about impressing an insular clique. (2) Those examples certainly did not imply (nor were intended to imply) that all of e.g. Mozart's value comes from e.g. EKM. The point is just that someone today can appreciate something like EKM enough to voluntarily listen to it on their own time (when doing so wouldn't enhance their status) or to put it on ringtones, etc.; and that -- this is important -- they do all these things without first having to be indoctrinated by a special priestly order (as someone can appreciate commercial air travel without having to be indoctrinated into aerospace engineering). (3) I think you're sticking with a misrepresentation of my position that I corrected last time. I don't dispute that Bell is (by the appropriate, unfakeable, non-parochial) metrics better than most other violinists. What I claim is that achieving the skill difference between him and the bottom of the e.g. 95th percentile is way past the point of diminishing returns -- that, while better, it is not so many times better to justify anything close to his proportionally higher income (on musical talent alone). Therefore, this additional earning power is due to hype: and it is proven, by Bell's very own admission in how no one cares about him when they have something even slightly important to do, or when the Queen hasn't already ponied up $1,000/minute. What it looks like when someone is hit with the harsh reality of life without your, um, "musical skill" having been "social proof"'ed: He lived, in other words, how I live every day -- without people being magnetically attracted to me because of hype. He learned what it's like to be without all that pre-validation.
Side comment: I don't like that the article repeats the myth that Stradivarius has not been excelled. He has; people have reverse engineered several of his tricks (and developed new ones) such that new violins have been produced that are judged equal or superior to his violins in blind tests. (His violins have also not fared especially well in blind tests historically, suggesting quality differentials may be small.) Of course, as mentioned elsewhere, even if modern violins are superior to Strads it will be almost impossible to erase the history and cultural weight of those Strads. That's one of the reasons I think it silly to compare MACs to the historical greats; the historical greats have history behind them. Of course they're more popular. My position differs from komponisto's, though, in that I think that if a MAC produces music laymen don't enjoy, they're going about music the wrong way. (That is, it seems to me that if the reason humans like music is it's a superstimulus / augments emotions, those are the right metrics to judge music by, and other metrics shouldn't call themselves measuring musical quality, but something else.) But that's a separate discussion we probably don't need to have now.
Why not? That opinion komponisto has that differs from yours is the basis for the rest of his arguments on his topic -- so it's pretty damning that he's constantly searching for arguments he can deploy for why MACs can't write popular music. "Because they don't want to escape the poverty that music theory that grad students normally live in?" Sure...
I don't think this is the right way to look at the issue. komponisto appears to differ from both of us on how one should judge musical quality. But I agree with him that popular success is not a good metric to use, and am not surprised that he is repeatedly searching for counterarguments to your point if you won't abandon it. His argument, as I understand it, is that MACs don't write popular music because they aren't trying to write popular music; they're trying to write music according to their highly specialized standards. My argument is that even if they were trying to write popular music, they would find it very difficult for reasons independent of their quality as composers. It's telling that of the best-known artists playing classical instruments, the ones that aren't playing historical greats are playing Metallica. Composers are in a rather saturated field (which explains why they would retreat into specialized standards), and a large component of popularity is popularization rather than raw talent (which cements that specialization as a reinforcer of internal popularity and diminisher of external popularity).
Thanks for the link the the song, it's nifty :)
You're welcome! It's my favorite thing by them at the moment.
4Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
Interesting example about Bell. I'm not entirely confident that I could tell the difference between someone with a fairly advanced violin training (for example, my parents' friends' daughter from Toronto, who is now 17 and has been playing violin since about age 5) and someone with elite world-class talent. I can tell the difference in singing, but that's because I have some training, just enough to know that it's ridiculously hard to project loudly enough to fill a whole opera hall and still stay in key, or to sing fast classical passages, or to get exactly the right tone color to make a particular emotional impression... My speculation is that people with no musical training probably can't tell the difference between someone with moderate violin training and someone like Bell playing the same piece. (Maybe Bell could play a much harder piece, while the mediocre player would flounder utterly, and maybe to someone with violin training his tone and expression would be noticeably better, but not to the average Joe hurrying through the Washington Metro.)
If I remember correctly, Bell did play some truly challenging pieces. No one noticed, except that one guy.
A few of the people who worked there noticed; of particular interest is the shoe-shine lady, who has the police on speed dial to remove street musicians, but decided to let Bell play because he was pretty good.
I thought he was allowed to stay there because the experimenters made an arrangment with the operators of that area beforehand? (Not sure if people were updating on the fact that a musician was strangely not being removed.)
If that is true, it was not mentioned in the article. The relevant section:
4Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
Again, to someone with no training, what is the difference between a moderately and an extremely challenging piece? I'm not sure if I can tell, beyond a certain level; all I can say about pieces is "I could sight-read that", "I could sing that with a lot of work and practice", or "there's no way I can sing that at this level of training". I'm sure that the repertoire of pieces in the third category is huge, and they're not all the same difficulty level, but I'm not sure I could tell the difference if I heard them sung. Also, a piece that's extremely challenging isn't necessarily catchy. People tend to react emotionally to songs they know, not obscure-but-difficult violin solo pieces.
Sure you can: Did a rich person pay $1,000/minute for a famous violinist to perform it for them? Then it's hard. The problem is that this classifier didn't come from nature, but is just a local cultural construction.
First, a remark addressed to the two people who downvoted the grandparent: your behavior makes no sense at all. My best guess is that you disapprove of discussion of music on LW. But not only is that an unreasonable position to take, it wouldn't explain why you didn't downvote neighboring comments. (I have in fact noticed that comments of mine that discuss music score consistently lower than my other comments. I can understand if some of the "mathy" types of people that populate this site have a perception that topics relating to art and music are "fluffy" and unprestigious, but what I've never been able to understand is why this perception doesn't seem to get updated once they run into people who are similarly "mathy" but also interested in art and music.) Now to Silas's comment: (1) On "insular cliques": not all cliques are equal. There exist "insular" (which I suppose means low-population) cliques such that impressing them has value. Well, then where does the rest of Mozart's value come from? You're hiding the work of your argument behind the phrases "someone today" and (especially) "something like". Who counts as an eligible appreciator? What music counts as "something like EKM"? After all, on my view, the work of MACs is like EKM (and inherits prestige thence). A distinction that places Mozart and Lady Gaga on one side and Schoenberg and Salieri on the other doesn't carve musical reality at its joints. (To do that, you'd have to put Mozart and Schoenberg and Salieri on one side, and Gaga on the other.) In the present context, this is a distinction without a difference. The point is that I could simply say to you "the market has spoken" with regard to Bell, just as you are wont to do with EKM. What criterion of "justification" are you appealing to here?
2Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
This may be a perception that some people have, but I've always perceived music as a) very mathematical, and b) not at all unprestigious. In the high school I went to, people who were smart academically and also talented in music were much higher-status than people who were only involved in academic subjects. (I'm not saying this is a universal perception, or even a good perception to have, but it's what I've observed.)
My impression (at least, why I dislike these conversations even though I generally don't downvote them) is that it's a manifestation of the general anti-academia sentiment on LW. It isn't that people don't like music or current composers, but that they resist any measure of composer quality besides what they like. If I listen to some Philip Glass and get bored and learn he has a reputation as a great modern composer, I downvote reputation rather than upvoting Glass.
That's not a reason for resisting discussions of possible measures of composer quality. (To say nothing of other music topics.) Instead, it's merely a reason for taking a particular position ("what I like") within such a discussion. It would be like saying that the reason people don't like discussions of ethics is that they resist any measure of ethical behavior other than Theory X. But that's not a reason for downvoting discussion of ethics, it's a reason for arguing for Theory X. I get the impression you (and others who think similarly) may not be reading these comments carefully. That's certainly true if you think that I've somehow been arguing positions on the object-level question of which composers are better than others. To the best of my recollection, all I've ever engaged in here are (1) meta-level prolegomena to such a discussion, usually in response to people taking nontrivial theories for granted without realizing it; and (2) awareness-raising of the existence of MACs -- which is badly needed, as your own comment demonstrates. (You cited Philip Glass, who does not have a high reputation in academia; it would be only a mild exaggeration to say that he is closer to Lady Gaga than to the kind of people I'm talking about.) Please do not downvote comments without reading them carefully, especially if they're from established users.
It is, though. If you saw a comment thread discussing possible measures of color quality (i.e. forest green is the best color and should be your favorite), how would you react? I would be concerned. If people think musical preference is like color preference, then any statement about how people should value academic music more sounds like an argument about how people should value orange more. (I am moderately guilty of this. But my argument is essentially that gardeners should focus on flowers that are pretty in the visual spectrum rather than flowers that are pretty in the ultraviolet spectrum, and that strikes me as superior to staking out a particular part of the visual spectrum.) You can perform thought experiments along these lines and I think the results will be similar. If I put together some comments arguing that the Muslim way of treating women like property to be protected is probably better for them than the American way of treating women like sexually liberated people, I expect those comments would not be voted as highly as my normal comments, even if I polished them to the same level of quality. That is, people often seem to use downvotes as an argument against a position that seems to be beyond the pale, and it's not clear to me that's entirely a bad thing. There are cases where it hurts, but also cases where it helps (instead of getting into a heated political argument, one would just downvote and walk away).
I would be curious. I would want to know what the arguments were, and if in particular there were points involved that I hadn't considered. And if, after reading the arguments, it turned out that I disagreed with one or more of the participants, I might post a comment saying so, and explaining why; in particular, what I wouldn't do is downvote on the grounds that people somehow "ought to know" that of course discussions on the merits of colors are pointless. All this, by the way, without regard to whether the discussion was object-level ("green is the best color because...") or meta-level ("it may be possible for there to exist a best color because...."). And even if I for some reason had low opinions of "the sort of people" who argued about the object-level question (and for some reason I thought those reasons also applied on LW), I would not regard that as sufficient reason to disapprove of (and downvote) a discussion of the meta-level question (which is all that has been occurring here with regard to music). Again, this is a belief that they may turn out to be wrong about! In fact, as I would argue, this is a very poor analogy indeed. I don't understand why you would disapprove of my making the argument that this is a poor analogy. Why shouldn't I be allowed to point out, for example, that the analogue of color preferences in music would be the sounds of particular instruments, rather than the experience of an entire musical composition, or (still less) type of composition? That, if you wanted a visual analogy, you would do better to compare it to the experience of particular paintings, or styles of painting? Seriously, how much total time did you spend thinking about this question, before you came to the conclusion that musical preference is obviously just like color preference, and that therefore not only is it pointless to argue about musical preference, it's pointless to argue about whether musical preference is like color preference? (I know that you did
Don't know about pale but certainly beyond the point where responding with actual words is likely to have any benefit. I did not downvote you earlier. I just ignored the discussion entirely after the first dozen comments a while back made it clear I was going to learn nothing new. For what it is worth: Paintings are definitely a better analogy. There are objective aspects to musical or artistic performance as well as subjective ones. Most notable are: * Technical difficulty for the human brain to produce certain types of patterns. * The extent to which a piece triggers an underlying general mechanism in the naive human brain. (Where the trained brain component is a mix of subjectively arbitrary and that which is covered in the below point.) * The extent to which the artist predicts the response of the intended audience and elicits desired behavior from them. The ability to predict what people want when they are not quite sure about it themselves. This can be measured via fiscal rewards or proxies for status.
People should not value orange more. Orange is horrible.
Agree. I actually suspect there is some objective basis behind that judgement. Just like red really does make you look like you're driving faster and generally winning more.
Oh look, honey, someone just went through and voted down all of my comments on this topic, leaving komponisto's untouched! That's nice, dear.
Did you notice that your comments (and those agreeing with you) nonetheless score higher than your critics in such discussions? (And whoever's modding you down in this thread, it's not me -- I don't use downmods against opponents when my investment in the discussion might be compromising my judgment.) (1) It matters when determining whether a clique is learning the structure of reality or just replaying inside jokes. If the clique judges designs based on useful models that carve reality at its joints, and that use objective, unfakeable (e.g. through consensus) metrics, we should care what they think and we should be impressed those who can hit narrow targets in the design space they define. If the clique has to keep checking on whether the rest of the clique already likes something, because there really isn't a successful model ... then none of that applies. Which category do MACs fall in? From the other stuff that people still like, voluntarily listen to, etc. after hundreds of years and no indoctrination. As bad as Lady Gaga might be, where's the Music Theory PhD can that can demonstrate a superior understanding of the mind-music relationship, rather than just whine about how reality won't bend to fit his theories? The ability to make a judgment without having to first be told what your judgment should be. Layfolk who get recordings of EKM aren't doing it because it's the hot thing right now among their friends and the elite cultural arbiters told them to. In contrast, the royalty really wouldn't tell the difference if Bell flubbed and "only" performed at the 95% percentile. While the market has spoken, it is not announcing a victory of the characteristics you claim are important: it is showing that people will buy based on hype, and we know it's hype because their market value changes when the hype is removed (as the Bell experiment showed -- no wealthy person said, "Holy s***! Let me hire you to be my personal performer! You're way undervalued here!") It s
8Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
I am fairly "indoctrinated" in classical music (my parents have been taking me to the symphony since I was small, and I sing the stuff) and I like Lady Gaga. Whatever sense in which she is awful doesn't have much effect on her popularity. Yeah, her music isn't as complex and challenging as Mozart's, but maybe that just shows that complexity isn't the only thing that makes music pleasant to listen fact, if anything I think simple music is funner to listen to, since untrained people can sing along and enjoy the tune for themselves. (I enjoy classical pieces 20 times more when I know them well enough and am in a venue where I can sing along.)
This isn't true today! At the moment, you are being upvoted and I am being downvoted. (And actually downvoted, as in negative scores, as opposed to merely being upvoted less.) I don't know actually know any music theory Ph.D. who whines in the manner you describe, though it's not exactly clear what you mean. What theories, and what aspect of reality isn't bending? What would they have to do in order to demonstrate a "superior understanding of the mind-music relationship"? And let me be clear: neither I nor any MAC-type I know is after Lady-Gaga-status. I would settle for slightly greater respect specifically among technically-minded science types. (Enough to be acknowledged as existing, say.) Are you kidding? Of course they are! I would assign a high probability to the hypothesis that the overwhelming majority of the popular interest in eighteenth-century music is driven by status-signaling. And if you're tempted to say "Hm, you're right, I guess that means that only Lady Gaga is what people really like", I've got some bad news there too: most people who like Lady Gaga do so because it's what their friends like. Mind you (and I think you may be missing this point), these status perceptions are capable of really, truly affecting people's actual enjoyment -- rather like how people really, truly find the same jokes funnier when told by higher-status people. In the case of people without a specific interest in music, signaling probably accounts for most of their tastes. Even in the case of someone like me, I would probably like Mozart (or Schoenberg) almost, but not quite, as much, if I didn't know "who he was". Maybe not on a single occasion, but over the long term (i.e. if Bell descended to the 95th percentile consistently), they surely would. More specifically, elite musicians and critics would notice, and the "royalty" would follow their opinion.
Look again, woe-is-me-sto. Most of my comments have gone negative, almost none of yours have. Someone recently came by and downmodded everything I posted -- someone who isn't justifying it anywhere (which is about the level of justification MACs can give for their field). (I'm not going to insult you by suggesting you would dip to these tactics, of course; I have far too much respect for you.) The very same thing that I or Michael Vassar or anyone else mentions whenever this topic is brought up: if higher-level students of music theory really do know the secrets of the music-mind relationship, why can't they take that skill, pair it with existing record companies' hype machines, and outcompete existing, non-academic hitmakers, without having to tell people in advance "you should like this because the elite ivory tower deems it good"? A high proportion of people with a broad, indiscriminate collection of classical music might be, but those weren't the ones I was using to make the point. You're using the presence of hype victims I wasn't referring to, to deny the significance of the non-hype victims I was referring to. I was referring to the everyday mouthbreather who for the first time hears EKM (perhaps in the Movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), then decides to add it to their playlist, not knowing which elite endorses it. Such people continue to listen to it privately even in the rare case that their friends disapprove of it. Or to the person who hears Paganini's Op. 1 in a similar context and wants it on their playlist, not realizing it was written ~200 years ago (because it sounds creative and experimental). (But yes, there are cases where a member of the elite will decree that some long-unknown composer is now high status again and you better get on the bandwagon. I believe this is what happened to Bach -- IIRC, most of his fame now is due to someone reviving interest of him in the 19th century, after he had been forgotten. Which itself is proof of the epheme
Yes, the scores have changed since I wrote that. And no, not due to me; like you, I generally avoid downvoting my opponents in a discussion. (I don't make it an absolute rule, but exceptions are rare.) Because that skill doesn't suffice for that task. In order to reliably produce "hits", you have to do a lot more than be able to imagine music in your mind; in fact, you have to do a lot more than imagine music in your mind that you yourself like (already harder). You have to have to have a detailed knowledge of the psychology of large groups of other humans, so that you can produce music that they will like (actually a lot more than "like"; you have to get them to "pass it on") in large numbers. That, as far as I know, is an unsolved problem. And if you think the field of music theory (or any field I know of) claims to have solved it, you're mistaken. Just the opposite: I'm trying to identify particular groups of people whose opinions are atypically informative. The pre-validation is ultimately a result of his performance skill. I agree with you to the extent that I may not necessarily prefer Bell's playing to someone slightly less popular. His fame has some information content; it may not be enough for my purposes. Similarly, the fact that EKM is more "popular" than the Jupiter symphony wouldn't have been informative to me, because (as good as EKM is) I like the Jupiter symphony better. At most, EKM's fame might tell me that Mozart is worth looking into.
Ha! I will use this.
Thanks for catching the error, but what makes it an accidentally-clever pun?
There's very little that I'm familiar with which meets that standard-- possibly some Christmas carols. What do you mean by indoctrination?
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Ode to Joy, Water Music, The Four Seasons, Flight of the Bumblebee, Flight of the Valkyries, ... Being taught throughout schooling that "This is good music, high status people produced and listen to this music", plus, in the case of higher learning, the inferential distance chain you're taken through that results in you liking obscure academic classical-style music. Alternatively, being taught throughout schooling that, "Being [religion X] is good, high status people belong to this religion, you will be high status if you're faithful", plus only getting good grades/promotion if you can master the doctrines of a religion.
Popular classical music isn't as high status as difficult modern and contemporary classical music, but it's still pretty high status. "No indoctrination" is a high standard. Also, is there a difference so far as indoctrination is concerned between "high status people like this" and "normal people like this"?
Not in terms of the uninformativeness it injects into the fact of their popularity. That is, if something's popular without that kind of in-school promotion (like Halo), that says a lot more about it then whether people "like" something (but continue to doze through any actual performance until the part where they get to sleep with their date) that is promoted in school, such as Shakespeare.
2Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
I may be very wrong about this, but I don't think that Mozart and Beethoven were, per se, "academic" composers. They wrote in the style that was popular at the time; music that could be performed, with instruments, in a hall where people would pay tickets to see it. The era of recording changed that completely, but the Beatles had a lot of musical talent and training, including classical training in harmony, and their songs are very well known. What is the relevant criteria to say that their music is not as good as Mozart's.
True, but I mention them as a baseline against which to compare Modern Academic Composers, who have the advantage of dedicated learning and studying the history and theory of music. If they are genuinely learning the structure of reality in their studies (rather than, e.g., how to best pull off an "inside joke" among their fellow acoyltes), they ought to be capable of a lot more than just impressing classmates. Thus, I claim that a fair standard to expect MACs to meet is that they could produce music of similar success to that of top classical composers, if given the audience -- but all they can produce is, in fact, stuff that only their classmates care about. I would agree that their music is at least in the ballpark with Mozart -- no one has to be indoctrinated in years of schooling to like the Beatles (or Mozart) and yet they were able to gain the appreciation of huge sectors of society (also like Mozart). But I think the appropriate question to ask is, why can't MACs do what the Beatles did? If they truly have assimilated the insights behind what made Mozart and the Beatles pleasing to the human mind, why can't they produce it just the same? I believe it's because they judge themselves only against the ivory tower, not reality -- and could not compete with "real world" music if they tried.

If they are genuinely learning the structure of reality in their studies (rather than, e.g., how to best pull off an "inside joke" among their fellow acoyltes), they ought to be capable of a lot more than just impressing classmates.

I agree with Paul Graham on this point, actually, which is that the first mover advantage is simply too strong to be overcome on any significant scale. Shakespeare is the playwright because he was massively prolific when plays were the hot new thing, and then inertia plus quality will propel him forward as the playwright until the end of humanity. There is some upper bound to the quality of plays, and Shakespeare is close enough that even though people who like plays will have contemporary favorites and those plays will be as good as or better than Shakespeare they will never significantly reduce his market share.

There's a similar experiment you can consider: start off with a bag containing one of each color of M&M. Remove one of the M&Ms chosen uniformly at random, and replace it and another M&M of the same color. What happens is that after 100 iterations, the bag will be almost all one color of M&M (this simulation is pretty easy to code; try it!). Even if you put in a new color of M&M that gets 2 new M&Ms of its color whenever it's picked, it won't dominate the old color since the old edge is too strong.

People may not be able to surpass Shakespeare, but that's no excuse for academics not outperforming other post-Shakespearean works on a regular basis.
2Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
Could be related to the kind of person who studies music academically, as opposed to understanding it intuitively (as I think Mozart did, based on the very catchy little songs he wrote pre-puberty). Writing something "catchy" is a non-trivial ability, is quite important to whether music is enjoyable (which is the criteria I think music should be judged on), and is hard to learn...and maybe can be learned, but not by studying theory, only by iteratively writing music and observing its emotional effect. I may be an example of someone whose music comes from book learning more than intuition, but I do have strong emotional reactions to music, so I can modify the things I write until they produce that reaction, without necessarily knowing the music-theory name for the techniques I use.
Well, modern music education (quite rightly) does require students to compose and play music and thus give them this kind of practice. But the difference in understanding you're describing is exactly the kind of barrier reduction seeks to take down. A few hundred years ago, the mechanics who eked out the biggest performance for steam engines were the ones who had an "intuitive" understanding of what "just works right" and what doesn't. Science sought to put this art on a more rigorous, learnable grounding, where you no longer need someone with "machine empathy", but can identify the governing rules behind nature and exploit them to get maximum performance -- and explain why a certain method gives better performance. Reductionist and scientific progress occurs when we can take the black-box understanding that the earlier masters had and demystify it. Music theory should be doing the same thing: generate theories that take away much of the need for intuition in composition. And to its credit, it has done so: it identifies which chord progressions and which keys produce which kinds of emotional effects, which key changes generally "sound right", and which don't -- things like that. But given the level of judgment MACs purport to be capable of passing on modern music -- and the musical "inferential distance" they claim lies between them and the masses -- they ought to have assimilated the kind of insight the previous masters had, such that it is trivial to write music of similar quality. The problem, then, is that the true musical innovation just isn't coming from the ivory tower -- the very folks who should be the very be the very best at pleasing the mind of the unindoctrinated through music. Hence my criticism.
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
I read this comment out loud to my father, and his comment is "it sounds convincing, but in my experience the best art and music have never come from academics".
Isn't that exactly what I've been arguing here?

The conclusion may be a bit of overstretch (not that it isn't right in some sense, but relative to the argument in this post): it seems that the modern defenders of introspective knowledge of conscious experience (Mary seeing red, etc) have only a very limited sort of access in mind.

There are probably some, though I'm not sure how someone would use mere redness to build up beliefs about other things using e.g. classical foundationalism.
I have, however, updated the original post in response to your comment. Thanks.

Today I added the 'Sound and vision biases' section to the original post, having just discovered the cited studies on auditory bias and the descent illusion.

I think part of the disagreement over this is that the usual, simple model of qualia is too limited. That's an easy mistake to make, given that the normal examples of qualia are things that are directly reported by sensory organs, but in practice qualia have much more to do with our brains than our eyes and ears and so on, and don't have a 1:1 correspondence with sensory information in most cases.

Take lukeprog's coin ellipse/circle example. It's pretty trivial to show that the outline of a coin from most perspectives is an ellipse, but that doesn't mean th... (read more)


Having read your post, and asking myself "Can I be wrong about my own subjective experience?", I find myself wondering why I'm even asking such a question. The answer seems to depend on what I want to achieve with it. Perhaps I should wait for your later posts in this series before I begin really answering. With an endgame in mind, the OP's question would be more productively and fruitfully answered.

A circular coin held at a slant to you doesn't look like a true ellipse. The half that's closer to you will be fuller and the half that's away from you will be flatter because of perspective.

ETA: Pfft points out below that circles actually map to ellipses under perspective projection. Before I posted this, I took a look at an angled circle, and it looked as I described it-- at the moment, they're looking like true ellipses.

Speaking of the yellow banana, people do a lot of filling in with color. Take a careful look at someone who's wearing a monochrome garm... (read more)

Speaking of the yellow banana, people do a lot of filling in with color.

One of Dennett's points is the misleading notion that our mind "fills in". In the case of vision, our brain doesn't "paint in" missing visual data, such as the area in our field of vision not captured by our fovea. Our brains simply lack epistemic hunger for such information in order to perform the tasks that they need to.

I've noticed that this account potentially explains how color works in my dreams. My dreams aren't even black and white - the visual aspects are mostly just forms. However, if the color has meaning or emotion, it's there. I recently had a dream where I looked up at the sky, and the moon was huge and black, moving in a rapid arc across the sky then suddenly diving into the Earth causing an apocalyptic wave of dirt to head towards me. The vivid blackness was present, because it meant something to me emotionally. The houses, in comparison, merely had form, but no color. In any case, it seems that the question "Do we dream in color?" can't be answered adequately if using a "filling in" model of the mind.

Circles do in fact map to ellipses under perspective projection -- it's a rather counter-intuitive fact of projective geometry.
On the name issue, Steve Yegge has a great story about people mis-spelling his name. Scroll down to "You know how sometimes they lose your file?" (or just read the whole thing, because it's all pretty good).
That was an awesome link.
The v in Spanish pronunciation is actually a hybrid b/v sound. I always heard v until this was pointed out, then I could switch at will between them when hearing a piece of audio.
Just to make sure I understand, the first vowel sound in your last name is the same as the one in "red", not "reed", right?
Yes. Thanks for checking.

I've heard that lots of people used to end up dreaming in black and white as a result of watching lots of black-and-white TV.

This would explain why I sometimes dream in cartoons. And I don't mean I dream about popular recognizable cartoon characters, I mean I dream about myself and people I know, but my mind has somehow "drawn" them so they look like cartoon characters.

See also: Tim Wilson's book Strangers to Ourselves.


What is the character of an imagined scene?

I believe that the best we can say about people's visual imagination is that there's a continuum. Some people have no visual imagination at all, and then there are people with eidetic memory so advanced I hazard to say they need to "imagine" anything at all, pun intended.

I've been thinking about this recently because my grandmother is dying and it bothers me that I can't imagine what she looks like. Or anyone, for that matter. All I end up imagining is a fragment of her hair, an eye, or some other piece of her face. It's disconcerting.

"the human of traffic" is a phrase I had never heard before.

I suspect it is supposed to be humming? But I am unsure.

The elliptical coin case is a good one for understanding the concept of qualia. As you move your head, your cognitions about the coin don't change: you still affirm its circularity. Your visual perception remains consistent with that affirmation - but still, something about that perception is changing. The shape and extent of the copper-colored qualia are changing (the coin is a penny). If we want to, we can change our focus from the usual objective facts and describe these aspects of subjective experience. That's the point at which the word "el... (read more)

The section about "imagined scenes" reminds me very much of the post Generalizing from One Example. I think that post and this one can be taken together to imply that, since we can be wrong about our own subjective experiences, we can be even more wrong when we try to model others' subjective experiences naively (based on our own unexamined misinterpretations). That makes the reflective process, as you describe in the conclusion, even more important.

Also, I do dream in color (as far as I know).

Very interesting article, Luke, I think I might try some of those echolating exercises.

A somewhat random observation: I dream in color but I hallucinate in black and white. I've only ever hallucinated in dark rooms when I've just woken up so I suppose this is not terribly surprising.

Although I very rarely have hallucinations it happens that I did have one the night before last. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a toddler climbing the door of the room I was in with unnatural jerky motions. The toddler was about the same age as my daughter but was... (read more)

Funnily enough, I have never once noticed the elliptical shape of a coin when viewed at an angle. It just looked like a perfectly round circle, only tilted slightly.

If I had to guess, I'd say my brain doesn't process spatial information all that well, so my looking at a tilted coin was very similar to a middle school student reading about trigonometry- no glint of recognition whatsoever. To them it just looks like funny words and numbers.

You realize that a tilted circle is an ellipse, right?
I actually had not, and yet I knew what an ellipse was. As I said, I didn't process the shape very much, so it somehow felt perfectly evenly round, and yet tilted.
I'm confused. You just described your brain processing spatial information incredibly well. It figured out that the space contained a tilted round coin based on what a superficial parsing of the information would have described as an elliptical pattern.
That's good processing? I figured it was bad that it just made that jump without noting the change in visual appearance. I must be misusing the word processing.
2Said Achmiz
Consider this: programming a computer to perceive a coin-viewed-at-an-angle as an ellipse is algorithmically and computationally trivial. Programming the same computer to perceive said coin as a circle is far less trivial; algorithmic sophistication, and more processing power, is required. Furthermore, our brains are designed to resolve a two-dimensional visual grid into a representation of a three-dimensional scene. The correct 3D representation of the scene is one that includes a circular (well, thin cylindrical) coin. Therefore a brain that perceives the coin as circular regardless of orientation is working as designed.
It may not be that complicated- a brain could just retain the memory of roundness from looking at the coin and look up the memory in place of actual processing, which must be what I was thinking of when I doubted my brain's spatial processing. Would a person who has never seen a coin or similar object perform as well?

Today I learned of another example. I was unaware that humans perceive changes in 'approaching' sounds as greater than equivalent changes in 'receding' sounds. Also, 'approaching' sounds are perceived as occurring closer to us than equivalent receding sounds. The evolutionary story being told about the origin of this bias should be obvious.

Neuhoff (2001). An adaptive bias in the perception of looming auditory motion. Ecological Psychology, 13: 87-110.

It's not clear that there IS a fact of the matter on many of these questions. Not in the sense of being subjective, but simply the question not making sense to ask. In fact, this is how I experience it to be, but as we just established that could be wrong, and even if it's right I have reasons to believe my subjective experience might be different from that of most people.

Time for a poll:

Please upvote this comment if you dream in color at least, like, 5% of the time.

I think I dream in color because I have had several dreams in which color was a plot point, so to speak. However, it doesn't seem implausible to me that I merely become aware of "facts" about dream color in the same way that I might become aware that a walrus is really my sister but not my real sister another sister I only have in the dream and this even though I'm not a walrus.
Keep in mind that all facts are going to have some fog precisely because it's in a dream. I definitely have colour in my dreams, and I'm comfortable saying that I always dream in colour, because the fog I have in trying to remember anything from the dream is the same as the fog I have when trying to remember colours.
Giving a percentage seems absurd, but I remember dreaming in color at least a few times. Small details often lack any specific color, but some vivid things I can see clearly. Blue sky and green vegetation being two examples. Brown for wood or blue for water is also often featured. But not everything seems to have a discernible color. I've also had lucid dreams occasionally and the last one I remember even featured what is known as a false awakening. Basically you realize that you dream and then something happens to you and you think you woke up... but you didn't, you're in a new dream and some mechanism tries to sucker you into believing that you are actually awake now, which can catch you off guard and make you forget that you're actually still within a dream. The last time this happened to me, I remember becoming awake while climbing into my red car while on a friendly dirt-track in the woods. Something about the car seemed fishy to me and then it hit me - I was dreaming! I climbed out of the car, because I knew from previous lucid dreams that they become unstable and I wake up, if I try too awesome things... like sex or driving at breakneck speed with my car. So I studied a little wooden cabin that was nearby, but once I tried to focus too much on the details I suddenly "woke up"... or so I thought. I was suddenly on top of a dam or some kind of wide deserted bridge - concrete and water everywhere, as well as my car. I went along for what subjectively felt like perhaps 30 seconds, thinking I must have fallen asleep while parking and waiting for something, when I realized yet again that there is no such bridge or dam that I know of, so why would I possibly be there waiting for something - I was still dreaming! Cobb would be proud. Thinking back I remember that everything had very vivid colors. The car was bright red, the roof of leaves was vividly green with rays of yellow sun coming through... it is hard to believe, that I made up the colors after I awoke ju
Should we interpret "dream in color" to mean "always dream in color", or "sometimes dream in color"?
Hmuh, let's go with sometimes, I'll edit it.
The poll doesn't cover all possibilities. My impression is that I don't explicitly dream in grey scale, but color is usually not a salient feature. It's an experience in many ways closer to black and white, but technically would have to be called in color when one of those terms has to be used.
Please upvote this comment if you never or only very rarely dream in color.

Pre-scientific authors tended to assume they dreamed in color, while studies in the first half of the 20th century found very few people who reported dreaming in color.

This is extremely unsurprising, given that the world was in black and white until sometime in the 1930's.

ETA: I'd hope such a patently absurd statement would get people to follow the link. I was evidently wrong. If you follow the link (which is a classic!), you'll see the point was intended to be humorous. My bad.

2Scott Alexander
Well, yes. People thought they dreamed in color until they got a reference class for imagery of not-fully-experienced unusual events - film and TV - which was in black and white. When film and TV became color, dreams became color again too.
Color vision goes away in dim light, which was readily available before photography.
5Scott Alexander
Er, yeah, but there's no reason people would use dim light as a reference point for their dreams. When you're trying to remember your dreams, you come up with a bunch of half-recalled images from a short narrative of unusual happenings that has little to do with your everyday life. You parse that as a movie and apply movie conventions to it. Do you dream in 3D? Your kids will.
I hate 3-D movies. I like going to the movies with my one-eyed friend specifically to avoid the tussle over whether we're going to see it in 3-D or not. (I would say I "dream in 3-D" in the same way that I "dream in color": often events happen in my dreams which depend on their taking place in a three-dimensional space, and I think I perceive that.)

As Psychohistorian already wrote my reaction to this post for me, I'll just leave this somewhat relevant story by Smullyan here.

Pre-scientific authors tended to assume they dreamed in color, while studies in the first half of the 20th century found very few people who reported dreaming in color. In the 1960s, this consensus was overturned, and recent studies show that today, more than 80% of people report that they dream in color.

I think I once heard someone hypothesize that people in the early/mid-20th century tended to dream in black and white as a result of watching lots of TV/films in black and white.

Are you aware that you made a version of this comment over a year ago?
Dammit, past me! That guy always beats me on time! ;-) (I've lost count of the times I re-read a comment thread I had read a long time prior, noticed an interesting comment, decided to upvote it, and saw that I had already done so.)